During the summer, when classmates were pumping food or gas, partying, picnicking, and experimenting with the things teenagers experiment with, I was alone but for the company of a horse between my legs and a dog within hollering distance. I’d jump out of bed before 7 a.m., grab a PBJ, and slip out the door, leaving the rest of the house snoozing. The corrals, the pastures, and the foothills behind our property were my domain. After chores, I’d saddle a horse, head for the hills, and ride till the horse was dragging its feet, then I’d come back and do it all over again with the next horse, on and on till dinnertime. The only place in the world where I felt confident and at peace was on the back of a horse or huddled under its belly, manicuring hooves. The only place in the world where I was fearless, was on the back of a horse. It was a lovely antidote to the angst of puberty. It was okay to hate the world because I had my alternate world and in that alternate world I ruled. Back then, I stuck to horses like Velcro, saddle or not. Thinking back, I can’t remember the last time I came off a horse…until today.
My adulthood has been sans horse. During the past 30 years, work, school, family obligations, new urban hobbies, and limited access to horses replaced my time in the saddle. Last year I began riding with my friend JT who owns an impressive gentlewoman’s farm, complete with three horses.
This spring, JT is temporarily grounded while she nurses a bum shoulder. I was honored by her invitation to come exercise the hay burners during her convalescence. It feels odd to be messing with someone else’s horses and tack. It feels even odder to me, to have the privilege of riding without the responsibilities of daily feeding, grooming, and worrying that go along with owning livestock. And then there is my general horse fitness. They say you never forget….it’s just like riding a bicycle. But I feel like I’ve forgotten more about horses than I ever realized I knew in the first place. And JT’s horses are BIG! On more than once occasion, I’ve considered the enormous distance to the ground from atop her mounts. I’ve been nervous about my ability to withstand a fall from such lofty heights.
Earlier this week I visited JT and her ponies. She walked me through the routine so I’d know my way around. Today JT was busy with shoulder rehab and family issues when I arrived. This was my first solo event with her horses. The property was blissfully quiet. Even the treacherous watch geese were zoning out in the morning sun. The drowsy horses were easy to catch. Saddling and bridling went well. Off I went on Two Ton, an aptly named black and white Paint. He was in good spirits and eager to go. However, the farrier had been out during the week and the horse’s feet were tender. In deference to his discomfort, we mostly trotted, and only on soft terrain. But I knew JT wanted her horses to have a good workout, so I pushed him into a canter several times.
Two Ton’s canter makes me feel like the greenest of dudes. I’ve never ridden a horse with whom I’d prefer to trot than canter. But Two Ton would be that horse. Sally Swift, in her book Centered Riding, counsels that in riding the canter, “The front of your body should feel like a long elastic band. With every stride, it is stretched and released.” This is how I remember melding my ass into the saddle those many years ago. But with Two Ton, I feel like I’m riding a pogo stick. My elbows flap like an aggressive rooster. To avoid trouncing the poor animal’s back, I’ve been experimenting with standing in the stirrups while cantering. I feel awkward and vulnerable in this position. Apparently, I am awkward and vulnerable.
At the point where we were furthest from JT’s spread, I noticed how soft and sandy the ground was—a good place for Two Ton’s sore feet. I moved him into a canter. Within three strides, his head was shaking and I was in trouble. The reins were too long and I was off balance, my free hand seeking a handhold on the saddle rather than pulling up the slack in the reins. I may have caused this behavior by flopping around like a rag doll. Or maybe Two Ton simply wanted to liven up the ride. With two flirtacious twirls of his hind legs,Two Ton flipped me off his left shoulder like a flapjack.
It’s amazing how many simultaneous thoughts can fly through a person’s brain in mid air.
• Here goes, you’re coming off!
• How long will it take to walk back to JT’s?
• How much damage will he do to the farmer’s fields as he races back home?
• What will happen when he gets to the busy street that leads back to JT’s place?
• GOD…..hang onto those reins!!!!
• Oh….that wasn’t so bad, it didn’t even hurt, no major damage.
• DON’T LOSE THAT REIN!
My fall was mercifully slow-mo and, as I’ve said, the ground was relatively soft and sandy. Rolling as I landed, I came to a rickety stop with the last inch of one rein still clutched in my claws. Before gaining my feet, my other hand was desperately flailing to get a better grip on the leather while Two Ton was backing away from me in surprise and fright. He’s a cow horse, so he may even have been responding automatically to the pull from in front.
By the time I was fully erect and had him firmly in hand, Two Ton was trembling and jumpy. I gave him a stern talking to and prayed that I’d be able to haul my sorry ass the long way back up to the saddle without further catastrophe.
Safely mounted again, I walked him a few steps, then trotted, then pushed once more into a canter. This time he had my hands and my lecturing voice to remind him of his manners. All went well. I turned him around and retraced our steps, again at a canter— just for extra measure. He was an angel.
The rest of the trip passed quickly and uneventfully. I was far less concerned about Two Ton’s poor tootsies and spent a good deal more time pushing him into trots and canters. Amazingly, my confidence is up after this incident. I needed to know that I could still survive a fall. And Two Ton needed to know that his pranks would gain him no leniency.
Back at JT’s, I saddled another, more excitable horse and took it out for a brief spin. My newfound confidence served me well as this flighty Arab danced and pranced down the street, wide-eyed and ready to dart. It’s not so far to the ground after all.
Sally Swift, Centered Riding (New York: St. Martin’s/Marek, 1985), 125.