“Let’s go horseback riding.”
Four innocuous words and suddenly I’m plunging into a long-dormant memory that’s so real, so palpable, it leaves me breathless.
* * * *
I’m sailing through the air! I am literally head over heels! Surprising, then, how comfortably blank my mind is. No wonder. In the time it’s taking my body to rotate and head back toward the dusty ground, I can’t possibly put together what’s happening and prepare for an inevitable landfall. I don’t even think about how much it’s going to hurt.
Out of nowhere, the never-say-die-can’t-stop-me-now Mighty Mouse has abruptly interrupted his canter and stiffened his four long, sandy legs resolutely on the near side of a four-foot hurdle, leaving me to gracefully arc toward the far side. Ejected from his tall, solid frame, I’m strangling the reins with a death grip as though it might somehow miraculously break my fall. Or at least soften it.
I begin my descent, an action that takes seconds but seems like hours. As I near the ground I register the sweet, earthy smells of sawdust and leather, sweat and manure, horse feed and hay, and I think of how much I love the way they all mingle in a well-used and well-kept barn. Although I feel like I’m in stasis, I’m conscious of the movement of horses and riders; I hear the rhythmic thudding of hooves and the whoosh of air as they gather their muscles to clear an obstacle. I hear the impact of a thousand pounds hitting the sawdust-covered ground, the sound of a rider’s hand thumping a horse’s neck for a job well done. Ah! My mighty buckskin will get no such thumping, I think.
Miraculously, my feet find their way to the ground, sending puffs of dust into the air and into my nostrils and washing my polished black hunting boots to a dusty, dirty brown. I taste blood but realize nothing hurts – yet. Lifting my hand to my mouth, I wonder fleetingly if I’ve lost a tooth or need medical help and notice, then, that I’m still holding the reins. I am no longer in flight, no longer weightless, and time no longer stands still. It took only seconds for me to fly off my horse’s back and land on my feet on the other side of a hurdle, but in those brief seconds I discovered an eternity of sensations and thoughts.
Someone runs toward me, no doubt ready to encourage me to climb back into the saddle so I will not develop a fear of riding in the future. How odd, I think. I’m a veteran of horsemanship. I have no fear of riding or of falling. Enough horses have ejected me from their backs for one reason or another that a mere fall no longer holds any fear. Hand to mouth, I taste blood and think only about how to clean it from my riding pants.
I look, then, into Mighty Mouse’s unapologetic brown eyes. I have to laugh: I can’t let the tall buckskin win this skirmish, blood or no blood. Gathering his reins, I guide him to my side of the hurdle, slip my foot into the stirrup, and settle again into the worn leather saddle.
* * * *
Charlie abruptly cuts into my reverie. “So, what do you think,” he pleads. “It would be fun; we could ride during our trip to Alaska!”
I haven’t ridden for years. For some reason, riding became something I left behind when I drove away to college. I wonder briefly if it was a giving up of childish things in my quest for adulthood. At 55, though, I’m rediscovering the pleasure – but more importantly, the wisdom – of childish things.
“Only if I can ride dressage,” I hear myself say. Oh, my. Where did that come from?
“Dressage,” he repeats, one eyebrow askew in his best Spock imitation. “How boring.”
Dressage is elegant, sedate, and very upper crust. Basically, that merely means I sit on a fairly small piece of leather atop a horse’s back and hold the reins in two hands. We walk, trot, canter and perform the usual horse show moves. It’s a relaxing way to spend an hour. It’s even fun on a trail and not in the show ring.
“You know, Charlie, there was a time when I sought even more excitement in my communion with horses,” I say. “And it was in the same kind of insubstantial saddle, but it involved jumping over hurdles. Big hurdles. I was only 15 then, and I knew no fear. Now I KNOW fear.”
He laughed. “It’s like riding a bike. Once you know, you don’t forget. It will come back to you. Plus, It would be a great way to see the real Alaska.”
I don’t answer him. In fact, I’m no longer in the conversation, because the vivid snippet of sensation that rolled over me with his first suggestion seems to have awakened the full memory of that day. They flood my mind, these thoughts, leaving no room in there for conversation. I’m back, once again, with a big buckskin gelding named Mighty Mouse. And my mother.
* * * *
“I hope I get Mighty Mouse today. I just love that horse.”
“Mmm, hmm,” Mom said.
“He’s that big buckskin, you know? The one I got to ride last week?”
My mother was giving me lip service, no doubt lost in her own thoughts as we drove the 10 miles to Meredith Manor for my weekly riding lesson. I’d ridden Western style for a while, but didn’t like that, so I turned to jumping. Now, THAT was more like it. No more trotting dutifully around a ring; jumping offered speed, excitement, accomplishment – just what a teenager needs.
“He just hurtles,” I said.
