My First Time Horseback Riding
As Johnny nuzzled and pestered for treats, I soon discovered horses aren’t so different from the love-sponge golden retrievers I had at home.
There was no good reason why, at age 44 and a former farm boy, I had never ridden a horse. Somehow, the opportunity had just never presented itself.
The truth is there weren’t a lot of horses on west Dufferin farms in the sixties and seventies. Apart from “them rich city folk who had nothing better to throw their money away on,” people kept large animals for eating, not riding – for how they looked in a roasting pan, not under a saddle.
So my childhood riding experience was limited to one memorable occasion. My father, imbued with the sort of confidence only a farmer with a fresh batch of homemade potato wine can possess, took it upon himself to demonstrate hog riding.
The tour across the barnyard, while dramatic, wasn’t pretty. Hat in one hand, pig neck in the other, he and the unwitting sow developed a remarkable velocity. Until they reached the stone foundation of the barn – when the pig, squealing in apparent delight, stopped dead, firing dear old dad like a missile off its back, head first into the wall.
If I remember right, the swine-equine adventure resulted in stitches, and likely the mother of all hangovers. But I digress.
It came as something of a surprise when, for Christmas, my wife Brandy gave me riding lessons. Species appropriate ones, that is.
I had mentioned once in passing that I’d like to be able to ride, but it was one of those flippant remarks that you – okay, I – sometimes make, comfortable in the knowledge I’d never have to go through with it. For months after receiving the gift, I stalled. I had this idea that somehow it would slide off the agenda. No such luck. Eventually, Brandy, claiming she wanted to learn too, went ahead and booked our first lesson. I think she just wanted to make sure I actually went.
Way back in my late teens, when I tried downhill skiing for the first time, I had ended up splayed ungracefully horizontal at mid-hill. A girl of perhaps seven or eight swooped up, expertly pulling to a stop, snow crystals spraying. “Are you all right, mister?” she asked. Whatever wounds I’d incurred as a result of my apparently spectacular fall were replaced instantly by a mortal blow to my teenaged ego. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
With that memory still stinging, I imagined myself being dragged around a riding arena by my stirrup-trapped foot, getting kicked in the head repeatedly while angelically evil little girls giggled on their perfectly-controlled mounts.
We paid extra for private lessons.
Greyden Farms is tucked away in a pretty little spot south of Hillsburgh. As we pulled up outside the barn, a paddock full of horses gathered to look us over. It reminded me of recess in the schoolyard. “Ha, ha. Look at the new kid,” they seemed to be saying. “You throw him off, I’ll kick him.”
Krista Breen had been at Greyden Farms for ten years. An Equine Canada certified instructor, Krista is also the author of four children’s books about horses. After gearing us up with helmets (thankfully, mine didn’t have a nerdy little black peak), Krista took us through the barn and into the riding arena. Along the way, she asked if we were on a “riding date.” I was seeing it more as a middle-aged couple doing something foolish, but I suppose in fact we were.
In the arena, another couple was gliding around on their mounts, looking all peaceful and relaxed. This was good. Riding up, they told us they’d been at it for a few months and, passing us the reins, mentioned that soon they’d be trying their first jump. This was bad. Images of these huge animals spontaneously leaping over things, with us as unwilling participants, filled both our minds with dread.
Surprising how big horses are when you get up close. Brandy’s was named Perky, causing momentary anxiety until Krista explained that she was given the name because, in fact, she wasn’t. Mine was named Johnny. A five-year-old gelding, he looked me up and down, and gave a bemused little snort.
There was a box to step up on, so even old fogies like us could successfully navigate their way onto the horse’s back.
I confess the first few seconds felt very foreign. How could the experience of riding on another living creature’s back not feel weird? It passed with remarkable speed, however. Within a minute or two, things felt fine.
Clockwise circles around the arena, walking. This is the gas. These are the brakes. Hold the reins like this. Steer like that. The slow, undulating movement became familiar, easy.
While Johnny and I were off and away, Perky lived up to her contrary name. Her preference was to move slowly, or not at all, and Brandy learned an early lesson to be firm when applying the gas.
Strange how actually seeing your wife in leather boots with a whip in her hand is just not the same as you might (or might not) have imagined. In this particular case, the fantasy was shattered by the way Brandy’s face turned blue from forgetting to breathe, she was so focussed on remaining astride the horse.
The hour-long lesson was over in the blink of an eye. After riding, we led the horses back to the barn, and began to learn how to remove their gear and brush them. In some ways, this was the best part. As Johnny nuzzled and pestered for treats, I soon discovered horses aren’t so different from the love-sponge golden retrievers I had at home.
The much-anticipated calamity never came. Lulled into a (likely false) sense of security, we were inspired to continue our lessons. Krista, clearly experienced in the art of teaching old-fools-who-think-they-can-learn-to-ride, introduced us to new skills at a mercifully slow pace.
At this point, I would like to reflect on a new disease: arseitis. Yes, arseitis, sister disease to arthritis, but affecting only a very specific portion of the body. It’s caused by sitting on the back of a trotting horse when you don’t know how.
I learned about this ailment, unforgettably, during lesson two. The symptoms include extreme pain that radiates from the deepest recesses of bone to the tiniest nerve endings of skin. It lasts for days. It produces fervent vows about horseback riding of the sort you make about drinking when you have a hangover: “Please, God, I’ll never do it again. Just make it go away.”
It’s been more than a year now since our first lesson. Krista has moved on to other things and Carole Kuhlberg has ably taken over the teaching reins. Riding lessons have become the highlight of my week. My improvement is slow, but measurable. I can put on a saddle, bridle and halter. I can trot up a storm, arseitis free. And Johnny, having long-since figured out that I’m an easy mark, starts looking for treats the minute he lays eyes on me.
Part of growing older seems to be an increasing need for control. We take fewer chances, leave less and less to fate. But I understand why horses are being used for psychotherapy these days. There is something exhilarating about being forced to surrender control – of going, ultimately, on nothing more than faith and trust in a creature many times your size. When that trust is rewarded (i.e., you survive), it restores some small part of the wonder of the world.
Besides, now that I can sit down again, it also makes a great date.