Old Memories

Wrote this back in 2006 – found it in my files, recently….

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I heard from my childhood best friend, today – we learned to ride together. I stumbled across a photo of us sitting on a brown and white pinto named Puff, who seemed so gigantic when I was six, but in reality only jumped the gap from pony to horse by one inch. We look like little ragamuffins, both wearing a hodge-podge of makeshift riding gear, things that our mother’s lovingly scoured stores for in an attempt to feed our ravenous appetites for all things equine. Somehow, I ended up with black leather riding boots, that had handsome, brown leather tops – the kind you would see in the foxhunting field. But we’re riding Western. And I’m wearing my bicycle helmet. And a childish, crooked-tooth grin that revealed my secret: my soul’s elixir stank of the heady scent of a horse’s sweat, sounded like the dull thud of hooves against earth, and carried the bright sheen of earthy tones – chestnut, bay, buckskin, grey. I’ve been drunk on that dusty and sweet concoction since I was two. 

Everything I did invariably led back to horses. Instead of playing with dolls, I played with Breyer models, and my most treasured possession was a Playmobile Riding Stables set, complete with truck and trailer. My trusty steed was my mother’s broom, and I would don my battered, second-hand, black velvet hunt cap, before galloping across the concrete trails of my neighborhood. I insisted my room be decorated in horse motifs, and practically every stuffed animal I owned had four hooves and a tail. I was infatuated. 

Later, after moving from state to state, I finally landed the weekend “job” that I had longed for as a young child: every Saturday, from as early as my mother would drop me off, until as late as she’d let me stay, I got to be a Barn Rat. There were several of us, actually, all awkward yearlings trying to find our place in the big herd, some too tall, some too short, but all of us vibrant and running on the exuberant energy of youth. We’d scrub all the tack in the barn, taking the bridles apart and then teaching ourselves how to put them back together correctly, asking the older girls what the different bits were called. It was all fun to us, but the knowledge we gained was priceless. After every piece of leather in the tack room was shining, we were allowed to roam around the barns, sneaking a carrot to our favourite friends, and climbing into stalls where the inhabitant was napping – well, napping until we curled ourselves between their massive legs, leaning back against their warm barrels like they were giant pillows. Or, perhaps we’d race each other to the jumping field, and take turns cantering over the fences in perfect form, prancing and rearing, cavorting like energetic show horses. Those of us that were more daring would make the long trek to the front pasture, and provoke the old longhorn steer that lived there, squealing with laughter as he’d start a lumbering charge at us. We always made it over the fence in time.

Later, though, we were rewarded for our toils of the morning. If you cleaned a saddle, chances were that later that afternoon, you’d be riding in it. One free lesson for every Saturday spent scrubbing leather. Naturally, we all had our favorite mounts, but the amazing part was that among our little pack of Barn Rats, there was never any bickering on who got to ride who, because none of our favorites ever seemed to clash. Megan would ride Cal, Kristin would be up on Obie, I’d be zipping around on Little Bit, Vanessa would be fighting a stubborn Dolly….for an hour each Saturday, these horse belonged to us. We’d proudly fetch them from their stalls, practice our quick-release knots when we tied them to the fence, and then march into the barn to collect our gear. Standing martingale first, over the head, then the saddle pad, always make sure it’s nice and smooth, with no wrinkles. Those of us that were still waiting for those last few inches had to get help when it came to lifting the streamlined English saddles onto our mount’s backs, and it was a given that every single horse was going to hold their breath when we tightened the girth. In the winter we learned to warm up the cold metal bits by holding them under our armpits for a few minutes, or putting them under our shirts; in the summer, we’d dunk them in cool water before slipping them between our horse’s teeth. Buckles, straps, keepers…after a while it becomes a routine, and you don’t have to stare at the mess of leather on your partner’s face in confusion. Two fingers under the noseband, a hand’s width under the throatlatch, unbuckle the halter and grab your helmet: it’s time to ride.

Chubby legs wrapped around even chubbier bellies, stirrup leathers had to be wrapped twice around stirrups in order to accommodate for short riders, tiny fingers struggled to keep closed around the rainbow-reins. We knew little to nothing about influencing our horse’s way of going, save for changes of gait. The main focus was heels down, eyes up, and straight backs. Somewhere in the clouds of dust and flicking tails of a crowded arena, we learned how to negotiate traffic by passing and making circles, how to read the warning signs of a horse that might kick, and how to cope in sticky situations. We all waited with anticipation for our instructor to tell us to canter, because then, for a split second, we were all jockeys on Thoroughbreds, jostling for position at the lead. Of course, we might have been short enough to be jockeys, but we probably couldn’t have handled a high-strung Thoroughbred, and then there’s the fact that you can’t really be in first place if you’re all traveling in a giant circle. But we didn’t care. You get to fly when you canter, during that breath where all four hooves are off the ground. The rhythmic grunts and snorts of the horses, the creaking of the saddles, the lulling thumps of the 1-2-3 footfalls…it was intoxicating. It still is.

If we were lucky, we’d get to jump. Well, it was jumping to us, at least. 18″ seems like an Olympic sized fence when you’ve just barely learned how to sit your horse’s trot without bouncing right off it’s back! Bless those school horses, the mares and geldings that forgave our mistakes and safely carted us over crossrail after crossrail. They lent us wings and allowed us to soar for a brief moment, while they slipped confidence and courage into our pockets when we weren’t looking. 

Fifteen years later, not much has changed. I pay for my lessons now, and the only tack I clean is my own, save for the few times I’ve helped a friend ready her things for a weekend of showing. I reached the pinnacle of school horses, and went on the hallowed land of Owning My Own Horse. He taught me things that lesson horses couldn’t. Together we stood at the foot of the mountain that is Dressage, looked each other hard in the eye, and somewhere, somehow, we met in the middle and eventually ended up climbing that obstacle together. I learned how to jump actual courses on him, not simple outside-inside-inside-outside lines, but real courses, with tight turns and long stretches of galloping in between. The fences were higher, too. Officially we only made it up to 3′, but there was this one time, when no one was around, and I set up a rather wide 3’9″ oxer…I swear, after that one jump, he thought he could jump the moon, and the little stuff (read: things under 2’6″) was a waste of his time. It isn’t the height of the fences that matters, though. It’s the quality of the jumps, and the trips that get you to each of them. That’s another life-lesson our horses teach us. But…who’re we kidding? The thrill of launching over a big oxer is ten times more potent than any drug, prescription or non.

I hadn’t planned on this turning into some huge, rambling sprawl of words. But it did. So I’ll end it with an excerpt from a favorite poem of mine, by Ronald Duncan.

Where in this world can man find
Nobility without pride,
Friendship without envy,
Or beauty without vanity?
Here, where grace is laced with muscle
And strength by gentleness confined.

He serves without servility:
He has fought without enmity:
There is nothing so powerful,
Nothing less violent;
There is nothing so quick;
Nothing more patient

….Ladies and Gentlemen: