Learning to Ride at 64The First Five Lessons
Short version: wow, holy shit wow.
Suzanne rides, like on her recent Iceland trip. I don’t really want to ride across glaciers and volcanoes, but even though my post-op feet are now my new good feet, I cannot imagine myself walking any long distance unless 1. it was a tsunami coming, or 2. Elliot was at the other end. And besides, I think riding horses is cool.
I have ridden three times. At a very young age--I remember this—I fell off of a gigantic horse into the sand. It was really awful and whatever else my therapy tells me it was about, it was also about falling off a gigantic animal. And the third time was on a mule in Yosemite, nicely trained animals, Suzanne instructing me, and gorgeous scenery.
So I decided I want to learn to ride. Nothing complex, just simple competency is all I want. Of course Suzanne is enthusiastic, but after four weeks of delay I realized I was afraid of horses. I mean look, a little one is 400 pounds, & I sure don’t want to have a foot contest with one (maybe steel-toed boots for riding? joke) & a kick from one would do permanent damage, not a joke.
I called Paula and said, in short, “I want to learn to ride western but I realized I’m afraid of horses,” and she says, “Well, come by and see what we can do,” and I get there feeling as self-conscious as a bent-tailed cat and she basically says “hi, let her eat this, take the halter right here, hold like this, make her stop at doorways and you go first, follow me.”
And then I’m grooming her and I’m thinking, oh, like a cat I guess, and Paula is saying this and that and “Oh, we try not to walk behind them where they can’t see, so get used to going this way,” and I am thinking, “¡Doh! of course,” even up to mounting and riding and I realize, “Hey, this is an animal!”
It sounds stupid, I think, but damn I just had not had the understanding before. You know, you can read and imagine and pretend, but it’s not the same as an experience. And Paula’s explaining how to relax and let it do what it wants, just with some gentle direction and for like three steps it was all perfect, I mean everything felt so harmonious that the entire universe felt at peace. I liked it, it was done in no time.
So I could tell from my aches where I rode wrong. Not on the day after, but two days after. Thighs, which I expected, but more—my feet! “Ride with your heels down,” she says. Ha ha, I didn’t stretch those muscles for 60 years and only started a year ago. Toes forward? Madre! I’d never ride right if I hadn’t had that surgery. And I thought “I am pointing forward!” I explain it to Paula and she says, “Well, you’ll have to learn to point them forward ride well.” OK, I get it.
And damn, but if there’s not maybe seven or eight steps where I feel right and I’m going back. When I’m talking to Suzanne and she says something about “Lightning,” and I say “Scout” and she says “Lightning, the horse,” and I say “Scout” and she says “You’re riding the crazy horse?”
“I… uh, Scout, the light colored one.”
“She’s gray. Oh, ok, didn’t mean to alarm you.”
“Oh, yea sure, no hay peto…” I hope.
Damn, this time my back and neck ache too. Not just because the foot bone’s connected to the etc. either. I am supposed to be sitting up straight! Having my spine vertical is still tough enough for this lifelong crook-back desk jockey, and now I have to do it on the horse! I was talking with my friend Bob about this whole skeleton thing and about standing up straight for the first time in memory. My first feeling when I did so was the lifting of a lifetime of guilt over my mother saying “Stand up straight,” because up until recently my skeleton wasn’t structured correctly. Wow, it was not a struggle to do so, and it felt pretty damn good and now strange things happen, like my shoulders want to push backward against my life-long hunch, and I can breathe with my upper lungs. So I’ve got to work to just be straight up.
I mention this to Paula who says, “Well, you’ll have to do it to ride correctly.” I wasn’t looking for an out on this, or sympathy. I just thought there might be some learner’s hints I could pick up. Nope. Just do it right. I find the response so refreshing and clear that it feels good. Good enough to laugh. It’s sort of the same as when my fucked up feet became my good feet. First I remembered that they hurt so much I could not even walk, stand or sit without acute pain. Post surgery they hurt, but I can walk, sit and run, albeit with pain. Thanks to my massage therapist Adam and Suzanne, the hurt became a message of how little the pain is, that it’s a message to remind me where I came from. Weird, but it works and I can walk without whining if it’s not too cold. Upright man, limping slowly along, smiling. That’s me.
Different horse today! That is cool. This is lightning, black and white. I heard about her. She’s a bit smaller,
“We’re going to use this saddle today,” says Paula, pointing to an English saddle. It doesn’t look so different, just without a horn. I’m a little nervous, but willing. “And this bridle.” English bridle. Jeez, I haven’t yet figured out how to put a regular bridle on except to loop the reins over my arm. This one’s got even more parts. So while Paula shows me I am patting the horse and watching her eye roll back to look at me. Total horse whisperer stuff, but the real stuff not the movie, and not the book the movie was based on, but by the guy who did it for real. “It” means basically be nice to the horse and consider it as a being, an animal. I like this part, actually, this talking to animals and listening back. I can’t quite imagine doing it any other way, by forcing and man handling it. I’ll probably be crushed by the first mean horse I meet at this rate, but it’s not an issue right now.
