A lot has been said about Mad Men's Betty Draper, from her cold demeanor to her role as a lonely housewife, but love her or hate her, she is a complex character functioning within a system that leaves her dissatisfied.
In the early seasons of Mad Men, Betty has pretty much only one outlet to help her to cope with her unfulfilling life: horseback riding. What do horses give her that being a wife and mother cannot?
At the beginning of the series, Betty is entrenched in the home. But her anxiety over domestic life is clear. As she and her husband Don lie in bed discussing whether or not she should see a psychologist, Don says, "I always thought people saw psychologists when they were unhappy." When he goes on to ask her if she is unhappy—with the house, the marriage, the children—she replies unconvincingly, "Of course, I'm happy."
Betty does eventually begin seeing a psychologist, but soon discovers that Don gets reports back from the doctor and discontinues the visits (not before mentioning her suspicions of his infidelity, of course). So if not even her sessions with her psychologist are private, where can Betty turn?
Horseback riding emerges as an outlet that is solely for her, removed from her life as a mother and wife, something she could not get from the visits to the psychologist. It becomes her therapy. Replacing the male doctor collaborating with her husband with a barn full of women and a female trainer, Betty seems to have found a place for mental fulfillment and solace that she simply couldn't find with the psychologist.
In season two's episode, "The Benefactor," we hear Betty most explicitly discuss horseback riding's significance. While out to dinner with some of Don's clients and comedian Jimmy Barrett, she explains that she is a housewife with a little boy and girl. But Jimmy presses her about her life, asking, "But really, what fills your days? Eating bon-bons, hitting tennis balls with the needy?" Betty really lights up, telling him that she spends her time riding horses and that are her passion. She smiles proudly telling him of her horse-jumping hobby, spending more time in the scene describing her dressage talents than her children.
This is revealing, because although Betty's love for Don is evident in the first two seasons, her feelings toward motherhood are complicated. At the very least, raising kids is not enough to make her happy. Horseback riding is for Betty and Betty alone. It is a space in which she does not have to play the role of doting wife or hide her intellect. She sits tall atop her horse, moving freely in a place removed from a domestic world where she feels trapped.
Betty needs this space. Her local barn provides her with a sense of power and control that she simply doesn't have in the other facets of her life with Don. She guards this space carefully. When her daughter Sally expresses interest in riding, Betty flat out refuses to let her join. While she claims that her concern is the danger in the sport, it seems pretty clear that there is more to it than maternal protectiveness.
Depictions of Betty at the barn portray her as very much the privileged, perfectly maintained woman with the time for leisure, but she's also presented as a character's image who is stoic and controlled. She even criticizes another rider at the barn, the only man (who, of course, falls for Betty), for his lack of discipline with his horse, asserting that horses "like to be told what to do."
Though some criticize Betty for being selfish, it is clear that horseback riding is something that allows for her to escape a life in which she is clearly unsatisfied. Ignoring doctor's orders, she even rides in during her pregnancy at one point, revealing not only her feelings toward the surprise pregnancy but her commitment to this space and freedom outside of the home.
Although scenes of Betty riding disappear from later seasons, it is clear that the steadiness and pride riding offers Betty is important, particularly as her life with Don completely unravels.