Horseback riding beneficial physically, emotionally

A boost to physical and mental health, a new vantage point in nature and the plain old fun of saddling up are just a few reasons to try the popular summer activity of horseback riding in Kitsap County.

I recently spent a few hours at one of South Kitsap’s more remote locations and found out why the unique aspect of companionship between horse and rider makes the activity that much more appealing to even the most unsure visitors, which I was as a first-timer.

My journey to discover this took me to The Whole Horse Place, a nonprofit within the depths of rural Port Orchard that defines itself as less of an exclusive riding place and more of an establishment that immerses its riders into life with horses. It’s exactly as the name implies—“The WHOLE Horse Place.”

“I don’t ride myself; I’m not a riding instructor,” said director Tina Meekins, who guided me through a day of lessons. “I’ve had maybe two lessons in my whole life, but there’s a huge need to get someone here, brush, pet, love” the horses.

Meekins was, once upon a time, like other girls in their youth, begging her parents for a horse beginning at the young age of 6. Her wishes didn’t come to fruition growing up in Alaska, but as her own kids got involved with horse ownership and then 4-H, she said she found herself exposed to not only the aspect of care that goes into providing for a horse, but the physical and mental benefits horses can provide in return.

“It’s a little bit of both” sides, she said. “It evolved, so I didn’t even know what we were doing until we became a nonprofit because in the process of becoming a nonprofit, you have to specifically define everything.”

In the common era of emotional support animals, horses have continued to be regarded as some of the best therapists, Meekins said. The right horse can offer non-judgemental support and a calming environment while also improving muscle tone and coordination, among other things.

So even though riders volunteer and come ready to haul their fair share of unpleasantries and horse manure, it’s work that’s easy to look past as they reap the benefits of having a stallion friend they can count on. I found that out first-hand as myself and the other riders spent the first hour cleaning each horse’s pen. For new riders, it was a chance to get to know the horses up close.

“You don’t just ride them and get off,” explained 10-year-old Charlotte. “You get to feed them, brush them, work with them, and it’s also like you get to know the horses. You get to know what their personality is.”

Isla said of her working before riding at the nonprofit, “I wasn’t looking forward to it, but once I did it, it was kind of fun.”

Soon enough, our group got to the riding portion of the lesson. Working together, we brushed off each horse and equipped them with their saddles. Helmets on, we each mounted our respective horses. As I got on Gus it brought a feeling I could only describe as vulnerable yet trusting. Somehow, I believed the horse knew it as well.

Longtime volunteer Dennis Apodaca said the relationship between horse and rider comes from intuition—the horse being able to read somebody like a book and understand even the most hidden parts of us.

“They can sense when you’re calm and when you’re not. They know if you’re timid. There’s a certain amount of bonding you’ll see right away, and they know what kind of person you are,” he said.

That hidden understanding, Meekins added, has brought all kinds of kids to the property, especially those with more challenging backgrounds. Even when not riding and taking care of the horses, she said there is something about that special connection that makes everything OK for those brief moments.

I can’t say I’m one of those kids by any means, but throughout the ride, I felt myself smile a little bigger and relax as if all the cares in the world did not matter. At that moment, it was just me and Gus riding on the trail. If anything, he arguably took the lead on our slow, smooth journey together.

The Whole Horse Place is just one of many riding locations throughout the county. A simple Google search shows a multitude of ranches, farms and schools to choose from.

•South Kitsap residents have access to places like Lazy K Stables, and Miracle Ranch. The Southworth Equestrian Center is also available for more-dedicated riders.

•There isn’t much in Bremerton, but closer to Silverdale, Lone Eagle Ranch offers lessons along with horse boarding.

•North Kitsap is home to options like Blue Heron Equestrian Center and Gamble Creek Stables.

•Bainbridge Island is home to such places as the family-owned Countryman Stables and Whitethorn Farm. It is also home to the BI Saddle Club.

Whatever the place you choose for your riding experience, whether it be for leisure, sport or just to try something new, know that it is well worth stepping out of your comfort zone. Even if you don’t escape saddle sore like I did, you’ll come to realize the relationship with your horse could last a lifetime.