TSB author Melinda Folse has counted on horses as a touchstone since she was a little girl.
“I’ve been hopelessly in love with horses all my life,” she says. “I inherited this mutant gene from my dad, who is similarly afflicted. What time I didn’t spend dreaming about, learning to draw, and reading about horses became, on and off in my early teens, early 20s and mid forties forward, actual ownership, riding, and having horses in my life in one way or another.”
Now Folse—a writer by trade—has several published books to her name, including LESSONS WELL LEARNED, which she cowrote with renowned horseman Clinton Anderson, and her own bestseller THE SMART WOMAN’S GUIDE TO MIDLIFE HORSES. Her newest work brings her penchant for playful banter while digging into the heart of the matter to what for many is a tricky subject: body image. RIDING THROUGH THICK & THIN finds us discussing not only the more commonly considered concepts of rider fitness and biomechanics but also that-whole-heckuva-lot that goes on in our heads and in our hearts when we catch sight of ourselves in the arena mirror. How many of us have asked ourselves, as Folse likes to say, “Does this horse make my butt look big?”
What led Folse to this topic?
“Three things, really,” she says. “First, my publisher Trafalgar Square Books said they wanted to do this book and would I be willing to write it. Second, I have personally struggled with my weight for most of my life. (Most of this, in retrospect, was in my head.) Third, and what is usually the most compelling reason for me to write what I write: I was curious.”
Has Folse seen a shift in the culture around body image and riding? Is there a difference between this cultural shift in the horse world and society in general?
“It’s no secret that obesity rates are skyrocketing,” she says, “and that trend is echoed in the horse world, as it is just about everywhere else. Two important distinctions for equestrians of all disciplines are that because we have another living being depending upon us to be smart, conscientious, and kind, there is an additional layer of responsibility that comes with true excess weight when we ride. The second thing is a bit wigglier and subjective. It’s hard to break through the layers of what we think and get to what really is. For riders, extremes of behavior range from giving up horses altogether to a dangerous dance with eating disorders to stay ‘show ring skinny.’”
Is this a topic we speak of openly in the horse communities, or is it considered taboo?
“I think there’s plenty of both,” admits Folse. “People can be very unkind to plus-sized riders — sometimes to their faces, and more often when cloaked in the anonymity of blogs and forums and social media. I’ve read some true meanness from those who accuse overweight riders of animal cruelty — and some pushback with solidarity that is truly heartwarming from communities around the world documenting how smart strong fit riders of all sizes actually feel lighter and take better care of their horses than most ‘average-sized’ riders put together.”
Are women in the show ring more worried about how they look than how they ride? How significant is the pressure to conform to a certain “norm” when competing?
“Fat-shaming in the show ring, just like everywhere else, is reaching epidemic proportions,” Folse says. “And it is doing damage, both to young girls just starting out and older riders excited to be showing again or for the first time. Negative feedback comes from other competitors, spectators on the sidelines, and sometimes even from judges. A great recent Horse Illustrated article, ‘Body Shaming in the Show Ring,’ by Patrice D. Bucciarelli encourages riders to continue showing in spite of negative feedback. I agree. The more we all just return to being fit, confident riders, the better off we’ll all be, including and especially our horses!”
So how does a rider know what is a healthy weight?
“The best answer is . . . it depends,” Folse explains. “It depends on your body type. Your bone density. Your fitness level. Your goals and dreams. When it comes to riding horses, the best answer my experts gave consistently across the board is that it’s not your weight but how you use it that matters most. That’s where we get into the fitness, balance, energy, and mindfulness components of riding well, along with the horse you’re riding and what kind of riding you’re trying to do. Navigating between real and imagined limitations — and finding the right solution tailored to your own needs and circumstances rather than some chart — is just part of what RIDING THROUGH THICK & THIN is all about.”
How can someone make an honest assessment of where they are and what they need to do? What kind of “thinking” needs to change in order to start down a healthier path?
“I know this sounds counterintuitive,” Folse says, “but you do have to love your body right now, first, in order to move toward the one you want. Self-acceptance and self-compassion doesn’t mean letting yourself off the hook for making lifestyle changes that will ultimately pay off in the saddle. Horsekeeping in and of itself demands strength, stamina, and skill beyond the norm, and it’s time we appreciate our bodies for what they already do — even as we try to nudge them toward whatever goals we want to set, based on what we want to do next with our horses or in our life.”
So what’s the bottom line in RIDING THROUGH THICK & THIN? Is it saying it’s okay to be heavy if you ride well? Or that overweight riders need to lose weight so they can ride better?
“I think the most important message — and the one I hope comes across to readers loud and clear — is that it’s not about weight at all,” says Folse. “It’s about being healthy, strong and fit — and riding with balance, energy, and mindfulness. It’s about making good thoughtful decisions about the horse you ride, the fit of your tack, and what you are choosing to do, at what level. It’s about being realistic and setting appropriate goals. It’s about moving forward with joy and confidence and feeling good about your body and what it can do — and finding the courage to break free of whatever has been holding you back from riding, working with, and enjoying your horses.
“The mindfulness piece of it is huge. We need to stop beating ourselves up for real or imagined weight issues, take an honest look at our individual circumstance, and find ways to be healthy fit and proactive — regardless of shape or size. Our focus needs to change to figuring out how to rediscover the joy we’re meant to have with our horses and in our lives.”
You can read an exclusive excerpt from RIDING THROUGH THICK & THIN in the March 2016 issue of EQUUS Magazine. The book is available now from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.
Trafalgar Square Books, the leading publisher of equestrian books and DVDs, is a small business based on a farm in rural Vermont.