On the Trail to my First Horse Part 2 – Getting Closer
by Juliet R. Harrison
After years in a mostly horseless world, I found myself at 30 years old, in Michigan with my husband, and in graduate school for photography. The school was just north of the State Fairgrounds. Each year that we were there, we would go to the Michigan State Fair and I’d find myself inexorably drawn to the horse show. Photography department friends and I with our cameras went down to a big draft horse exhibition that took place there as
well. For me, it felt like being reintroduced to myself. By thirty-two a tiny spark of recognition was lit. It was several more years before I could feed that fledgling flame. First, we graduated, moved back east and bought a home. I had a child. It is enough to focus my attention on.
When my son, Jackson, was just under two years old, I went back to work and we placed him in the care of a woman whose wonderful in-home day care was just blocks from the Rhinebeck Fairgrounds. Our drive each day took us near the back gate that opened right in front of the horse barns. One of the other parents mentioned that the barns were open to the public and that we would be welcome to walk around. That began the habit of taking my son over to the barn at the end of the day. There were few riding horses at the time as the barn mostly housed Standardbred Harness racing horses. They were owned by former jockeys and retired grooms, along with a few young owners/trainers with one or two horses. They were kind and welcoming to this horse starved woman and her little boy. They let us pet their horses, and showed us which ones we could share carrots and apples with. Like water on parched earth, I soaked it up. Jackson seemed to like being there, as well, and was quite good around the horses. We continued these visits for nearly 2 years.
By the time he was 5 or 6, I offered Jackson riding lessons. I was thrilled with the idea that he might be just the one to share my passion. Thanks to the local tack shop, which smelled wonderfully by the way, I was directed to an instructor who taught riding and was great with kids. One who taught Western, which is what my son believed he wanted. And wonderfully enough, she was at that same fairgrounds barn that we had been frequenting those years before, and….she was perfect. Nancy was full of lively humor and common sense. She completely understood the silliness and short attention span of my 5-year-old. Jackson did beautifully, at least until late fall, when riding outdoors no longer held much fascination and when Nancy said that it was time for him to ride off of the lunge line, to ride on his own. Suddenly the saddle on the 14.2 hand Rissa seemed very high off of the ground to him. And the trot he was asked to ride seemed somewhat out of control and frightening. He decided that he’d had enough of riding.
I was devastated. I was thriving on my once a week barn fix. I did not want to give it up. How could I? Then I had an epiphany. Jackson did not need to ride, I did. I needed to reclaim that part of myself long buried and newly resurfacing. I needed to ride! So for my 40th birthday, I booked myself a riding lesson at a nearby riding stable, one that offered the same hunter/jumper style riding of my youth. I booked a private lesson so that I would not embarrass myself too much. It had been 27 years since I had been up on a horse after all.
I arrived at the barn for that first lesson, scared to death. I had gone out the week before and bought myself a helmet, but I showed up that day in cowboy boots and basic black cotton leggings. I told the instructor, Susie, that although at one time I was jumping courses of 3 foot fences, I had not ridden in 27 years. She promised to be gentle and not expect too much that first time. At the mounting block, I had a moment of panic. I froze. I could not remember how to get on. The automatic muscle memory was gone. I had to think myself through the process, what foot and hand went where? But I did figure it out and I was on a horse again. I reminded Susie, no canter and no jumping! I guess it is kind of like what they say about bicycles, you never completely forget. My poor middle aged, much heavier, post pregnancy body had no muscle mass. But I was determined and I remembered. Slowly, I recalled the lessons and rules of riding and my bursting heart rejoiced. At the end of that first lesson Susie asked me to jump a cross rail. I remember now, looking at her like she was out of her mind, and then, I jumped!
I jumped right back into riding. I immediately signed up for a full series of group lessons. And for 3 years I rode weekly with a group of wonderful, mostly middle aged women. Some had ridden throughout their lives without stop. Some owned their own horses. Some began riding for the first time as adults and others, like me, were returning to the love of their youth. We shared ourselves with each other while we rode. We talked about movies and books. We rated local restaurants. We went out to eat and on road trips together, shared joys and tragedies, all from the backs of horses in the ring or out on the trails. Building friendships was as important as improving our riding skills. This weekly communing with horses and each other became so much a focus of my weeks. I quickly realized that my cowboy boots and leggings were not helping me ride. My dad offered to buy me some better riding clothes. I brought him to the tack shop where he immediately remarked that he had thought that he would never have to smell leather and horse odor again. Oh well, as he had supported the passion that frightened him during my childhood, he was doing so for me again.
Although I found favorites in Baron and Thatcher, both lovely big draft type horses, we were challenged to ride different horses all of the time. Honing our skills and learning to be versatile riders. It was not always easy riding, and sometimes demanded the confronting of fears that had developed with my time away from horses and the awareness of my age. Kids are so fearless. 40-year-old me, was not. I did end up with one bad fall. It was just a combination of mistakes that landed me in the ER with a fractured sinus. A minor injury. It was at the tail end of a class in the indoor arena, and we had all worked hard that day. I was on a big, somewhat green boy named Freckles. We’d had a good lesson, all of us, and the instructor told everyone to kick off their stirrups and relax while we cooled down. She had intended to say, but not Juliet. Unfortunately, I had already done it and wouldn’t you know, Freckles who still had lots of energy, took off at a gallop feeling those stirrups bumping his sides as if I were urging him to go faster. Here I am, tired already from a long class - without stirrups - careening about the indoor. All of my fellow classmates moved quickly into the center of the ring while we sped around the outside. At some point in what felt like our 4th or 5th time around, I realized that I would not be able to get my stirrups back and that I was not going to be able to stay on much longer. It seemed to me that I was either going to end up falling into the wall or under his hooves. I made a strategic choice and on the next go around a corner, I bailed off on the inside, clear of his hooves and the wall. I landed face down and my helmet visor hit dirt and pushed hard just above the bridge of my nose. I remember him stopping and looking down at me as if to say, “Hey, what are you doing down there? We were having so much fun!” Very shaken up and bruised, I went off to the hospital, calling a friend on the way, to ask her to pick my still young son up at school because my husband was working in the city at the time.
Although I kept riding, I lost a bit of confidence after the fall, and it raised a few concerns. Getting on an unknown horse started to rattle me. Jumping began to feel scary. Being in my 40s with a young child to take care of - suddenly I was not longer willing to take the kind of chances that I did as a child. I decided to start mixing in some Western riding lessons along with my weekly jumping. I thought that it might make me feel a bit safer. And of course, I would still be riding. I went back to the instructor who had been so great for Jackson, and I began to hang out at that wonderful fairgrounds barn again.
I balanced the lessons between the two disciplines for a while, but I was becoming less and less satisfied with taking lessons. I wanted that deeper relationship that was hinted at during my riding camp years, one that could not truly be received from riding school horses once a week. Whether the scare from the fall provided the perfect excuse, or it was just finally the “right time,” the idea of owning my own horse, my first horse, began to seed.