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Horse Sense: If You Want to Get Started...


With horses, familiarity breeds comfort. If you haven't been around horses for a while (or ever), the best thing to do is to go to the racetrack, a horse show, a rodeo, or some other horsey activity, and watch the horses. Familiarize yourself with the way they move and behave themselves. After that, watch the people who are handling them—the real horsemen and -women are calm and firm and always looking out for the horses' welfare.

Lessons are expensive (less so in the West than the East) but worthwhile—the lesson barn will have the horses, the trainers, and the equipment. Look in the phone book under "riding" or "horses." You need a pair of shoes or boots with heels, not sneakers. You must also wear a helmet that fits. A responsible lesson barn will have a collection and will insist that you wear one. Jeans are appropriate for riding, but should be tight rather than loose. Men should wear jockey shorts rather than boxers (why do you think they are called jockey shorts?). Riding will use muscles you never knew you had; after your first few times, taking a dose of vitamin E before you go to bed may help ease stiffness the next morning.

You can find stables in strange places—there used to be one in New York City on the third floor of a building—the horses went up and down in elevators. As costly as riding can be, you can sometimes barter your services in exchange for lessons: One woman I know does her barn owner's bookkeeping. Teenage girls routinely feed and clean stalls in exchange for time with the horses. Most stables have a horse or two whose owners have lost interest in them. Sometimes they're glad to let someone ride the horse in exchange for paying part of the horse's board.

Expect any horse you deal with to have good manners: to stand quietly while being groomed and saddled and mounted; not to bite or kick or crowd you; to walk, trot, and canter when asked; and not to show undue fear or aggression. Most horses with manners are a little on the old side and have seen many beginners come and go, but they still like petting and carrots and apples, and are easy to make friends with.

Expect riding to be counterintuitive at first. Your tendency will be to hunch over and grip with your knees to stay on. In fact, sitting up, relaxing and looking ahead, and allowing yourself to be carried forward in the same sort of balance that you employ walking will work much better. Breathing deeply and evenly, relaxing your shoulders, and holding in your stomach slightly will also make you and the horse feel more comfortable. Expect to be afraid. Don't hesitate to grab the horse's mane or the horn of your saddle if you feel uncomfortable. Once you get your dynamic balance, just as you have to do on skis or skates, you will feel much safer and relax even more. Most of all, enjoy the sensual pleasure of a large, warm, furry animal—stroke him, brush him, put your cheek against his neck.

Ask questions. Horse people love to talk and have lots of theories and advice. Take all of it, except anything that requires you to be unkind to your horse.

Riding teaches most adults several things: Women learn how to overcome timidity and be firm with the horse, as well as to drive trucks and trailers and lift bales of hay and sacks of feed. They also often learn the thrill of speed. Men learn how to control themselves and pay attention to the horse's actions and opinions, to be more sensitive, more willing to invite cooperation than to will submission. Both learn to relate with body and mind to a large living animal. One of the best discoveries we make is that horses often know what we are thinking before we do because we communicate it to them through our backs and hands and legs.

All equestrians, if they last long enough, learn that riding in whatever form is a lifelong sport and art, an endeavor that is both familiar and new every time you take the horse out of his stall or pasture.

Jane Smiley is the author of A Thousand Acres and Horse Heaven (Knopf), and other novels. She lives in California.

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