My sister and I have been talking about horses over the last days. Actually, my sister often talks to me about horses. She was one of those little girls who fell in love with the animals when she was around eight or so, and never fell out. She drew pictures of horses on lined notebook paper. She got little horse statues as gifts the time she wrecked her sled and had to go tot he hospital and have things like kidneys, spleen, and appendix either repaired or removed. She brought horse books home from the library. And when I was just about four, our parents purchased a vile-tempered Shetland stallion for us to ride on.
His name was Chief. We got the horse before we got any tack, so Dad, who was clever with his hands, decided he would make us a hackamore. I suspect his decision was driven as much by the fact that we lacked the necessary hardware for a bridle as it was by the fact that a hackamore looks a good deal like a halter. How a hackamore actually works is still something of a mystery to me. I have heard that they work by a) pinching off the horse’s nose so it can’t breathe, or b) by pushing a rope or chain up under the horse’s chin and annoying it into stopping.
I don’t know if either school of thought is correct, because our hackamore didn’t work. At all. In fact, it fell apart the first time the unlucky rider tried to stop Chief, who had set off cross-country at a choppy trot. When the hackamore fell apart he escalated into a bone-jarring, crowhopping run, downhill.
Dad reluctantly conceded that there might be slightly more to hackamore construction than he had realized, and bought us a bridle. Chief’s temper wasn’t improved by having a cold chunk of steel shoved in his mouth. This would have all been academic to me, except that Dad was determined to get his money’s worth out of Chief. That meant that when he wrestled Chief into submission and bridled him, all of us were by golly going to ride.
In the beginning I was very down with this plan–I admired Pam a great deal, and because she loved horses I wanted to love them, too. When Dad said it was my turn and lifted me onto Chief’s razor-sharp back (we had no saddle) I was initially pleased. I rode happily while Dad led Chief down our driveway to the top of the hill, then turned him around and led him back. And then Dad decided that I should solo.
The first time I gamely gave it a shot. I took the reins in my four-year-old hands and Chief and I started walking down the driveway. All went well until we neared the top of the hill. Chief scented the mares at his pasture down the hill, and picked up the pace.
“Turn him around,” Dad yelled from the other end of the driveway.
I pulled on the rein. Chief’s head bent around toward my knee, but he trotted on. And then he was crowhopping, and galloping, desperate to return to the mares down the hill.
It took him about three jumps to have me off his back and on my head in the driveway.
That was enough for me. Dad walked past me down the hill, short-circuited Chief’s amorous plans, and hauled him back up the hill, retrieving me on his way back to our starting point. And then he put me back on Chief’s back (over my loud, tearful protests that “I don’ wanna ride anymore. I never wanna ride again!” and we went through the whole routine again.
At the time it felt cruel. Even now I have to wonder about the wisdom of putting small children onto an uncut stallion who was, to put it charitably, “almost green-broke.” Even Dad gave up, got rid of Chief, and bought us Honey Dew, a mare of Welsh extraction who, while she was strong-minded, wasn’t out to actively lobotomize us using driveway gravel as her surgical implement of choice.
In the years since Chief I have often reflected on how he changed my life–and he did change it. For one thing, I have never lost the fear of horses I learned in my short, disastrous rides down our driveway. I admired my sister immensely, so I talked a good game. Moreover, I love the idea of horses a great deal. It’s their reality that frightens me. I love those horse stories where a girl trains a foal and they become boon companions. I love leaning on the fence and rubbing horses under their chins. But I can’t do more.
The other way that Chief changed my life was perhaps more subtle. He and Dad, between them, taught me that the pain of failure didn’t excuse me from trying again. Had the pony been someone other than Chief, I suspect that Dad’s insistence that I “get back on the horse” would have been wise. But the reality was that we had Chief. No matter how many times Dad put me weeping and snuffling onto his back, Chief was always going to pitch me on my head right at the point where our driveway had been dug up to install our water line. And so it was that while Dad was trying to teach me, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” the lesson I learned was, “If at first you don’t succeed, try again. And if you don’t succeed then, give up. No point in being a damfool about it.”
So is there a moral? Not really. Horses only factor in my life when I visit my sister, or talk to her on the phone. I still admire her immensely. She still rides. She still trains horses. They are the language of her soul. And for a long time I felt shame because I didn’t speak that language. Chief’s brain surgery worked–the part of my head that held that language was apparently mashed flat in one of my many falls. I am equine illiterate.
But here’s the thing. I listen to my sister talk about riding, and I hear the joy in her voice, and I see the horses following her across the pasture, heads bobbing, seeking nothing but her company. I look at the pictures she sends of her foals, with their kinky little manes and tails and their impossibly long legs, and I realize that horses hold a joy for her–and they might have for me, if I hadn’t learned to be afraid so very early on.
I’m fifty now, a fat lady living in a small house in town. Horses are not in my future. And there’s a part of me that finds that a little bit sad. Not sad enough to get on a horse, you understand, never that–but sad enough to not want fear to limit the choices I have now. Sad enough to be willing to let my son play contact sports, even though I know he might get hurt. Sad enough to see to it that when he plays he has safety gear, and coaches who understand that “getting back on the horse” is only a good idea sometimes–sometimes it’s smart to sit out a few turns–or buy another horse.