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The Mature Pleasure Rider

The Wisdom of "Old Horsemen" (Part I)


I am proud to admit that I am an old horseman’s daughter. My dad, Ray Mullaney, spent the last 20 years of his life as a thoroughbred trainer. But his love affair with horses started back when he was 5 years old and fell in love with a spotted pony named Necco (after the candy) who belonged to a family friend who owned a dairy farm. (Can you imagine today's 6 year old, getting up at dawn, walking a mile to the barn to let out a pony, muck a stall, walking back and getting to school on time? But that was the deal if he was to be able to ride after school. I think today that barn insanity comes a little later, and mom provides the transportation.) He progressed to show jumping, the U.S. Army in North Africa, and finally the racetrack.

Old Horsemen are famous for their “stories”. When they get together or otherwise acquire an “audience” the talking starts practically non-stop. Often the stories get bigger and better with the retelling. The thing I’ve learned over the years is that these stories are worth listening to. My dad used to say, “Listen to everyone. You might learn something. And if you don’t, you’ll at least get a good laugh.”

That’s the first piece of wisdom I learned from my Dad… how to listen. And to be a good listener takes a lot of patience. And to listen to the same story multiple times with a smile on your face, takes both discipline and compassion. Ultimately, what it teaches is respect… a virtue sadly in short supply these days.

I’ve seen a great T-shirt that says, “Life’s most important lessons are learned in a barn.”

No truer words than that have been emblazoned on cloth! I have to credit a great deal of the success that I’ve had in my career as a writer and marketing consultant to the things I learned in Dad’s barn. I once gave a highly successful business talk entitled, “Everything I know about Marketing I learned from my horse.” But that's another story for another day.

Dad shared his wisdom with several generations of our family. And if our farrier is to be believed, several generations of thoroughbred people at New England tracks as well. Now it’s my turn to share some of the lessons he taught and of spending 60 years hanging around various New England barns.


When you think about it, the most important quality for the successful rider is a good sense of balance. Our Native American ancestors rode their mustangs purely by balance. No saddle, no stirrups, no bit, and no hands either when they were hunting. Balance alone kept them going… both their own and the horse’s as he/she tried to run full tilt after the rider’s food supply without tripping, falling or otherwise getting injured.

But balance as a concept means a whole lot more than just the physical act of a rider staying on the horse’s back. It also means having two different species of mammal, of radically different size and strength ratios, moving in balance or harmony with one another. This requires a great deal of non-verbal communication between horse and rider. Balance seen from this perspective means teamwork, cooperation, and ultimately “respect” between rider and horse.

My dad taught my brother and I early on that respect was one of the most important values in life. He taught us to respect other people and what we could learn from their experiences, no matter who they were. He taught us to respect the things that could injure us. This could be something as tiny as a bee or wasp, or as large as a 1200 pound horse, or 3000 pound car. He taught us that if you treat those things and those beings with respect because of their power to hurt you, then you will be able to minimize the risk of being hurt by them. Respect and awareness are the keys to conquering fear.


Fear can be a good thing. It is a survival instinct designed to keep us out of trouble. But fear can also be the biggest obstacle to human achievement. Dad believed that life was all about learning how to manage fear and using it instead to propel us toward positive achievements. Dad would say, “You can do anything you set your mind to so long as you’re not afraid to try or afraid of looking foolish. You may never be able to do it as good as the next guy, but it is an accomplishment just to be able to do something most other people can’t do.” Fear of failure limits what so many people ever even try. There’s so much fun to be had in life if you’re willing to try, to practice and just enjoy what you’re doing for it’s own sake.

However, Dad taught us that there is a BIG difference between fearlessness and recklessness. Fearlessness requires the rider to understand the inherent risks involved in attempting to ride an animal 5 to 10 times your size and then having the sense to do whatever it takes to minimize those risks.

This approach resulted in what we called Ray’s Rules. (If you are a fan of NCIS on tv, they are sort of like Gibb's Rules.) If you wanted to ride at our farm, better know the ten rules by heart. In Part II, we’ll look at Ray’s Rules and why they are important for the Mature Rider.

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