Genuine Leather: What I Learned About True Christianity from Spending Time in the Saddle

My first time on a horse
The very first time I rode with my mom

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who loved horses. And when I say “loved,” I mean she was super crazy obsessed with them. She collected so many horse figurines that she ran out of space to display them. She read every book the library owned that even mentioned horses. She covered every square inch of her walls with pictures pulled out of her horse magazines. She knew more about the Olympic Equestrian Team than any of the movie stars or boy bands her schoolmates were crazy about. She LOVED horses.

And then she grew up and went to grad school in Newcastle and her name is Jess Byam. And yes, she still loves horses.

Me on Mo at show
Me & Mo competing in a Western Pleasure show

Despite the fact that I’ve been riding since I was eight or nine years old, I have only competed in one horse show—a western pleasure show at the county fairgrounds, held the summer of my 20th year. My mom and I spent two weeks preparing my show outfit—the fancy top, covered in rhinestones, black, fringy swede chaps, and boots polished until you could see your own face smiling back at you. I soaped my leather tack, buffed the silver conchos until they gleamed, trimmed my horse’s unruly mane and fetlocks, and packed the horse trailer with everything I could ever possibly need. The day of the show arrived and I won absolutely nothing.  Oh well.

But as much fun as it was and as much as I’d love to do it again, given the choice, I’d much rather saddle up at home and go for a ride with my mom. Sometimes we’ll just ride down our street, and other times, we’ll head out into the hills of southern Idaho where the wild horses run, or we’ll gallop for miles through mountain ranges and river beds. When it’s just me and my mom and our horses and the wide open sky, I feel close to God.

While pondering Pres. Uchtdorf’s recent General Conference address, called “On Being Genuine”, I couldn’t help but think about these horsey experiences. (I told you I was obsessed.) Both the show ring and the trail riding involve me doing something that’s very important to me, but each has a very different goal. So in keeping with my apparent love for agricultural analogies, please allow me to share with you what I have learned from Pres. Uchtdorf by comparing and contrasting my horseback experiences in and out of the arena.

First: At a horse show, appearance is almost as important as actual ability. Not only do riders spend inordinate amounts of money on fancy clothing and tack, but they’ll also doctor their horse’s natural look with tail extensions, baby oil highlights, spray-painted markings, false hooves, and the like. At certain types of competitions, the judges will even dock you for not wearing that year’s colors or the right kind of tie pin.

When I go riding with my mom, on the other hand, we don’t worry so much about how we look. Jeans, boots, and a baseball cap or helmet are my standard riding uniform. As long as our horses are clean and our tack is in good condition, nothing else really matters besides enjoying each other’s company and bonding as a mother and daughter.

Me on Sailor
Me & Sailor, one of the horses who trained me

President Uchtdorf said, “There is nothing wrong with shining our shoes, smelling our best, or even hiding the dirty dishes before the home teachers arrive. However, when taken to extremes, this desire to impress can shift from useful to deceitful. The Lord’s prophets have ever raised a warning voice against those who ‘draw near [to the Lord] with their mouth, and with their lips do honour [Him], but have removed their heart far from [Him].’ The Savior was understanding and compassionate with sinners whose hearts were humble and sincere. But He rose up in righteous anger against hypocrites like the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees—those who tried to appear righteous in order to win the praise, influence, and wealth of the world, all the while oppressing the people they should have been blessing.”

Are we, like these hypocrites, too busy spray-painting our own horses that we overlook opportunities to serve the girl whose horse just left grassy slobber all over her hand-me-down show jacket? As righteous followers of Christ, we have a responsibility to follow his example in all things. He went about doing much good, and when He performed miracles, it was almost always in secret, hidden far away from prying, judgmental eyes. As Pres. Uchtdorf said, “The greatest, most capable, most accomplished man who ever walked this earth was also the most humble…. Clearly the praise of the world meant nothing to Him; His single purpose was to serve His Father and ‘do always those things that please him.’ We would do well to follow the example of our Master.”

Second: When competing in a horse show, one single mistake can be enough to ruin your chance of success. During my one and only show, the judge for my second class requested that all competitors enter the ring at a trot. Thanks to some unfortunate timing between another rider and myself, I inadvertently entered the ring at a walk—and I knew the judge had seen it. Knowing that there was no chance I’d earn a ribbon, I was able to relax and just have fun. I ended up riding so well that my mom was convinced I’d be in the top five, but she hadn’t seen my mistake. Sure enough, that one mistake kept me from placing, and I went home empty handed.

