On the Trail to My 1st Horse Part 1
by Juliet R. Harrison
Maybe it began at age 5, this obsession of mine. That is the age when I can point to a moment of recognition, some evidence of the affliction. Fellow victims of the malady say that we must have been born with it. That it is genetic, ancestral. I can find no such link in my heredity, but I can’t dispute that possibility. Only that I remember the manifestation on that early birthday. I was given a pocket-sized hardcover book, published in England, filled with pages of black & white photographs of every horse breed known at the time and I recognize that moment as a beginning.
I have been told that when I crawled, I galloped and neighed. But I have also been told that when strangers were at the door, I greeted them on hands and knees barking. Obviously, something animalistic was going on.
For years after receiving it, I would pour over the pages of that little book of horse breeds, memorizing details and choosing favorites. Was it the Arabian? The American Mustang? The Brabant or Orlov Trotter? Different horses for different purposes. Useful and beautiful. What is that phrase spoken about a well-loved, well-read book – dog eared? Mine would be “horse eared” thank you very much. I still have that treasured volume. It will probably be one of my last possessions. I can think of nothing more defining or beloved. I need to remember to tell my son to be sure that I have it with me in the nursing home when it comes time for that.
I remember a pony ride, my first pony ride. I don’t know how old I was, but I would bet that it was close to the same 5th birthday. Saddled ponies were in a large grassy ring, walking in circles, and guided by what appeared to me as not quite grown-ups leading them around. They probably were what could be found in every barn at the time, what I was to become, obsessed young girls who would do anything to be around a horse. What I remember most about that first ride, was my uncontrollable excitement as I waited in line for my turn. My complete and utter pride when I was placed in the saddle, and…..my abject terror, when the pony stopped to stretch and pee. I believe that I screamed to my parents to come and get me, mystifying the young girl leading the poor pony. My father rescued me right away and so you have it, my rather conflicted love of horses.
Like every other horse loving child, the top of every birthday and holiday list, the most wanted gift, was always a horse. The gift that was yearned for but never received. We lived in a developer house in a residential neighborhood on Long Island. I was the child of city raised academics. We lacked for nothing we needed, but there was little for extravagant extras. Years later I was to learn that my parents were both afraid of horses. They never let on. They never deterred me from riding. I am still absolutely astonished by that.
Next up on the timeline of my equestrian career was West Hills Day Camp. I have to admit that I hated most aspects of camp. Hated the food, team sports, swimming lessons, and the moldy/stinky locker room. I did enjoy the pond stocked with goldfish, rowboats, and fishing poles. If you caught something, the pond counselors, cute boys I seem to remember, would carefully remove the hook and you could take it home. I recall two or three fish added to my tank at home. Frisky was one that lived a very long time. There were guitar lessons, right handed for this left handed child, and campfire songs. There was also subtle teasing and outright bullying. But there was one thing, one thing about day camp that made all of the rest worth living though. There were horses. Horses! And not just ponies led in a circle. These were full sized horses. There were riding lessons and nothing else mattered. I cannot recall if we groomed the horses or tacked them up. I seem to remember them being tied to the fence waiting ready in bridle and saddle. I can still feel myself ducking under fence rails, walking into the ring, fixing the stirrups, untying the rope, leading the horse off of the rail, and climbing up into the saddle. I loved it! I was riding. I was touching, smelling, and communing. I can’t remember how many years I went to day camp. Two or more, I am sure. I did learn to swim, sort of, and to play the guitar, right handed. Most importantly, I indulged in my passion for horses, but not completely. Those horses were never turned loose when we were around. We were not expected to do more than ride them. So, I guess in truth, real horse interaction was kept at arm’s length. I doubt that I was conscious of that at the time, I just reveled in every moment that I got and that was enough.
Not long after my day camp years, my parents realized that this horse thing was not going to just go away. Or maybe they realized that they wanted a summer to themselves again. When I was ten or eleven, they sent my sister and I to the Catskills to sleep away riding camp for the summer. Short of giving me my own horse, this was the best of gifts. The camp gave me the responsibility for a Welsh Mountain pony for the two summers that we were sent there. Ginger was a strawberry roan gelding of sweetness and talent. It was at Glen Durham that I was really taught about horses. They followed the 4H protocols and lessons. We had to know all of the parts of the horse and how to care for it. The parts of the bridle, saddle, and driving harness. How to take them apart, clean them, and put them back together, and we were tested on it. We learned to ride English and Western, even some Saddleseat. How to jump and to drive. We did trail riding, overnight camping with our horses and drill team. Yes, there were even swimming lessons, but for most of us, those just counted as taking a shower each day. We had to find the ponies when they got out of the pasture and bring them back. That was sometimes a whole day’s worth of activity. They had shows for us at the camp and took us to shows in the area, so that we were competing with a variety of riders and horses. For two summers, I owned my Ginger pony. Even though we had to ride other horses, Ginger was not only mine to care for, he was also my favorite to ride. My first time jumping was that first year, and it was a knock-down-and-out class in the camp show. I rode Ginger to a second place ribbon. He was as much caretaker of me as I was of him. When they decided not to send me back again, I begged my parents to buy me Ginger. Sure in the knowledge that no one else would love and care for him as I would, but they refused.
Instead of sending me back to camp, they signed me up for riding lessons at a local hunter/jumper barn. I did not last there very long I did not have the right clothes, I did not own my own horse, and I was an all-purpose rider, which was not the thing at Thomas’ School of Horsemanship. I didn’t make any friends. I remember a few disappointing shows there, and one bad fall that shook me up a bit. I recall it with a bit of humor now. It was what we then called an in and out combination, no stride between jumps. The horse jumped the first one but refused the second. I went over the second jump by myself, with the bridle but no horse. If I remember correctly, we did not tack up our own horses there either. The horse’s name was Romeo. Romeo ditched Juliet. I do remember that my mom was there that day. I can’t imagine how upset she must have been. But she did not share it with me. Thank you, mom.
Two summers after Glen Durham, I lobbied for and was sent to the Vershire Riding School in Vermont for half of the summer. Like my first camp, this was a seriously good training ground for riders. Vershire was run by Peg Wright, and is still in existence today. Vershire was, and is, an eventing focused program. It was there, on my horse for the summer, Rusty, that I learned Dressage and Cross Country. I found I was fascinated by Dressage and the quiet control needed for it. While, stadium jumping was exciting and fast, cross country was more challenging to me. I don’t think that I ever felt very comfortable riding at speeds over jumps with no give, out in the open. It was a wonderful program, but I was only there for 4 weeks before I was gathered up for a road trip with family to Nova Scotia. I hated leaving, but I was 14 and contiguous with the riding camp, was a general camp. And that one had boys. And if I am to be honest with myself, I believe it was the boys that I met and my fellow rider/boy crazy compatriot that I missed the most when I left. Leaving Vershire signaled the end of my riding youth. Like many a horse crazy young girl without her own horse to keep the connection going, passion for riding morphed into passion of a different sort.
It would be 26 years before I would ride again. 29 years before I would actually buy my first horse. But I would be remiss if I left you assuming that horses disappeared completely from my soul. Nothing that central could. Road trip landmarks were always horse farms, and I would crane my head to look in every horse van or trailer I passed on the road. Western dramas on TV were a favorite, as they always had lots of horses to drool over. My clothing style became leather and cowboy boots. If I could have found a household scent that smelled like a barn, I would have sprayed it. I also continued to collect plastic Breyer horses long into adulthood. I may have put my obsession on a back burner, but I never let it go. I believe that many women do this with things that they loved as children, but that is an essay for another day.