Lesson horses are animals I used to take for granted. I went through the motions of brushing them and tacking them up, and let my trainer handle tightening the girth and putting on the bridle. Being around horses, and being able to ride horses, was such a privilege — but I thought just being able to take lessons was the privilege. I didn’t realize at the age of 12, at 15, or even when I got back into riding a few years ago that the privilege wasn’t just the ride, it was the bond I was making with the horse.

When we first start riding, no matter the age, chances are we’re given the bomb-proof guy who’s been around forever, who will trot around the arena no matter if you’re giving him cues or not, and who lets you pull the crap out of his face and mane because balance isn’t a concept you’ve grasped yet. In my case, I was riding a chestnut Thoroughbred mare who was too old to canter or gallop but I was still terrified of her taking off on an extended trot — because what if a bug flew near her and she took off!? I almost quit riding because of that mare. I had no concept or appreciation of the lessons she was teaching me during our time together. Worst of all, I completely missed my opportunity to bond with a beautiful, smart creature with more patience than I’ll ever have.

Today I get to the barn extra early because if I’m riding the 20-something chestnut Thoroughbred gelding, I know he likes to get in pre-lesson snuggles. I make sure I have the extra time needed after our lesson for post-lesson snuggles (he’s a big snuggler), and to hose him down and let him graze. Our post-lesson time together goes beyond helping the old guy cool off, or to enjoy the silence of the countryside against a backdrop of grape vineyards. It’s about appreciating him, the time I have with him, and how he’s teaching me to be a stronger, more assertive rider. It’s about appreciating the gift of the wind and the smile on my face as we move from a working trot to an extended trot. He’s training me, instead of me training him, to know how to be round, how to be straight, to transition smoothly. Most importantly, he tells me when I’m screwing up so that, with each ride, I’m improving, making us better partners, helping us becoming one unit moving in harmony.

To love a lesson horse goes beyond a general love of horses. Loving a lesson horse is hard, because you know they’re not just yours, making your time with them that more special. You get them on that day, in that hour (or three, if you really milk that pre and post lesson time). Your bond with them has to happen quickly, and it’s fleeting, like perfect dates with someone who’s afraid of commitment. But you love them anyway.

Or, at least I do.

With everything I have, because of what they give back to me: freedom, patience, education, the wind, a view of the world from a saddle. And yes, even green slime all over freshly washed breeches and tops because I know it means he trusts me enough to lean on me, to put his head against my chest, to build a bond with me, that stranger who rides him once or twice a week. I know I’m on the road to getting my heart broken by him, but it doesn’t matter. I cherish the moments I have with him now.