Riding Mo in the backcountry
Riding Mo in the backcountry

The nice thing about riding at home is that I can practice something over and over until I get it right. I have been blessed with eternally patient horses, who willingly submit to hours of lead changes, gait transitions, half halts, and side passes. Making a mistake at home is not the end. It’s an opportunity to improve and do better next time.

I have also been blessed with an eternally patient Heavenly Father, who willingly forgives me over and over as I strive to become perfected through the Atonement of His Son Jesus Christ. Just as a mistake in the saddle is an opportunity to do better next time, sin is an opportunity to repent and recommit to following Christ.

Among those who show, there’s a bit of advice that’s often passed around: If you are going to make a mistake, do it when the judge isn’t looking. This causes some riders to think it’s okay to be sloppy or practice poor ring etiquette whenever the judge is focused on someone else as long as they pull themselves together when the judge turns his or her attention back to them.

In D&C 121:37, the Lord warns us that “when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; [and] the Spirit of the Lord is grieved;”

How often do we put on a good show when someone is watching, just to turn around and engage in some private sin when we think we are alone. A major component of being genuine is practicing integrity, or doing the right thing whether or not someone is watching.

My sisters and Me on Robin
My sisters and Me on Robin

President Uchtdorf said, “God’s promises are sure and certain. We can be forgiven of our sins and cleansed from all unrighteousness…. But this cannot happen if we hide behind personal, dogmatic, or organizational facades. Such artificial discipleship not only keeps us from seeing ourselves as who we really are, but it also prevents us from truly changing through the miracle of the Savior’s Atonement. The Church is not an automobile showroom—a place to put ourselves on display so that others can admire our spirituality, capacity, or prosperity. It is more like a service center, where vehicles in need of repair come for maintenance and rehabilitation. And are we not, all of us, in need of repair, maintenance, and rehabilitation? We come to church not to hide our problems but to heal them.”

I also have to admit that I was a little bothered by the fact that another rider caused my failure. But in pondering Pres. Uchtdorf’s talk, I realized how quick we are to blame others for the problems in our lives instead of practicing patience and understanding, or accepting our own accountability. Elder Holland once taught about the Apostles’ reaction to the Savior’s announcement that one of them would betray Him. Instead of pointing fingers at each other, they asked, “Lord, is it I?” The genuine disciple of Chirst won’t worry about what others do. They will only worry about what they do themselves. We are here to prove ourselves, not to prove our neighbors.

Third: The goal of entering a horse show is obviously to win. You want to be the best rider in the ring, which means you have to be better than everyone else. At home, my goal is to practice the skills that will help me reach my true potential as a rider and strengthen my relationship with my horse.

Pres. Uchtdorf suggests that “It may be beneficial to search our hearts…. We might ask ourselves, why do we serve in the Church of Jesus Christ? Why are we here at this meeting today?” Are we here because we have a calling to fulfill? A speaking assignment to complete? A husband or a wife to satisfy? Or are we here because we desire “with all [our] hearts to follow [our] Master, Jesus Christ? [Do we] yearn to do all that He asks of [us] in this great cause? [Do we] hunger to be edified by the Holy Spirit and hear the voice of God as He speaks through His ordained servants? [Are we] here to become a better man or woman, to be lifted by the inspiring examples of [our] brothers and sisters in Christ, and to learn how to more effectively minister to those in need? In short, [are we] here because [we] love [our] Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ?”

And finally, in the western pleasure show circuit, all classes are held in an oval arena. You ride around and around and around and around the ring, all riders going the same direction at the same speed. It’s just about as exciting as it sounds.

When I ride with my mom, we have an actual destination. Sometimes it’s the top of a mountain, or a favorite picnic spot by the river, or a vista overlooking Boise. Sometimes the going is easy, and sometimes it’s difficult. We often ride through thick brush or rocky caverns. There are no set paths, so everyone’s ride is a little different.  But the goal is always the same: to reach our destination safely.

Each of us has the same goal in this life: to return safely to our Heavenly Father and gain eternal life. Sometimes the going is easy, and sometimes it’s difficult. Sometimes we go through adversities and trials. Everyone’s path is a little bit different, but we can all make it if we truly follow the example of the Savior and allow Him to guide us Home.

And best yet, it is not a competition. God doesn’t have a limited number of ribbons to hand out. There is room for everyone in the winner’s circle, and we are charged as His followers to help each other reach that goal.

Given as a talk in Sacrament Meeting on April 15, 2015.

4 Comments

    1. Beautiful talk, Jess! Thanks for sharing and for being the wonderful person you are!

    1. I bet your mom also appreciated reading this and the love you expressed for her and the time you’ve spent together.

      1. Thank you! I hope she enjoyed it, too. Riding with her is my favorite thing in the world. 🙂

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