I have always love animals. All of them. Lizards? Cool mini dinosaurs. Snakes? Awesome danger noodles. Deer? Scared skinny puppies with antlers. Horses, giant doofy dogs. I was the kid that would sit for hours in the neighbors back field quietly watching fawns with their mother in the hopes of them ignoring me and coming closer. It worked. I was thrilled.
My earliest childhood was spent in the small suburbs of Cleveland. The only animals I saw on the regular were our two smelly but lovable Labs (OK one was an asshole who bit the neighbor’s kid but, the dog had effed up ears and a thyroid problem and we told the girl to not touch her because she was sensitive but, she did anyway so really, she kinda asked for it) and the occasional the neighbor’s cat and her seemingly endless litters of kittens. Our house was 900 square feet at best and our back yard was roughly the length of a 76′ Blazer and a 74′ Chevy Pickup Truck parked nose to tale and width of a 84′ aluminum swing set. I knew it wasn’t adequate for anything but the two lumbering dogs we currently had but, I asked for a pony for my birthday and Christmas every year anyway. I vaguely remember for what I think might have been a gift for my 5th or 6th birthday driving for what seemed like forever to a dusty horse farm to get to sit on a pony while a girl led me around for like 30 minutes. It was 30 minutes of pure unadulterated joy for me. On the ride home, my snarky ass sister grumbled that she was so glad she rode 2 hours to watch me sit on a pony and get led around in the heat for a half hour just like at the fair. I didn’t care. I was hooked. That 30 minutes of slow plodding around in a circle didn’t quench my thirst for riding it fed the fire.
When I was nine, my parents bought their first any only home in what my sister hatefully referred to as, “middle of nowhere”. I had to agree. It was a small ranch that was built in the late 60’s and still had all the original wallpaper and appliances but, it sat on 5 acres most of which were wooded or swampy and when the wind was right it smelled like cow shit from the dairy farm less than a mile away behind our property. We were culture shocked to say the least. There were no side walks and instead of places being blocks away they were miles, plural. My shock didn’t last long though. We had been there maybe a month when I realized, “Hey, there are HORSE farms all over this place,” and started with incessant pleading to take me to at least to try and ride. It took almost a year before they caved and asked around where they could take me for lessons. Big mistake, HUGE.
I was ten when I walked into that small ten stall barn and smelled the mix of conditioned leather, molasses, manure and horse sweat to have my first lesson. They fitted me with a helmet covered in black velvet and handed me the reins of a a small Morgan cross pony name Lady and had me walk her to the ring. My mother stood just outside the rail watching and knew from the stupid grin that stretched across my face that it was over. I was hooked and there was no going back. That first lesson I remember completely. There were 3 other kids most younger than me and apparently had plenty more experience but, I was a sponge that only had to be told once how or what to do. The woman that would become my trainer told my mom after the hour was up that I was a natural. That I had kept up with the other students that had been riding for months at that point. She told my mother the minimal gear I would need to comfortably ride and they made arrangements for me to come once a week every week for an hour group lesson with another group of kids closer to my age and a little more advanced in their skills to push me a little harder than the group I rode with that day. I could have died from happiness.
We went the next day to get me appropriate boots. I saw the look on my mother’s face when she looked around the small tack shop my trainer had recommended and the pricing of all the equipment. Even then, I knew we weren’t rich. I knew that riding boots, even the cheap rubber ones that cost $100 were a lot for my parents. But I was 10 years old and selfish like most children are at that age and WANTED this, bad. And I got it.
Weeks passed and I went from walking and trotting to cantering and jumping small cross poles in record time. In less than a year I was jumping small oxers, competing in beginners walk trot shows winning ribbons, doing hunter paces, and my trainer even took me on a few fox hunts. My parents paid for it how ever they could. Even they recognized that not only did it fill me with joy but, I was diligent. I worked hard at it and I was good because of it.
Once a week wasn’t enough though. I wanted more. I begged my parents to buy me a horse or pay for more lessons a week. As much as they would have loved too, we just really could not afford it so, my mother approached my trainer who was also the owner of the barn, and asked how I could EARN extra riding time. My trainer seeing my love and want to do whatever it took to get on a horse as often as possible seized that opportunity and said I could work around the barn for extra time. So my entire weekends were spent dropped off at dawn where I worked all morning and afternoon cleaning tack, scrubbing water buckets, throwing hay, sweeping floors, grooming school ponies and tacking them up for beginners lessons, teaching beginners how to groom and tack before their lessons started, mucking stalls, feeding, turning out, I even spent days working at a summer camp where she owned ponies… you name it eventually I worked my way up to doing it. And sometime before dinner, my trainer Sandy, would tell me what school horse or if I was lucky one of her personal horses could use a ride and tell me to have at it. For one bliss filled hour I got to lope around a ring on that horse. By the time I was in middle school, I was a fixture there at that place.
Sandy was an eccentric lady. She was harsh. She never sugar coated anything, ever. She didn’t hand out praise often and when she did, it was well earned. She made me a rider. She often bought horses in with the sole purpose of getting them in a little better shape to sell them. Some of them she bought just because how they looked; like they had potential. I was usually the guinea pig she plopped on them to see what they were like. Some were beautiful fluid beasts that weren’t at the barn long. Others bucked me around the ring until I was told “Just jump off!!” and dove into the sand to tuck and roll away. Each one made me a better rider capable of adjusting to different sizes, temperaments, and paces.
There was one horse, a mare named Stacy, that I remember riding so clearly. She had just come into the barn a week or so before and no one had ridden her yet. She was given time to adjust and relax in her new surroundings. She was a lithe dark bay mare thoroughbred that was meant to be a race house but just didn’t have the mentality for it. She was sweet and calm with big doe eyes and long delicate legs. It was summer time and I spent at least 5 days a week at the barn all day long. That afternoon after I had done all my daily tasks, Sandy told me to groom and tack her up to ride her and she was going to see what she could do. Sandy ended up giving me a free hour long lesson as she put this new mare though her paces. At one point she asked me to lengthen her stride trotting and moments later shouted out “Beautiful!” I beamed. Coming from that lady she might as well told me I was perfection on a horse. When my mom picked me up later that night, Sandy told her about me riding Stacy and how she was not an easy ride but, how I had made he look easy. She told my mom if I kept riding like that, I could be a serious contender in the Hunter Show ring. I could have skipped home across clouds. I rode Stacy every lesson after that for a month. Then one morning I was told someone was coming that afternoon to look at her. I groomed her to shine and cleaned my tack to match. I rode her for the woman that showed up later and must have impressed her because she bought the mare that same day. I wish I could say I wasn’t sad, but I was. It was a lesson though I had already learned ten times over though with previous ponies and horses. There would be others. I often asked my parents to buy this one or that one for me when I knew they weren’t expensive but, the answer was always no and I was OK with that. I still got to ride and really, that was all that mattered to me.
There was one time that I came almost close to getting my own horse. I was 12 and a girl I took lessons with’s parent’s were looking for a horse to buy her. Sandy brought in the flashy chestnut paint with 2 blue eyes. His show name was some french word that I can’t remember but, his barn name was Champ. I fucking LOVED this horse even though I didn’t get to ride him but once.
We were at a small unrated show at the local large farm. I was showing grudgingly in walk trot cross poles on a school pony that was for sale even though in my lessons I was jumping courses up to 3′ but, shows were exponentially more expensive above walk trot classes so there I remained. Plus, I was essentially helping to sell the pony I was one but, I didn’t care. What really mattered to me was that I was just there, riding. I didn’t need to compete and win ribbons to validate myself. I was there for the love of it. The girl, Katie, that had been looking at buying Champ, was a sweet freckle faced red head that was 2 or 3 years younger than me that I genuinely liked. We took lessons together and were friendly in big sister, little sister kind of way. This was a show she was bringing Champ to to test out how he was in that setting. Her parents buying him was all but a done deal… Until she got on him in that big arena with all the people and loud noises and lights. His nostrils flared, his eyes went wide and with a snort, they were off. Katie panicked and fell right off over his hind end. I was on my easy peasy schooling pony already and galloped off to catch the runaway riderless horse that I loved.
As I trotted back over with Champ in tow, I heard Sandy tell the now sobbing Katie she had to get back on. Katie refused. She, and her parents were done with Champ, I could tell. I was crestfallen. Gone were my hopes of riding him for Sandy in between Katie’s lessons to keep him fit and ready for her. Gone was my secret hope that I’d be the one they’d ask to ride him while they went on their many vacations.
Then oddly, Sandy sighed, knowing what I also knew and also not wanted to appear harsh in public (she would have forced the girl on the horse in private, she was ruthless in the ring at home) and said, “Christan, swap saddles. Katie is riding Suzy-Q. She needs to get back on and she doesn’t want to ride Champ so, you are. Gleefully, right there in the practice ring, I swapped our saddles and got Katie up comfortably on my steady, boring school pony. I held onto Champ while Sandy had Katie trot around a few times to calm her nerves, quiet her crying and get her confidence back. She had ridden Suzy countless times before and knew the pony well. Her relief at the familiarity was visible.
Meanwhile, Sandy turned her attention to me while Katie stood to the side on snoozing Suzy with her parents and mine. I hopped on Champ and the minute I was in the saddle, this horse had my heart. Nostrils flared, eyes wide, we were off before I had my foot in the second stirrup. I smiled like a manic because I loved a horse that loved to run. If they were a lazy mule that I had to constantly urge on, I was bored. I like the wind in my face. It was like flying. It took me less than half the ring to take him in hand and get him to a nice even canter, snorting with each stride. Sandy had me doing ground work; circles with lead changes, serpentines and transitions. Then she had me try a few small jumps. Then she raised them. Then she had me do a short course. Then she raised them again. And again. It was easy for me. I did this practically every day on a different horse everyday. This time there were just a bunch of people around and the ring was bigger. I didn’t know it at the time but, all the people in the practice ring had stopped to watch the scrawny blond child with big glasses ride the shit out of that flashy spooked horse. I was just doing what I loved.
My mother actually saw a patient from the doctor she worked for at that show. Her name was Helen and she was a small fun lady with short spiky hair whose stocky horse’s name ironically was Suzy. She was chatting with my mom when all this went down. Later my mother told her that she said she couldn’t believe how I rode that horse. My mom laughed and said, “Yeah, she’s never been on him before now. She likes the crazy ones.” My mom had no idea how impressed that lady was.
I rode Champ that day in walk/trot/cross poles, because that’s what Katie and I had both signed up for. He was already lathered for our extensive warm up when I walked him into the ring still snorting and twitchy. Keeping him at a trot after cantering balls to the wall around a course that I later found out was 3′-6″ tall mostly was… a challenge but, I did it. I was given a 4th place ribbon. When the woman that was announcing and presenting the ribbons handed me mine she quietly said, “You, my dear, need to ride that guy in a course with much bigger jumps next time and you’ll take the blue for sure”.
I knew better than to ask my parents to buy me Champ. We couldn’t afford that kind of cost upfront let alone the month cost of keeping him even if I worked to help pay for it. Several people approached my trainer that day asking about Champ. One was my father. Even he loved that crazy eyed spooky beast. Sandy gave him first chance to buy and offered him a smoking deal because she liked me, he still had to ultimately say no though. Someone else bought him. They never even rode him, their decision, I was told, mainly based on seeing me ride him that day. My heart broke a little more and I never saw him again. My mom told me later how my dad had contemplated trying to buy him for me. That meant enough.
I went to different trainers. Changed disciplines from the even beauty of Hunters to faced paced, break-neck turns of the Jumper circuit. I rode some crazy horses and eventually found a quarter horse named Beastly AKA Beast to lease my junior year of high school. He had grown fat and out of shape, almost sway backed, since his owner had gone to college. She loved that horse and I don’t think she really wanted to let someone else ride him but, she knew he needed the exercise and she needed someone to help off set his cost of living while she was at college. I loved that horse. I hope she knows I loved him like he was my own. He was unfaltering. You could throw a kick ball at his trotting legs and he didn’t even bat an eyelash as the rubber ball careened around him. He liked soda and would try and steal my bottle of Mountain Dew from my hand to drink them. He would eat anything. I was standing by his temp stall at a horse show once after competing eating a snack bar hotdog not paying attention and he stole it right out of my hand and ate it like some kind of weird cannibal horse. We started slow, taking our time working off his chubby belly and strengthening his back muscles back up to make sure he was fit for jumping and the strain of it. By the time he was back in fighting condition, he had learned my weaknesses and exploited them mercilessly. If he was done with me being in charge he’d wait until just the right moment and duck he shoulder and stop just short of a jump or turn sending me sailing over his head if I wasn’t paying close enough attention. My trainer Stef started calling me crash. Beast taught me to how fall without getting hurt. Sometimes when he sensed that I was just a little too comfortable, he’d take off at breakneck speed just to keep me on my toes. I rode him exclusively for almost 2 years before I left for college. His owner ultimately ended up selling him to at really sweet woman at our barn. She bought him for her husband to occasionally take on trail rides with her. I was told he was well loved buy his new owners. Trails were always where Beast really shined brightest. I think it was a perfect and happy ending to his career really.
After that, riding fell to the wayside for me. College took precedence. Then I dropped out. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing or what I wanted to do. My last trainer who was only a few years older than me, had become my friend while she taught me and remained so. When she heard I was back home and some shiftless lay about trying to figure out life, she told me the trainer she was now a rider for needed a groom and I got the job. I spent almost a year physically toiling aways for that man. I didn’t particularly like him but, I loved my friend who was the pro-rider for him, I loved the 30 some horses I took care of and I even really liked the owners of the horses. But, I was grossly under paid and I got burnt out physically. I enrolled at a small remote branch of a local university and quit shortly after. That was my last real time spent around horses. Riding, while it was my passion and true love for years, is expensive. Hunting on horse back used to be known as the sport of Kings. I’d like to think it’s because every little thing you need to do it cost a small fortune. I have missed it everyday since the last time I sat on a horse. I remember all my experiences so fondly, even the bad ones. Sometimes especially the bad ones. Like when I my first trainer had trusted me, a 13 year old girl, to do some of the turn outs while she was gone for a few days in the summer with the understanding I would ride X, Y and Z horse only those days as payment for my help. During a summer rain storm when the barn adult barn had wasn’t there, I was trying to bring in a horse that I was NOT supposed to handle but, because a tree branch had knocked down a portion of fence of the pasture he was in I had to. The sweet boy was so good for me as I brought him across the parking lot until a tarp covering straw broke loose and flapped in his face and he literally yanked my arm out of the socket. He walked quietly to his stall while I sobbed holding his lead with one hand as my left hung oddly sagging at my side. The there was only one other girl there to ride her horse who was a year older than me. She started crying when I made her yank my arm back into place. It was a terrible idea and I almost passed out and may have heaved a little. I then threatened t kick her ass if she told anyone. I was afraid my mother would let me go to the barn alone anymore and my trainer wouldn’t trust me do do anything with her horses without her being around. I was young and stupid and my left should still occasionally clicks and pops funny to this day. I have no regrets. Not so fun fact, my first trainer when on to MURDER her husband. The last I had heard she was in prison for it. She plead self defense but, apparently lost the case and was convicted. I tried doing a search online for details and couldn’t find any so, I don’t know if it’s true or not. It had been over a decade and a half since I had been to her farm so I was far removed at that point.
About 3 years ago, I went with a friend to take her little daughter to her riding lesson in Virginia. As I walked in the barn and that familiar leather, cedar, sweat and manure smell hit me, it was like coming home. Tears streamed down my face as I laughed and apologized. I tried to explain but, it’s hard to put into words that feeling to someone that hasn’t had it. The young girls working there gave me knowing looks though as they directed the 5 year olds to which pony would be theirs that morning. I knew I had missed it but, until that moment I hadn’t realized how much. Maybe one day when I don’t have the debt I do from school and have a little extra cash, i’ll buy a failed track horse to just be a fun project that I lope around fields for fun with. Nothing could make me smile more than that idea.
I could write a novel on my experience riding. The joy it brought me. The sense of accomplishment and confidence it instilled in me. I was a gawky, scrawny, nerdy child with braces and glasses that could barely dribble a basket ball and couldn’t run a race successfully if my life depended on it but, if you put me on any horse, I could ride the hell out of it no matter what kind of wild eyed beast or flea bitten nag it might be. If you put me on a horse, I sat a little taller and felt more pride than I had ever felt before or since for that matter. For those brief moments in my life, astride an animal easily ten times my size, I was in charge and a force to be reckoned with.
God, I miss everything about it.
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