(Warning: This is quite a lengthy post. If you don’t have the time/energy/interest to read all of this, feel free to skip to the end and simply view the picture slide show – I won’t be offended. :) However, if you’re up for a hearty read, feel free to grab a soothing beverage – and away we go…)
When I was in second or third grade, my grandparents retired to Florida. Every few years my parents would take my sister and I for a holiday visit to see them (as well as any other relatives who found their way to the Sunshine State). My grandfather was a very adventurous man, and engaged my sister and I in a variety of activities. Looking back at the time spent with my grandpa, I now realize that most of the things he did with us weren’t incredibly safe – but at the time they were pretty darn fun. :)
Interestingly, one of the more “tame” activities that I participated in with him was one that made me quite nervous and uncomfortable. When I was 9 or 10, my grandfather asked his neighbor if my sister and I could ride their horse. I had never been on a horse before; in fact, I had never really even seen one up close. I didn’t have a particular interest in horses, and I wasn’t super-eager to ride one – but, being a child who earnestly wanted to please others and not hurt their feelings, I agreed to get on the back of the massive beast and go for a spin.
Mercifully, the horse’s owner was more pragmatic than my grandfather; while my grandpa wanted to simply hand me the reigns and give the horse a smack on the butt, the horse’s owner insisted on maintaining control of the animal and walking the horse around the block. (Thank you smart neighbor.) As I sat atop the horse while he gently trotted along a sandy road, I realized: 1) how high up I was from the ground, 2) how powerful this animal really was, and 3) how much my tiny body was at the mercy of this tremendous beast.
When the ride was finished my grandfather extracted me from the saddle. I politely thanked the neighbor, nodded faintly at grandpa when he asked me, “Did you have a good time?”, and breathed an internal sigh of relief that the experience was over.
Fast forward 25 years. I’m still aware of how big and strong horses are (indeed, how powerful most animals are: cows, pigs, buffalo…), and I’m not very comfortable when I’m in close proximity to one. When I created my 101 list, I wanted to include a few items that would cause me to push through some discomfort and if not overcome fear completely, at least reduce it a bit. When I added #16 I wasn’t sure when or where I would get the opportunity to ride a horse, but I figured I’d put it out there – and the universe could worry about logistics.
A few weeks ago I was sifting through emails, and saw an “Introduction to Horsemanship” session offered as the daily Groupon. The notice explained that the class was designed for people with no previous experience with horses, and that participants would learn how to care for, handle, and ride a horse. The stables where the session would occur were only 20 miles from my home, and the price seemed very reasonable. Looks like this is a good opportunity to complete the “Ride a horse” task – sign me up!
So last Saturday I made the 30-minute drive to a just-outside-of-town stables to have my horse adventure. As I left the city, traffic dwindled and green spaces opened up; I was reminded of how I used to drive through farmland on a daily basis when I was a teenager. As I arrived at the small barn where the horses waited, I felt like I was hundreds of miles away from home – in a small rural community instead of on the outskirts of a major metro area. It’s funny how perspective can change so quickly.
I stepped out of my car and felt the gravely crunch of loose rock beneath my feet. I was greeted by a middle-aged woman, and told that an earlier class was wrapping up – so I could walk around the grounds for a few minutes until my session was ready to begin. I made my way to an enclosure where three horses were milling about, and simply observed them. The noises they produced were pretty darn cool: clip-clopping hooves on a patch of asphalt, chomping teeth on grass, snorting noses just because they could… As I stood watching the animals before me, I felt myself calming down. I didn’t think I was overly stressed – indeed, I felt pretty relaxed from the scenic drive. Yet as I quietly watched the horses hanging out, I realized I had been holding some tension in my body, and that my mind had been preoccupied by various thoughts; and both qualities were slowly dissipating, and being replaced by genuine relaxation and calm. So not only did I get to observe the four-legged animals while I waited, I also got to watch the two-legged one standing before them. Interesting…
After a few more minutes elapsed, people from the previous class returned from their experience, and an informal handoff was conducted. As the ‘old’ participants gathered their personal items and drove away, us ‘new’ participants were shown a lounge area where we submitted our paperwork and awaited further instruction.
The session I attended was a full one; taking part in the class was:
- two moms with their girls (one child had just turned 6 [and let ALL of us know it], the other youth was 10, and much more calm about her age);
- one mom with her 10-year-old son (he had spent the past two summers at a day camp where he got to be around horses, so he was excited for this more intimate horse experience. Yet even though he was excited, he was very polite and well-behaved);
- one grandfather with his granddaughter (who was 6 years old, and a very quiet, calm, reserved child)
- one Indian couple in their early-to-mid 20s (she liked horses and had basic experience with them; he had never touched a horse before. Guess whose idea it was to come?) ;)
- me: a solo gal in her mid 30s. I kinda stood out, but whatever.