“Take her out to the arena,” says Paula. Ooo, new horse, new tack and new place! I just rode Scout around a little corral before. The arena is a real riding place, and even with special sand. Suzanne always practices there and I am feeling like I got out of kindergarten, maybe.
“Lightning’s a little smaller than Scout, so we’ll try mounting without the block. And now I’m thinking, wow, I’m just flying through this stuff. Maybe I do know what I’m doing here! & I put my foot into the stirrup, it feels a little small, like steady but screw it I will just reach up & hold the… um, no horn, so just sorta reach over here and hold onto this bitta bounce and jump and lean and put that ol good foot of mine over my oh shit I slipped and my foot’s over my head & I’m flat on my back in that soft wet special arena sand. Ouch.
God damn it, I fell. I find it embarrassing enough to have an accident, but I’ve got issues about doing my worst case scenario even when I am trying not to. I mean, I never had my zipper open in front of a class, but I have had my brain lock up entirely and choke my voice box so I stood motionless, helpless and a bit horrified that I’d forgotten the poem that I’d memorized just for that audience. Or just when my wife says “be careful don’t break it” I say “I AM being careful” and then break it. And so here I am in my worst fear of falling off the fukkin horse and damn but my wrist hurts and the horse’s spooked and Paula is asking if I am OK and oh yea, I remember, I’ll get up first. Zum zum, process all that garbage about fear and self sabotage & oh yea, I remember. “If you fall off a horse, get right back on.” God how trite. I’m going to do it.
“Are you all right?” she asks again.
“Yea, it’s not so far down as when I was a kid,” and that’s what I realize ¡Doh! of course. That crooked old fear of falling runs away out of my mind, useless now. Paula rides Lightning around a little to quiet her down. I show here that the stirrup seems small and she agrees, apologizing, then I am going to try mounting again even with a small stirrup and Paula says “No no no, use the mounting block!” It was nice to put 4 lessons together a bit and lose myself feeling the horse and I move together. Then it is back to “heels down” and “look where you want to go” and “Knees bent” and “up straight” and I actually find that spot again and all is well and I am thinking, “I think I get it.”
My left wrist and hip hurt so it’s clear that I landed on that side first. Enough to wear a wrist brace, like I used to wear all the time. Everyone has advice on how to fall correctly. I take it off after a day and half.
Uh oh, it is pouring rain when we get up. It continues past the dawn hour—we can’t see any signs of sunrise. “Better check about riding,” says Suzanne as she goes off to work. I think about riding in rain gear and mud and decide I don’t really want to go. I call Paula. She says, “We’ve got hours yet, call me if it’s raining when you set off to get here.” It’s about a 15 minute drive. Shortly after the call the weather breaks and it’s so sunny that everyone comments on it. Lesson at 3, we’ve got 5 hours of drying things up before I am on my way, feeling happy now. OK, going riding!
OK, it’s Lightning again, English saddle and bridle—damn, what is so difficult about a bridle anyway? And a throat strap. We try out the new stirrups and I also have narrower shoes, not the clown shoes I usually wear. They fit! And off to the arena.
“Want to use the mounting block?” Nope, fall down & git up, I remember. I say, “Will you get on and I’ll watch where you hold?” So now I see, oh, grab the saddle edge. Then I and try she is as usual steadying the saddle a bit (and I realize spotting me) on the far side. When I reach to hold I have to grab the saddle where she is holding it, and I realize I’m bigger than most of her students. Hold left on mane and throat strap, right on saddle, bounce jump and lean & put that leg over. I’m on, without a hitch, except I sit down all upright and correct and right on my nuts and damn that hurts. I have to thankfully do some rising up and sitting down balancing practice before actually riding, so I can shake things to better position but damn I’ve still got that ache up in my abdomen and it hurts until I remember the mantra, and thank my nuts for still being there and working and reminding me to pay more attention. Must’ve only bothered me for thirty minutes or so. I realize I do get it. I am complimented on my ability to kick hard and asked to lighten up. She walks that way, encourage her and go “straight” with the other hand, she goes the way I want and we are both happy. Cool.
Unsaddling & all I learn that yes, most of her students are women and children & I’m a bit bigger than them. I ask if she read about the cougar sighted in the lot next to hers and she had not, but said her husband had heard strange noises and growling nearby for a few nights. Paula keeps sheep too, for their wool that she spins and knits into nice warm clothing, and I am now wondering if she shuts them up at night, like we do with chickens?
And I’m determined to study up on bridles.