I knew nothing about the practicalities of owning a horse. I didn’t care. I wanted a horse.
To scratch the itch, my father took me horseback riding once when I was nine or ten. The owner leaned against the corral fence and my father stood next to him with his hands in his pockets. My father was not a man who leaned. They talked easily. My father grew up on a farm and loved the land.
I had ridden at camp in groups with a leader, but I’d never ridden alone. Head down, the horse wearily followed the path through the woods. I bumped along, holding the saddle horn when I was out of sight of the adults. I was supposed to be enjoying the ride but I was scared. But I couldn’t tell anyone I was afraid to get on a horse. I would have lost face.
As we exited the woods the horse caught sight of the barn, in the distance. Its pace increased. I was used to the horse by then and I smiled, ready to practice posting if he trotted. Throughout the woods I had kicked the horse to no avail. I kicked the horse now, on the open trail, and it broke into a gallop toward the barn
My heart leapt into my throat. I clutched the saddle horn and tried to hang onto my reins. The stirrups bounced against the horse’s side and my small sneakered feet flew free. I held on, as they say, for dear life, but it was not to be.
Before we reached the barn I landed with an Oof on the hard, dirt-packed ground. I could see my father and the horse’s owner laughing heartily. My feelings were hurt. How dare my father laugh at me? He never did that. And my backside hurt. I stood up. My legs quivered, as they always did when I dismounted. In addition, I was shaking “from stem to stern,” as my father would say.
I hung my head and didn’t answer.
“Well, here he is. I’ll hold him while you get on up.”
I shook my head.
“You know what they say: fall off a horse, get back on.”
“Don’t you want to get on again? The hour’s not up,” said my father. I was close enough to him now that I could see his eyes were kind, concerned. He wanted me to have a good time.
I would not ride that horse again.
I didn’t ride for another ten years, at least. Then, occasionally, I would go to on a trail ride, which many dismissively call “nose-to-tail” riding. I was driving across country with a man I didn’t know very well. In a campground outside Amarillo, Texas, we met another couple that wanted to go horseback riding. The next day the four of us rented horses in a place where we had a thousand acres in which to ride. A thousand acres! I grew up in Virginia, where no one had that kind of land. I was giddy with the possibilities.
The man I was with the woman in the other couple wanted to keep a walking pace. Her boyfriend wanted to canter. I want to canter, too! I claimed, citing the wide-open landscape spreading out impossibly around us. He kicked his horse and I kicked my horse and we began to canter through land that, to me, epitomized the Wild West. A few second in, however, I began to bounce crazily on the beast’s back. All thoughts of enjoying myself ended. I grabbed the saddle horn and held on for life. A horse is a pack animal and it will follow its pack; I knew that. I knew that the horses of my friend and the other woman, who had the courage to admit they didn’t want to go fast, would run. By that stage of our cross-country trip I disliked the man I was with. When we stopped I didn’t admit I was afraid and I didn’t admit I was happy to see my friend suffer. He and the woman were angry, rightly so. I didn’t care, and I didn’t admit I was afraid.
I want a horse.
I am 58, I am overweight, I don’t exercise, and I have a host of minor physical problems that flare up when I exert myself. I can’t run, I can barely bend over, I can’t climb stairs without pain, and I can’t lift a bale of hay. People more practical than I have suggested ways I can get my “horse fix” without the effort and expense—which I have learned are considerable. Volunteer at a therapeutic riding center. Lease a horse. Work part-time at a stable. And so on.
I listen to them but I haven’t lost the dream. I want a horse. I’ve taken grownup steps to get there. I took an intensive riding workshop and admitted I was afraid. My goal was not to fall off. I didn’t. A woman said I could visit her Arabian farm and I learned to take care of her horses. I ride occasionally with—as they call it in yoga—beginner’s mind. I am learning, gradually, to “speak horse,” to read their ears and eyes, to follow the shift of their barrel and the direction of footfall.
I want a horse.