Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Horses


Whinnying, stomping, snorting, sweet-sweating horses. Horses short or many "hands" tall, sleek or barrel-bellied, good natured or mean tempered, nervous or lazy; horses that would jump or rear, balk or bolt. I loved them all. I first used to ride at Bailey's Stables in Chicago, when I was somewhere between the ages of five and nine. This was in the mid- to late 1970s—a time that may also bring to mind for native Chicagoans the highly publicized disappearance and (it was later ruled) murder of the candy heiress, Helen Brach; Richard Bailey, stable owner and despicable con artist, was indicted in soliciting her murder and was ultimately sentenced in the mid-1990s to what amounted to a de facto life term in prison, given his age, for a complex scheme of fraud and a trail of sordid crimes that included murdering many horses as well. I shudder to think of what must have been going on behind the scenes of my weekly riding lessons. All I remember was the gentle giant of a horse I usually rode (whose name is on the tip of my tongue, but I can't place it), a chestnut colored horse with a white triangle marking its forehead. I remember, too, the single horse show I was in at Bailey's, where every child rider was awarded a ribbon, and mine was purple, a color I think was second-to-last out of twelve in the show, and that I hardly imagined existed. (I was very disappointed, I recall, and tried unsuccessfully to imagine that purple was the new blue.) My showmanship may not have been the best—I probably owe this to "conflicted feet"; I danced so much and had to point my toes all the time, but in stirrups good form and stability required flexed feet—nevertheless, I loved to be around horses, to care for them if I had the chance, and to ride them, especially if I could push past trotting and feel the rhythmic, muscular movement of a canter or gallop. When we left Chicago and moved to Los Angeles, I did much less riding, nothing regular at all. However, there was one week-long stint at a horse camp called Foxfield, in Westlake Village, CA. Some aspects of the camp were fabulous: I got to learn about grooming horses (the curry combs, brushes, hoof picks), about all the tack and how to handle it, got to take care of a horse that was "mine" for the duration. There were some not-so-great experiences, though: the moment my horse tripped while I was riding, went down, and nearly rolled on top of me (I'd never moved so fast, and I was thankful for good reflexes); the pressure to jump when I wasn't ready; the elitist attitudes of many of the other girls. (The horsey set is elite, by virtue of economics, but the sense of social self-importance was something I could never cope with very well.) I ended up requesting to leave the camp early, which I did; it wasn't the right environment for me, no fault of the horses themselves. Then there was the Western adventure: a family trip to an Arizona guest ranch, where I was one of just a small handful of kids. More on that trip in later posts, I'm sure, but for now, I remember the adjustments to Western style: jeans not jodhpurs (no pretense to dressage or fox-hunting here), "loping" not "cantering," one-handed reins, and that darned horn on the saddle (you are reminded quickly and painfully not to post when your horse trots!). One day, the kids had a "funkhana," a kind of gaming event on horseback, with relays around barrels—at last, the blue ribbon was mine! I won for speed, which interestingly enough was my forte (if I had one) in dance as well. And then I didn't ride for years. I outgrew my black velvet hardhat, the tall leather boots; the crop was stashed in the back of a closet, lest it become the source of raunchy teenage jokes. What got me back in the saddle, after high school, was my trip to Ireland, the trip mentioned in my post for Saint Patrick's Day. The first stop on my month-long solo journey was the Horse Holiday Farm (owned and operated by Tilman and Colette Anhold) near the village of Grange, Co. Sligo. In March, way off season, I got to have an experience that was less like that of a paying guest (which I was) and much more like that of a local stablehand. I cared for horses, exercised them, hung about the stables much of the day—an activity made more attractive by the attentions of the farm's blacksmith, S., a few years older than I, with whom I got on instantly. We'd get the work done then saddle up for a ride at the seaside: no trail or path or map to guide or restrict us, only the rolling landscape for reference and the sand dunes where we'd stop to rest. I will say there is something very special indeed about riding a wild an untamed coastline, feeling free of fences and signs, directions and protocol. Out in nature, on the back of a galloping horse, with nothing to slow me down—I'd race faster than S., laughing as I overtook him; when he was out of sight, I could forget he was there at all, and I could believe I was the only person in the world. But he was there to make sure I didn't get lost, anyway; was there to direct me back to civilization, to the single pub on a stretch of road leading north where we'd hitch the horses and tuck back some horrible combination of pints of stout, shots of whiskey: it took one of each for me, and although I didn't think I'd had enough to make a difference, the combination of alcohol and saddle-bouncing resulted in a highly comical and somewhat embarrassing slip off the side and onto the sand once we'd gone far enough to speed past a walk. Other than the spill at Foxfield, it was the only time I've ever fallen off a horse. We laughed about it, headed back to cool down the horses, muck their stables and bed them down for the day. Since that time, in 1988, I have been back on a horse exactly once: in Wyoming, with my husband when we'd gone there for a business event in his industry. It was a mild trail ride through a beautiful landscape, the mountains for a stunning backdrop, wildflowers everywhere. I had a stubborn horse, but one nonetheless coaxed to move when there was room for it. There was a single spot where we were allowed to break our single-file tourist ranks (mostly the trails were too narrow, the ground too rocky for this), and I pressed my horse to a canter, or, since this was out West, a lope. The open distance was too quickly covered, though, and it only left me wanting more. Now, who knows when I'll ever ride again. I'd like to make sure my son has the chance sometime; he may now be a good age for it. But if I go with him, it will be different indeed; I'll be more concerned about how he's getting along than about my own experience. Maybe, though, just once more, I'll somehow recapture that freedom I felt, following a horse's lead, galloping through the ebbing, flowing tides of water and the cold, humid air; chasing through that desolate landscape of the northwest coast of Ireland, and feeling the power of equine muscle to carry me.

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