Once all of the appropriate waivers were signed and payments made, the class began in earnest. We started off with a barn-and-stable tour – and immediately I “noticed” the pungent smell that is simply part of the package when dealing with horses. Other people had a similar reaction as me; and while no one verbally complained, a few kids did make some faces. (Which was actually pretty funny.) As we left the stables and headed for the pasture immediately behind the stalls, we saw a horse attempting to make a break for freedom. He had literally busted through a white wooden fence, and was now working to get past the wire that still contained him. Holy crap.
A horse jail-break was obviously an unplanned addition to the agenda; so we participants simply stood and watched (for about 20 minutes) while the stable owner addressed the problematic animal. One the attempted escapee was calmed, harnessed, and gently led to the stable, his two friends in the same pasture started to get nervous. The owner explained to us that horses are “herd” animals – which means that they don’t do well when they are all alone – or when they see their numbers dwindle. (She actually described horses as, “Claustrophobic, schizophrenic, paranoid maniacs” – which didn’t increase my comfort level around them…) The two remaining horses started to display their anxiety in different ways – one by running the length of the fence, pacing back and forth (which was actually quite cool to witness), and one by verbalizing (neighing) and shaking his head. The easiest, fastest (only?) way to calm each of these horses was to harness them and take them to the stable, too. All in all, resolving this issue caused us to start the session about 35 minutes late. But, what else could be done? When dealing with animals, sometimes you just gotta roll with things…
Having spent more than enough time in the barn/stable area, we were shown the main training space where we would stay for the remainder of the class session. The owner started the class by bringing out two horses: a pony named Chester (for the little girls to handle and ride), and a small Mexican horse aptly named Poquito. The first thing the instructor taught us was “ground work”; basically, how to successfully lead the horse where we wanted him to go while standing on the ground (versus sitting on his back). We were shown how to hold the rope that went around his nose and neck, where to stand relative to him (answer: stand with his ear next to your shoulder), where not to stand (answer: in the “kick zone”, which is basically any area behind the saddle), and how to get him to move backwards (answer: stand directly in front of him, use the rope to tap on his chest, and then walk like you are going to move through him. He’ll get the joke that you’re going to keep going whether he moves or not, so rather than get ‘run over’, he’ll move backwards). The teacher demonstrated each of these items for us, then asked, “Who would like to try first?” Each adult averted their gaze in a classic oh-please-don’t-call-on-me maneuver; so I raised my hand and said, “Oh sure, what the heck, let’s give ‘er a go.” The instructor handed Poquito’s rope to me, made sure I was holding it properly, gave me a nod – and then walked away.
Um, lady? Laaaadddyyyy…??
I appreciate the instructor’s trust in me, but honest-to-goodness, I had NO idea what I was doing! And as soon as I had Poquito’s rope in my hands, I easily felt the physical mass of his entire body. His energy radiated from his feet, to his head, through the rope, into my hands – and it was very clear to both of us who the stronger animal was. It took a considerable amount of physical and emotional energy on my part just to get Poquito to move his head; and he was a responsive, docile (and, let’s face it, old) animal. I can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to try and lead a young, energetic, willful horse…
But here I was, alone in an semi-open space with a 1000-pound beast, a skimpy nylon rope, and a crowd full of amateurs and children. As I attempted to stay very calm, and to get Poquito to walk at a snail’s pace beside me, I could feel him encroaching on my personal space, wanting to move faster, positioning himself so that we were no longer ear-to-shoulder, but shoulder-to-shoulder – and then saddle-to-shoulder…
I imagined him accidentally bumping into the pony, and the two of them getting into a scuffle, and then other horses getting into the fray, and then having every horse in the area freak out and trample the kids as all of the humans scrambled to run away, and basically all hell breaking loose…
At this point the other instructor (whom I will refer to from here on out as the *responsible* instructor) quickly-and-confidently walked up beside me, took the rope from my hand, and magically got Poquito to stop immediately. She explained what I had done wrong (answer: let him gain any amount of ground that I didn’t ask him to cover), and had me back him up as a way for him to show me respect, and to show him who was really in charge here. As I literally walked my shoulder into his face, I felt myself pushing up against a ridiculously muscular wall – but then I felt the wall yield, and the horse back up a few steps. It was truly one of the strangest, nervous, angst-y, and empowering moments I have had in a very long time.
I practiced with Poquito for another 10 minutes or so (feeling pretty uncomfortable the entire time), then handed him off to one of the moms in the group so she could have her turn. Everyone practiced walking, stopping, and backing old Poquito; and by the end of the ground work session, poor Poquito was ready to be done for the day. So the owner took him back to his stall in the stable, and brought out a new horse for the riding portion of the class: a younger, larger, stronger, more intimidating horse named Heat.
