I Was a Middle Aged Barn Rat, Part 7, “Teenage Days.” This is a ten part blog series about the year I decided to pursue my lifelong interest in horses, based on an article that appeared in Equus, March 2015.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, I was promised a horse when I was eleven. For the next four years it remained nothing more than promise, then when I was fifteen it stopped being even that much and I had to face the fact that I was never going to have a horse. During that time I was allowed to be around them, and the constant refrain from the parental units was that horses were expensive, horses were dangerous, and horses were a lot of work.
Once when I was eleven I was taught to groom one, but not allowed to ride. That didn’t matter, because it was heaven to be privileged to brush him. I breathed in the smell of him and of the barn, the hay, the leather, and I wished with all my heart I could stay there forever. All the way home from that trip it was explained to me that I couldn’t possibly still want one now that I knew how much work they are. I cried. I wanted that horse more than anything. Often during those years I was told how much I didn’t know about horses, and how lacking I was in all skills. That didn’t matter to me, because I knew I would learn those things once I had one of my own. I still believed in the promise.
When I was fourteen, for about a year I went riding on rental horses about every two weeks. At first I was permitted to ride only the “gentle” horses. Those are the ones who won’t hurt you because they refuse to move faster than a walk. At first, that was enough for me. I was happy just to be in the saddle, and it didn’t matter where or how fast we went. An hour of plodding along a trail was, to me, an hour well spent.
But after a few months of making my way up the risk hierarchy, I was deemed skilled enough to ride the horses rated “spirited.” That was the best. Not only did I love the work of taking care of a horse, it turns out the most fun I had that year was the one time I fell off.
His name was Jerry, and he’s the only one I rode during that time whose name I remember. He was a buckskin, and as smart and ornery as a mule. I loved him because if I asked him to go fast, he would do it without giving me any guff. And that he liked to try to scrape me off on a tree just kept me on my toes. In my entire life, those were the Saturdays I liked best.
Often I would ride with my best friends, Robin and Marie. Robin was far more experienced than I. She’d been to summer camp and had taken lessons. She could jump, something I’ve yet to even try. When we rode together, I asked for Jerry and she rode another of the “spirited” stripe. One time her horse decided he wasn’t going to go any more. He just stopped on the trail. She kicked and cursed, but he just wouldn’t move.
I in my Great Horse Wisdom thought that if I could just get him moving for her he would keep going and that would be okay. So I reached over for his lead rope to urge him along the trail. As I’ve mentioned, Jerry was smarter than average and wanted me off his back. The instant I took hold of the other lead rope, he bolted. Not far, but just far enough for the lead rope to yank me off and onto the ground.
I was no slouch, either, and so as I fell I got my feet out of the stirrups, rolled, and landed more or less on my feet like a cat. I scrambled away from Jerry’s feet lest he kick me, sure I was going to have a chase on my hands, but when I got up off the ground he just stood there, looking at me. He’d gotten what he wanted, and now was perfectly happy to just stand there. Probably he was laughing at me.
I laughed also. I laughed so hard I could barely stand. I gave Robin her lead rope back and mounted Jerry again. Neither horse gave us any more problems on the way back to the stable; I suppose they’d had their fun for the day, and so had I. I was pretty pleased with myself, having taken my first fall and come out uninjured. My confidence rose to the highest it has ever been, before or since.
But it happens that was the last time I got on a horse for many, many years. Shortly after, I turned fifteen and was forced to realize the promise my parents had made was empty and always had been. I was left with the conviction that somehow I just didn’t measure up and didn’t deserve a horse. So I gave up hope. I didn’t ride again until about forty years later, when I decided to take some lessons and discovered just about everything I’d been told about my relationship with the horse world had been wrong.