I was a fearful person then, the sort who sneaks into the baby's room during naps to make sure he's breathing, the sort who imagines every latecomer in a traffic accident. I had always loved horses though, had ridden as a teenager, and thought riding a horse might be a more fun way to lose the last 15 pounds of a late pregnancy than riding a NordicTrack with my eyes glued to the Weather Channel, watching for tornado warnings (I lived in Iowa then).
The horse had been around—most recently he had lived in a field with a bunch of other horses, and before that, who knew? But he was kind and easy to ride, and most important, the second morning that I knew him, he nickered at me. That was flattering, like having a nice man call you darling but without any overtones of sexual harassment. I meant to ride three times a week because, of course, I had a baby and other children and a husband and a career and a house and houseguests. But there I was, four days, five days, six days a week, not just riding the horse but taking lessons, asking questions, hanging around the barn, buying equipment. I was right about the pounds—they were gone in a month—but I was wrong about everything else, namely that I was an established grown-up with habits and some sort of unchanging identity.
And then there was my body. Could it be that I might think, Sit up straight, and not be able to sit up straight? I told my instructor that it didn't seem as though my head was actually connected to the rest of me and he agreed (how embarrassing was that?), or maybe it was that my nerve impulses ran through Cleveland on the way from my cerebellum to my heels. At any rate, this weight-loss project was turning into a challenge of my every habit, a challenge to the unconscious way I had been living for at least 25 years (since I had set aside my horse passion at 18 to go to college).
But the horse loved me—that was the enticement. He nickered at me every day, came when I called to him, paid attention, flicking his ears when I talked to him. I took a lot of "girlish" pleasure in this (but I have to note that I've seen several middle-aged men of my acquaintance cuddling up to their horses, making kissing noises, and spending all the hours they never spent with Barbies, combing their tails and manes). And when I did everything right, even for just a moment or two, the fear, the preoccupation, and the awkwardness gave way to grace and pleasure that was unlike any sensation I'd ever felt on the NordicTrack or in a car or jogging around the neighborhood, a pure physical sense of rhythm and strength that the horse communicated right into my sinews and up those recalcitrant ganglia to my brain. As with all positive transformations, the right moments accumulated into right minutes and subsequently into delicious stretches of time that didn't feel like time at all.
Which is not to say that improvement came smoothly or without frustration. Often I still confused the horse. Often he reacted in an unexpected way. Fear was what I came back to over and over, especially a fear of going forward too fast (and me without a seat belt!). Even when I was using the accelerator (my legs against his sides), it was hard to make myself take off the brake (release the reins that held his mouth)—a very common problem for women riders, who are frequently more openly fearful than men riders. Sometimes I took out my frustration on the horse, blaming him for mistakes that came from my mixed signals or anxiety (a frequent problem with men riders, who tend to be less sensitive to the horse's signals). I loved him, but I was quick to think he was a bad horse or a problem horse or at least a quirky horse. Patience! That was something that took years to learn.
Timing was a problem, too. When do women ever need split-second timing, when do they ever need to be able to sense just the right moment to do one little appropriate physical thing? Well, all the time, actually, but it's easy to get away with poor timing until a horse comes into your life. In fact, Tick Tock was a forgiving horse, and if I sat quietly, took a few deep breaths, talked to him affectionately, and tried again, we would do the very thing that we never thought we'd be able to do in the next five minutes.
What's unique about riding is that the horse is always right there, and not only physically: Tick Tock's personality, his intentions, and his willingness were always palpable. I learned why "out riding alone" is an oxymoron: An equestrian is never alone, is always sensing the other being, the mysterious but also understandable living being that is the horse. That is what gets me out every day, in weather I would never jog in.
My body is different now—I have triceps and biceps, and the trapezius muscles of a Jane Fonda. I gallop and jump and ride young horses with intense pleasure. I am also more patient, self-confident, ready for fun. I am more daring. My old "What if?" has become more of a "Why not?" I am readier to believe that if something comes up, I can deal with it—even backing up the horse trailer. But the greatest change is my constant sense of unfolding relationship and growing knowledge. I used to pepper my trainers and vets with questions. Why is the horse doing that? What does that mean? At bottom, who is he? I discovered that the horse is life itself, a metaphor but also an example of life's mystery and unpredictability, of life's generosity and beauty, a worthy object of repeated and ever changing contemplation.
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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