I started riding horses again when I was about thirty years old. I haven’t stopped since. I had ridden when I was younger and rode often enough to stay comfortable on a horse until sometime in college. Riding a horse then was like playing football in the frat house back yard. It wasn’t something that required thought or anything I was trying to be good at. I was just something to do. When I first got back on a horse at thirty, something felt wrong. My body had changed (about 55 pounds worth of change) and I was no longer limber. It was all so different that I had to learn to ride again. I had to learn how to get on again. Even though I was starting over, I loved it. I loved riding and I loved the idea of riding – but I wasn’t very good at it.
I wanted to get better so I set out to “learn to ride.” Suddenly there were lots of rules, some of which made sense and some of which didn’t. Keep your heels down. Carry your weight in the stirrups. Shorten up the reins. Keep out of his mouth. Correct and release. Keep your elbows in. Keep your hands low. Ride with your left hand and rope with your right (I haven’t, don’t, and won’t rope – but I still ride mostly with my left hand). Use your legs. Look where you are riding. Don’t plow rein that horse … Over time I’d ride a bit better but it seemed like I’d never remember everything at once and really ride like I saw some of my much more experienced friends ride.
Nevertheless, I rode my horse Luce every chance I got because it was fun and it was a release. Colonel Sherman T. Potter of the MASH 4077 may have said it best – “The best thing for the inside of a man is the outside of a horse.” For many of us, these are true words. So I rode trails and rode fences and worked cattle and sometimes just meandered.
About two years in, my horse Luce and I went to work cattle with a friend on his ranch. We saddled up and started out and I was having my usual difficulties trying to do all the things that make up riding correctly all at the same time. We needed to gather the cattle that were in one pasture and move them to and then through an alleyway to another pasture and then through that pasture to a pen. Once they were in the pen, we could work the cattle through the chutes to do the worming and dusting and tagging and separating that was the real order of the day. By the way, all of this is “fun.”
My very experienced friend was riding his young horse that day with the idea that he would break the new horse into working with cattle. His horse had other ideas. Since my friend and his horse were soon busy “schooling”, Luce and I took off and got the gaps opened and started the cattle moving. I knew the general plan but wasn’t entirely sure how to go about it. Unfortunately, when I looked to my friend for help, he had his hands full of young and goofy horse. It was up to Luce and me so we ran and wheeled and backed and spun and got all the cattle gathered and moving. We got them through the first gap and headed down the alley. As the cattle emerged from the alley, they scattered across the new pasture. We closed the gap behind us and gathered the herd again, this time pushing them toward the funnel of fences that led into the pen. After a fair amount of running and shouting, they all headed into the pen. I jumped off, dropped my reins on the ground, and closed the gate. Then, I grabbed Luce who – somewhat to my surprise – was just standing there where I had left him, remounted, and rode over to my grinning and applauding friend. He called out “Now that was some real ridin’!” as we approached – and he was right. I’d been too busy working the cattle to worry about all the other stuff – so I quit worrying about it all and just rode. Somehow, in the midst of that cow work, the “rules of riding” went away and were replaced by “riding”.
You might say that that was the day I became a rider (as opposed to a passenger on horseback). I had reached a new plateau. As time passed, I occasionally slipped back a bit but the leap had been made and I generally continued to improve as a rider. Now I ride with more skill and confidence than I did before that day. I needed the job to enable me to take the leap. Having a purpose was the key. Now I always ride with purpose, even if I am just meandering down the trail.
Sometime after I started riding again, I began to think about my faith. Up to that point, I wasn’t thinking a lot about what it meant to be a Christian. I was living the habit of faith I was born into informed by the teachings from my youth and from my confirmation class … but I wasn’t yet trying to understand what is really entailed in being a follower of Christ. I knew that I believed and I believed that that belief would save me – but I also began to feel the need to live differently.
My first son had been born and I began to feel like an adult. As an adult, I recognized my mortality and felt responsibility. Was there a set of nondenominational rules for being a Christian? There were the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds but both are more summaries of what we believe in the orthodox faith than rules for living. Going back to my youth, there were the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law. They were like the rules for riding. Thou shalt … Thou shalt not … Thou shalt … There was a lot to remember and somehow I always seemed to forget to keep my heels down and my reverence up. I saw that I had friends who were able to live with a simpler rule. Their rule was the Law of the gospels: the summary of the law that Jesus gave to a Pharisee who hoped to test Him by asking “What is the greatest commandment in the law”? Jesus answered “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy spirit, and all they might. This is the first and great commandment and the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Like watching my friends who could really ride, I wondered at their lives and I wondered how they got there and how I could get there. As I was around them, I saw that they had purpose as Christians. They had jobs to do. They had gone beyond John 3:16 where Jesus tells us simply to believe. They had gotten to the Gospel according to Matthew where Jesus (at the end of His ministry on Earth) tells us to “feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, invite the stranger, clothe the poor, and visit the sick and the prisoner.” If we do these things, he promises, we will be among the sheep who are admitted to heaven. If we don’t we will be among the goats who are sent to hell. The people I know who do these things are the saints that live in my life. These living saints have shown me the job I need that leads to where I want and need to go. By doing these things they love their neighbor and somehow return to God a portion of the love He gives them. By doing the job our Lord assigned, they are freed from the Law of the Old Testament and begin to live the Law of the Gospels, the Good News. The good news is that by focusing on the job given to them by Jesus, they were … they are, able to move from thinking about living as Christians to being Christians.
I now understand that I have a job and it is up to me to do it. I have to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, invite the stranger, clothe the poor, and visit the sick and the prisoner. As I do these things (all of which Love tells me to do), I know that I will move from the old Law to actual riding, from a check list of rules for riding to loving God and loving my neighbor. I know now what the job is. It is up to me to open the gaps and gather, to push and feed and visit and love. If I can do these things, I know that the simpler and better Law awaits me. I will stop thinking about how to be a Christian and instead live Christianity. I will learn to really ride.
– Charles M. Bear Dalton