Novice Equestrian, Only the Horse Knows the Way
By Patty Czepiel Hayes
I've never been on a horse, unless you count a pony ride when I
was two years old. In the summer of 1999, I was 37 and taking riding
lessons with my friend Jan. What the hell was I thinking?
I'm in the Fox Meadow Farm horse barn at Smith College in Northampton,
Massachusetts. It's June. I'm wearing boots, long pants and a hard
hat. Luckily it's 100 degrees today. I'm nervous.
We walk into the ring to meet our horse. I thought I loved horses,
but apparently I'm terrified of them. Are horses always this big?
They've given us the biggest horse in the stable. He seems impatient.
His name is Yankee and he looks like he wants to kick me. Our instructor,
Lisa, shows us how to groom the horse. There are four different
brushes. (Four brushes? I don't give myself this much attention
even on a good morning.) I brush Yankee and this seems to irritate
him. We learn about the saddle and bridle. We don't have to sit
on the horse today and I'm relieved. The lesson ends.
Maybe next week we'll have a smaller, calmer horse. I ask Lisa if
they have one that typically gets sleepy in the afternoon.
Against my better judgment, I'm back in the barn. This is my childhood
dream so I can't quit. I try to control my nerves.
We report to Yankee's stall (no sleepy horses available I guess)
and learn to "tack up," to put the saddle and bridle on the horse.
I'm less nervous standing next to Yankee since Lisa has instructed
us where to stand and what to do when he bashes us with his head.
We put the saddle on Yankee. The bridle is a nightmare. As per instruction,
I find myself standing under Yankee's neck with both arms wrapped
around his face holding a tangled mess of leather straps while trying
to stick a piece of metal in his mouth with my little fingers near
his big teeth. Yankee's not cooperating and I have more of the bridle
on me than him. Lisa says the trick is to stick one's thumb in the
horse's mouth (!) in order to get him to take the bit. It's not
working. I've got my fingers so far down Yankee's throat I can feel
his tonsils. Lisa laughs and lets us struggle until we succeed.
Thirty minutes later we walk Yankee out of his stall. Lisa teaches
us how to safely lead a horse, and I'm amazed that I can do this.
I notice how beautiful Yankee is, especially when he's cooperating.
He gives me a look that says he knows I'm a novice.
We're outside. It's time to climb on. Mounting and dismounting are
tricky. Lisa demonstrates. She's fabulous! I try and barely get
off the ground. It looks so easy in the movies. After a bit of effort
(okay, a boost) I'm up. I'm finally sitting on a horse! I try to
imprint this moment in my memory forever. Instead I look down and
wish for a smaller horse. Lisa leads us around and I don't fall
off. I have to remind myself to breathe. And then the dismount.
It isn't pretty, but I've survived.
We put Yankee in his stall. He's hungry. His friends are already
eating their hay while he's been enduring our lesson. In a nearby
stall I see a 36-year-old mare named Easy. Now that's the horse
for me. I ask Lisa about Easy. I really like Lisa. She's a great
Lisa has resigned. I try not to take this as a bad sign. Jan and
I are assigned to Yankee again and we meet our new instructor, Meri.
We approach Yankee's stall and see recognition flash across his
face: ears back, eyes wide. We saddle him, and I attempt the bridle,
on him, not me. Success on the first try! I'm stunned! Yankee is
such a beautiful horse. I'm slightly less nervous.
We ride Yankee, Jan and I switching off. We learn the basics of
walking and turning. It's like learning to drive a manual transmission
all over again. (Actually I never did learn that.) I'm concentrating
so much on the reins, and my fingers, hands, elbows, back, hips,
legs, knees and ankles that I forget to be terrified. Yankee walks
around the ring, interpreting our inadequate communications. I'm
riding! And I might even be breathing.
Jan and I have graduated! We each have our own horse and both are
smaller than Yankee. We spend the lesson riding (walking) around
the ring, trying to stay out of each other's way. I'm breathing
regularly. We practice turning around orange cones. I really like
my horse, Beauty. Occasionally she moves in the direction I expect.
She walks very slowly and often prefers to stand in place. I wonder
if she's sleepy. The lesson ends too quickly. I want to keep going.
Maybe next week we'll ride Yankee!