|Apple's steady gaze.|
It has been a long time since I’ve felt comfortable in the saddle. I can remember, during summers when I spent entire days on horseback, that it felt as easy as breathing. But now, I carry with me the anxieties and body aches of 40-plus years, and where I used to feel confident in my seat and hands and legs, I am dubious. And I have a confession to make: While I was a fearless rider as a kid and young adult, I have been wearing fear into the barn every time I go, and I'm not sure why. I think answering that question is part of the journey back.
Trips to the barn over the past few years have been about getting my daughters, 13 and 11, in the saddle, not myself. It’s been about teaching them simple safety rules and the basics of horsemanship. And it's been as a helper as my husband works to get his sister’s big Drum Horse, Addie, going in harness. We’ve gone for drives, but that’s about the extent of my horse time over the past 15 years.
Now that my daughters are older, I find myself itching for that sense of solid ease around horses and in the saddle…that feeling of being able to move a horse this way or that without having to think too much about every little step. I want to brush away the jumpiness that sits on my shoulder and says “what if…” every 10 seconds. I want to enjoy horses again.
I think that part of it is that as an adult, my “what ifs” come with negative, emergency-room consequences. My daughters’ “what ifs” are more about sky's-the-limit possibilities. What is it about adulthood that makes one so serious? How do I approach riding with a childlike heart, a willingness to make mistakes without judgment, and to take joy in small successes?
I watch L, as she sits astride Butters. She loves that horse, an older palomino of unknown past and breeding. (She’s always trying to guess at his parentage. I think last week she was convinced that he was part Akhal Teke. The week before, she imagined he was some exotic Eastern European breed.) I think he may have some Arab in him, and probably some Quarter Horse.
He’s an old-fashioned horse, with a snappy walk, better suited to dressage than Western pleasure. She trots him around, lopes a little, walks a little, stops and chats with her instructor, then heads back out to the rail. There isn’t the slightest hesitation in her manner with Butters, and the two of them braid their intentions together in a solid bond.
My oldest daughter, M, is riding Apple, a POA gelding as kind as they come. His tail is 1970s-short because his herdmate, Jubilee (a 3-year-old Welsh pony), chewed it with a hairdresser’s precision. M had been riding a Quarter Horse mare named Nilla, but when Nilla ran for the trailers at the end of a trail ride a year or so ago, and tossed M in the process, her confidence was shaken.
Apple is giving it back to her in the slow and easy manner of a caring teacher. M took that fall in stride and is working well with Apple, but she’s always been my serious child, and anxiety twists a bit at her when things (whether it’s at school, with friends, or at dance class) don’t go perfectly. Apple is teaching her about forgiveness and letting go. He’s patient as she works at balance and lightness. I’m hoping that his reassuring ways will help her to ease up on herself just a little bit.
As a re-beginner, I’ll be riding Apple from time to time, along with a tall, flea-bitten gray Thoroughbred mare named Ellie. I’m just getting to know Ellie, but she has the softest, kindest eye, and in those dark depths, I can see the glimmer of blue-sky what ifs. I can see the part of horses that I fell in love with as a young girl, and it draws me to her. In her eyes, I see my own horse-crazy childhood.
I’m trying to start a list of goals to carry with me for the first month, and I'm beginning with two simple aspirations:
· I will ride one to two hours each week (doesn’t sound like much as I put that in writing, but with my schedule it’s ambitious when it’s a 25-minute drive to the barn).
· I will fit in a strength-ball class twice each week to build my core, and add a daily walk to my calendar.
And so, here I am, back at the beginning. All these years, I’ve been watching my daughters learn about horses. Now they are helping me with my own horse lessons—reminding me to take joy in the ride and pleasure in the moment.