Mom looked at me. “Hurdles? Yes, you’ll jump the hurdles today.”
“No, I mean, he just zooms. He flies. He’s sooooo fast and powerful,” I said, not missing a beat. “He is such a perfect jumper.” I looked out the window at the autumn landscape and the clouds of dust rolling off our wheels. Once we hit the dirt road, it was a matter of minutes to the stables. “He has heart. You know what I mean? He’ll try and try and try. He’s a great horse.”
I jumped out of the car almost before it stopped. “You can watch if you want from that room with the glass windows,” I said.
“Don’t worry. Go on,” she said, laughing. “I figure Mr. Handlan and Mrs. Jones are here. I’m sure I can entertain myself with them.”
Sure enough, my name was next to Mighty Mouse’s on the board. I was up and in the saddle and ready to go in no time, black boots gleaming and tan jodhpurs fresh and clean.
“OK, let’s canter around the ring a few times to warm up.” As an instructor, Mary was probably my favorite. She had a nice smile, and I always understood her directions. “Here’s the course. You’ll canter around the ring once, then start at the upper right and take the two hurdles along the side, then the two along the opposite wall. After you come off the last jump on that wall, take the center jump. Got that?”
One by one we started. Elizabeth was riding her own white Arabian. “Go for it, Liz,” I said.
She gave me a thumbs up and took off.
“OK, Jenny. Let’s go!” Mary gave me a nod, and I squeezed Mighty Mouse with my legs and tightened the reins. Off we went.
We flew effortlessly over the course. One jump down. Now two, three, four. I heard Liz shouting encouragement. “Way to go!” Even Mary’s, “Nice job,” edged into my consciousness.
“OK, Mighty Mouse,” I whispered. “Let’s go for the center one.”
I turned his head toward the center hurdle, steadied him and urged him forward, although it was hardly necessary. He knew exactly what to do. Rising up in the stirrups, I positioned myself over the Mouse’s neck to take the weight off his back so he could better clear the jump. It was business as usual. He took off, cantering faster, faster, faster, and then slam!
Well, he did; I didn’t.
The one weakness of jumping hurdles on horseback is that when you’re poised in the stirrups over the horse’s neck, there’s no good way to stop that forward momentum. You just have to hope you and the horse arrive on the other side simultaneously.
“Oh, no,” I thought. I had a feeling we weren’t going to arrive at the same time. I heard a collective gasp from the other riders. From my unique vantage point – upside down at the apex of my rotation over the hurdle – I saw Mary’s hands covering her open mouth.
And then it was over. I was standing on the opposite side, puffs of dust settling onto my boots, the metallic taste of blood in my mouth. I looked down at my hands. “I still have the reins,” I thought. I looked up to see Mary running toward me.
“Are you hurt?”
I touched my lip. “Am I cut? I taste blood. I think I should have someone look at it.”
Mary shook her head. “It’s OK. Why don’t you get back on and try again? I don’t know why he refused that jump. It’s not like Mighty Mouse.”
I still tasted blood. “I think I need to see how bad this is.” I had visions of blood all over me, stitches, bandages, sympathy. “Maybe…”
“Hey, let’s keep on going,” Mary said. “Here, I’ll help you up.”
A little reluctantly, I let her boost me back into the saddle. I knew what she was doing; get back in the saddle so you won’t develop a fear of riding. Yeah. I’d ridden for years and been thrown more times than I could count. I doubted I’d be scared out of riding.
So, with the taste of blood in my mouth and adrenaline in my system, we tried again, Mighty Mouse and I. When we reached the center jump, he cleared it as if it were just a mole hill.
Just like that, the lesson was over. Sure that I was covered with blood, I jumped down from Mighty Mouse’s back and walked into the tack room to find my mother. Apparently I wasn’t, though, because she didn’t even rush to my aid.
“Ready? Did you get Mighty Mouse?”
What? You weren’t watching?” I asked incredulously.
“No, I sat in the tack room with Joe and Margaret, drinking coffee and talking. Sorry. Did I miss something?”
“Not much,” I said, a bit surly. “I think I’m going to change to dressage. I’m tired of jumping.”
* * * *
“Well, think about it, at least.”
Charlie’s words nudge me out of my reverie, but emerging from the grip of that memory leaves me a little introspective. There’s something comforting about being there, not here in the real world. I think about that for a moment before it hits me. A memory like this one is what allows us to embrace our lives without losing the important experiences, loving relationships, and yes, even recalcitrant horses that shaped us into who we are. Or, rather, they have shaped us into who we are “becoming,” because that’s a journey we always tread.
With that, I’m fully present. And I realize something: I’m not done becoming – I rode as a kid, and I can ride as an adult.
“Hey, Charlie! Let’s go riding,” I say.