Elina Helenius is a horse rider and horse lover. She returned to her childhood passion as an adult after a fifteen year hiatus, the spell having broken during puberty (sound familiar?). Elina demonstrates that a break from sport doesn’t mean the end. She shows us that sport has benefits for everyone – at all ages (horse riding more so, with the oldest Olympic equestrian competitor aged 72 and the youngest just 16). And Elina is also an inspiration to us for what she doesn’t do. She isn’t a world competitor or record breaker. She is simply a woman who loves her sport. For her, that is reason enough alone to continue. And so it should be for us all.
You can read more from Elina and her horse on her blog, Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
Q. What was your first experience of sport? How did that develop to where you are now?
Ever since I set my eyes on a horse, probably for the first time properly at the age of four or five, I wanted one. I drew horses incessantly – becoming quite good at it – and visited a neighbour’s horses near our summer place from early on. They were big trotting horses, so I didn’t ride them.
I started riding at the age of nine at the local yard in my home country, Finland. I took part in weekly lessons at first and eventually got to loan a pony at the riding school – which meant that I was allowed to look after it (sharing it with two other girls in rotation) a couple of times a week. She was a lovely Shetland pony, called Xenia. The winter I was loaning her, she was actually in foal, so eventually she wasn’t used at the lessons anymore, so we were allowed to exercise her gently by riding her around by ourselves. Her belly grew so big, a saddle no longer fitted, so we rode around bareback! And, sometimes not even using a bridle, but just a head-collar and a lead-rope for reins.
The best thing about spending my childhood in Finland was that every summer we took horses swimming in the lake. Wearing swimsuits and sitting on their backs, as they waded in the water – and eventually, when their legs couldn’t reach the bottom, they began to paddle about. You had to be responsible and remember to turn the horse towards the shore, in order to not tire them too much and risk sinking…!
Q. Was there ever a time when you almost gave up and, if so, what made you keep going?
My ‘horsie times’ came to a halt when I hit puberty. I still loved animals and yearned back to horses, but other things were more interesting at that time. The years rolled through school, university (when I moved to London) and the start of work, etc. I was never either close enough to a yard or it was too expensive for me to sustain taking lessons. But, eventually, when I was living in Oxfordshire and was finally in a stage in my career where there was a little bit of money left over, running my own business, I decided it’s now or never. So I found a nearby yard where I could attend lessons.
So, after a 15-year absence from regular riding, I restarted my passion in 2011. Before I realised it, the once-weekly lessons became twice weekly and eventually someone pointed out that I could loan a horse for the same money, so could keep it a bit more like my own. I have always enjoyed spending time with horses alongside riding them, so liked the aspect of grooming, etc. This was a no-brainer in my mind, so I began loaning a lovely piebald cob gelding called Sampson. He was nice and comfortable to ride, but he had some trust issues around people and I wasn’t yet confident enough with him, so I realised we weren’t a 100% match even though he was really nice. He also had some soundness problems fairly frequently at that time, so I ended up riding other horses at lessons more often than not.
One day in the early summer of 2012, in one of the lessons I was attending (on another horse, as Sampson was lame again), another lady rode the cutest and the most beautiful horse I had ever set my eyes on. I didn’t know anything about this horse, except that I loved the way she looked. I asked about her and was told she was a young mare called Rainbow, and they were preparing her for selling. Other people in the lesson also wondered why she was being sold, so we were told she was ‘too nice to be a riding school horse and she would suit e.g. a mother–daughter combo for a horse to do a bit of everything with’. For some reason I asked ‘how much?’ – I didn’t know I was out shopping for a horse either…!
From there on, I loaned Rainbow for about a month before I made the decision. It wasn’t a difficult decision. A heavy, yes, as I never had owned a horse and I knew it was a big deal. But I was over the moon the day I handed the cash over. I finally owned a horse!
We have been together now for nearly 3 years. I love Rainbow and she’s my best buddy. We do a bit of everything. We jump, hack and do a bit of dressage. We don’t have any major results from any major competitions, but while this is a sport for me (and one that keeps me very fit, I may add), it is also a pastime and, above all, a way of life.
Q. How would you motivate someone to get active and engaged in horse riding?
Riding is a sport you are never fully made or complete in. There’s always so much to learn and the discipline it takes to become an effective rider, is a long one. You could almost say, and this is true for me that the more you ride and the more you take lessons, the more you realise how little you know! It’s a sport that differs in many ways from other sports. For one, your ‘piece of equipment’ is a living and thinking creature (a big one) that you have to form a relationship and mutual trust in order to be able to do anything with it. Horse is not like a tennis racket you can chuck away if it doesn’t perform the way you want it to. There are, therefore, good days and bad days – both for you and your horse. You can spend years practising just to sit correctly in the saddle or to hold your hands in a way that is effective but not too soft or hard… Also, any rider will tell you that riding is not about just ‘sitting’ in the saddle and letting the horse do all the work; to ride you need to learn to control each and every part of your body, your muscles and you core, individually. Riding at its best can improve your fitness, reaction speed (after all you’re sitting on a 500kg flight animal!), balance, core strength – and the therapeutic aspect of being around these majestic, gentle animals can’t be ignored. On a daily basis, however rough day I’ve had, I drag myself to the yard and as soon as I get to stroke Rainbow’s neck and feel her breath on my skin, or the friendly lick from her tongue, I am rejuvenated. … After an exciting jumping lesson, I am so pumped; I feel like I could conquer the world, not matter how tired I felt before the lesson. Horses have healing power.
A Finnish university recently carried out a study on the subject why horse world is mostly female nowadays. Riding is seen as a ‘girly’ sport. The scholars who studied this, wanted to know that does riding as a hobby raise girls to be e.g. carers and nurses, through looking after and grooming these animals – if something in this perpetuated the nurturing side of the female psyche. Over many years of research and what had become of these ‘pony mad’ girls, the study concluded that riding as a hobby does not, by and large, make girls into carers but, in fact, makes them become leaders; bosses, who often hold high positions within business or society. What the study concluded is that dealing with these big animals teaches self-discipline, sense of responsibility (of looking after something so big and quite demanding) and builds confidence. Many traits required for being successful in the business world. Horse riding is also one of the only sports where women and men compete alongside each other. So, even a young girl could be competing against an older man, for example, in a jumping competition or dressage arena. It is also a sport where you could still be an Olympic level rider in your 60s, when in many other sports you are considered old at 30.
Riding at any level is a wonderful pastime and I would recommend anyone to have a go. Find a British Horses Society approved yard near you (or any other nationally approved, if outside the UK) and book a visit!