The primary instructor showed us how to mount, steer, stop, and dismount Heat – and then asked for a volunteer to take the first ride. This time one of the moms decided she wanted to be first, which was fine by me. I watched a few people attempt to navigate Heat around the practice area – and saw them struggle pretty mightily. I had a feeling this would not be an easy experience…
Eventually my turn to ride Heat arrived, and I climbed a small step stool to put my left foot into the stirrup. Using a combination of leg and abdominal strength, I swung my right foot around-and-over the saddle, and semi-gently lowered myself onto Heat’s back. Once I found my place in the saddle, the instructor had Heat just stand still while I got used to the feeling of actually being on a horse. Seeing that I was a wee bit tense, the instructor called up to me, “Just breathe.” Sage advice. I took in a long, deep, affirming breath, and s-l-o-w-l-y let it out. Better. I did it again. Ahhhhhhh. Better still. After the third breath, I felt like I had a tiny chance at maybe being successful at this venture – so the instructor started walking Heat around the training circle.
After three laps with the instructor guiding Heat, she handed his reigns to me, and reminded me of how to steer and stop. She then asked, “Okay, you ready?” and I nodded a brief ‘yes’. She told me to go ahead and give Heat the signal to go, so I gently squeezed the horse’s sides with my calves – and once again, I was amazed at the feeling of such powerful flesh beneath my skimpy body. Heat started to march forward, and while he was only moving at a moderate walking pace, the newness of the experience made it feel like he was galloping. Reflexively, I told him to stop – which he did, but he also seemed a little confused. So was the instructor. She walked next to us, looked up at me, and asked, “Everything okay?” I nodded a little sheepishly. “Yeah, fine,” I responded. “Just still a little uncomfortable. But I’m fine. Let me try again.” With that, I gave Heat’s ribs another gentle squeeze, and he started once more.
I walked him in a circle to the right, then stopped; started again, and led him in a circle to the left. I practiced backing up with him, stopping, and then moving forward. As I focused on communicating with Heat, I realized my gaze was fixated either on the reigns, the back of his head, or the ground below us. Midway through the riding session I had to consciously tell myself to look up and take in the scenery. When I did, I was amazed: the view was very impressive. Another powerful shift in perspective.
I was “in control” of Heat for a total of five or six minutes – and that was plenty for me. At the end of my turn I was emotionally spent (and my pelvis was a wee bit achy, too). I dismounted Heat as I had mounted him: legs wide, abs engaged, graceful and controlled. (Thank you yoga.) I thanked him for being understanding of me and my inexperience, and thanked the instructor for the opportunity to be exposed to horses in a safe, calm setting. With that, I collected my belongings, got into my car, found the freeway, and returned to the city.
As I made my way back home, I reflected on the experience I just had. I thought about cowboys (and cowgirls), and how I now understand them a tiny bit better. Of course these men (and women) are usually a bit gruff, stern, and tough – they have to be in an emotional and psychological position of power and control when they are around their animals, or else they have absolutely no hope at all of getting the animals to respond to them. Indeed, without an air of absolute confidence and assertiveness, cowboys/cowgirls could get seriously injured by their animals – maybe even killed. (No exaggeration.) I can absolutely understand how a mindset of control, power, and dominance might be difficult to switch on and off – and how ranchers and other people who work with large animals like horses for their livelihood are frequently gruff, stern individuals as a result.
I also thought about the horses themselves – and the fact that *any* large animal would “allow” itself to be domesticated is just crazy to me. Horses (and cows, and even pigs) can easily overtake the biggest, toughest, strongest human around. Even small dogs can inflict pretty powerful damage if necessary. And yet, all of these animals have submitted to serving people. I think this speaks volumes to the genuine intelligence, courage, and tenacity of human beings.
While this experience gave me a renewed appreciation of horses (and how not-easy it is to ride and work with them), it also gave me new insight into and sensitivity for some fellow human beings. Once again, I gained so much more from completing this task than I ever could have predicted. And while I very much appreciate the new perspectives, I’m not in any rush to ride a horse again. I think twice in my lifetime will be enough for me. :)
P.S. The grandfather attending the class with his 6-year-old granddaughter chose to sit at the side of the practice area and take pictures of her – so I asked him if he would be willing to snap a few shots of me, too. He was eager and excited to help – but not very tech-savvy. I gave him a 15-second crash-course in how to use the camera on an iPhone; here are the images I received as a result. While the pictures are not “perfect”, they give a flavor of the horse-riding experience. Enjoy! (And thank you kind and gracious grandfather!) :)