Here’s a fun fact about me: I turn 60 this year, and I just bought a horse. That might not sound like a big, brave challenge to someone who’s ridden all her life. But I hadn’t so much as set a foot in a stirrup in 20 years.
I’m convinced I was born loving horses. When I was 5, I had to be forcibly dragged out of a department store because of Blaze.
Blaze was a realistic-looking molded rocking horse who whinnied when you pulled his string. Having seen him, my heart said it couldn’t live without him. Alas, Blaze was not an inexpensive toy. And my parents were not made of money. He became a dream unfulfilled.
It’s possible to find a horse who’s been trained to near-perfection. But a horse is what his rider makes him.
Another thing my parents couldn’t afford, and this will date me: It cost a princely $20 a month to board a real, live horse. This was beyond our means. I did get to take riding lessons growing up. But it was not quite the same as a horse of my own.
Cody, the Unruly
Fast forward 20 years. I’d moved to the small town of Cambria, Calif. after living in big cities (not the best places for a horse). Plus, I was struggling with other issues that made it hard to be responsible, present and brave; in February 1989, I beat those issues, joined more than one 12-step program and began a lifestyle of recovery, sober and clean.
One of my first moves in recovery was to buy a horse. But there’s a reason why program people advise against huge, life-changing decisions in your first year.
I didn’t make the best choice.
I fell in love with Cody from the highway. I drove by his pasture every day, and he won my heart. But there’s only so much you can know about a horse from that distance. I realize now that I fell in love with his looks. He was a blanket appaloosa, with wonderful white splotches on his butt and a flowing brown mane. I think I loved the idea of him. Which is usually a good way to get yourself into trouble.
When I stopped to inquire and found that Cody’s owner was open to selling him, it seemed like a match made in heaven. I was not dissuaded by the fact that he was more pony than horse, borderline small for me. When I learned he was 2 ½ years old and only halter-broke (in other words, no one had yet been on his back), I still didn’t reconsider.
Sounds like the opening to a story of great disaster. But Cody was not a disaster. He was a challenge, but we made our way. I gentled him; I rode him. I bounced off the ground a couple of times (OK, three times) but we worked things out.
Still, he was not the right horse for me. He was excitable and spooky. To Cody, every paper napkin or plastic bag blown from the highway was a vicious demon determined to eat ponies. I never once had a fun, relaxing ride on him. I was always afraid.
When I turned 40, I sent Cody to live at a riding facility for the disabled. I half-jokingly told people, “I bought him for my inner child. Now I’m in touch with my inner adult, who thinks this is a lot of work and dangerous to boot.” I had just launched a serious career as a writer. I couldn’t afford the drain on my time. I couldn’t afford full-service board. At the time I couldn’t even afford health insurance.
Riding was an idea whose time had gone.
Getting Back in the Saddle
Even then, though, I always had a plan on the back burner to do it again someday. This time I would choose differently. I would get a bombproof horse. The kind of horse that, if you shot off a canon near him, would twitch his ear and ask if someone was talking to him.
Meanwhile I embarked on other challenging endeavors such as peak hiking, kayaking and trying to make a living writing fiction.
I remember the moment when I knew I wanted to be a horse owner again. A couple of years ago, I was hiking up the side of a steep, strenuous incline. I stopped to breathe. I looked up at the crest of the trail, hundreds of vertical feet above me, and realized I wouldn’t want to do this forever. In 10 years I wouldn’t take on such a strenuous hike. I could hike for many years, maybe always in defiance of my age, but over time I would find myself out on the trail less, not more.
Unless I could ride up to the top of that rise.
I began to look into how one could more safely and wisely buy the right horse for her needs.
I have to inject at this point what almost every horse owner knows: there is no such thing as a truly bombproof horse. Everybody wants a horse who’s perfect, who will make no false moves and never, ever, do anything to help his rider fall. It’s possible to find a horse who’s been trained to near-perfection. But a horse is what his rider makes him. Once a new owner gets on his back and confuses, frightens or irritates him, the perfection they witnessed on the first ride will quickly evaporate. To have a near-perfect horse, you have to be a near-perfect rider.
I was anything but. And I sensed that the ground had gotten harder in the intervening 20 years.
So how could I do this safely? Could I do this safely? Maybe, I decided, but probably not without help.
I called a woman I’d met decades before in a woman’s self-defense class. She trains horses and riders about half an hour from my home. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better expert. She’s a gold medalist in dressage, and has trained seven of her horses to Grand Prix level. Even though I don¹t aspire to anything so lofty, I figured if anybody knew how to communicate with a horse, it was Barbi.
I told her my dilemma. I wanted a safe horse, but I didn’t trust myself to choose one. Plus, I knew that to own a good, safe horse I had to be a good, safe rider.
She made a suggestion that settled everything: come out to her ranch, more or less right away, and begin taking lessons. After all, I was about to start shopping for a horse. Which tends to involve getting on a horse. Did I really want that to be the first time I’d swung a leg over a saddle in 20 years?
A Perfect Match
First I rode a dozen times on her lovely, quiet lesson horse, Chance. He really helped build my confidence.
Then I rode three horses, who all were for sale. The third won my heart, but for all the right reasons this time. He’s almost 14. Not an immature baby. He has a loving, puppy-dog-like personality. He’s cool-headed and mellow. His last rider was a 7-year-old girl. That helped. I figured if she could do it, so could I.
He’s big. That gave me pause. At 16.3 hands, his withers come up to my forehead, which makes that harder-than-it-used to be ground farther down than ever. But I decided it’s less about a few extra inches to the ground and more about whether the horse intends to put me there.
I rode him three times. Barbi came out and met him and gave us a thumbs-up for being a likely good match. We arranged a vet check. A week ago Saturday I brought him home.
I named him Nathan, after the steadfast and dependable character in my novel, When I Found You.
We have a lot of work still to do.
We’ll work it out together.
Worth the Risks
Now for the big question: Wouldn’t a woman my age be safer at home in her easy chair? Yes. And no. Being too sedentary comes with great risks, too. So does driving on the highway to the ranch where I board him. In fact, driving is probably the most dangerous thing I do every day. But I drive. I insure my car; put on my seatbelt. Drive defensively. Obey the traffic laws. All the reasonable precautions. Then I don’t let fear run my life.
When riding Nathan, I wear an equestrian helmet. I listen to my instructor. She tells me what she thinks we’re ready for, and I trust her judgment.
Today we rode in the big arena for the first time, Barbi riding alongside on one of her massive Dutch warmblood dressage horses. Nathan did well. He knew I was pleased with him, which made him happy and proud. And relieved. Being a good boy in the eyes of his rider means a lot to him.
And now when I come to take him out, he whinnies to me. And I don’t even have to pull a string.
All I know is, I never got that feeling in my easy chair.