Life

The Day I Gave Up Riding Forever

When I was a child, I developed an obsession with horses.

This was rather unfortunate, as I came from the kind of background where girls didn’t get to have horses. There was never enough money for anything much. Horses were not going to come to me, so I went to them. I hunted them out. I hung around where they were. I shamelessly befriended girls with ponies when it was actually their ponies I really wanted to be friends with. I savored everything, not just the intoxicating thrill of actually riding one of these magical creatures. There was the smell of the leather mixed with the smell of horse, the feel of fluffy golden straw under my feet, the stuffed hay-nets and the strange language of this exciting new world: martingales, jodhpurs, eggbutt snaffles, cavallettis. I let my obsession swallow me up.

I made myself useful, soaked up knowledge, learned to ride and bided my time; a mini-tourist with aspirations of residency. Teenagedom arrived, and with it the opportunity to earn money. Babysitting, childminding, paper rounds. Enough to keep a horse? I would peer into my jam jar of coins and bank notes and indulge in wildly optimistic mental arithmetic. I begged and pleaded with my poor mother, until one day she broke and reluctantly gave me permission to get a horse on loan on the condition I funded it myself. One-hundred-percent. Miraculously, incredibly, the dream suddenly became real. The dream horse came up on loan. A kindly farmer took pity on the scruffy child on her bashed-up bike who came knocking and offered me a field and stable for free.

Everything came together beautifully, and I spent a couple of years in horse-on-a-shoestring nirvana. It was the happiest, most care-free, most alive time of my life. I had a bond with that horse which was better than anything I could ever have imagined, and I had spent many years imagining.

When his owners finally decided to sell him, I was offered first refusal. My heart sank at the price because I knew straight away it was over and there was nothing me or my horse could do about it. I buried my face in the mane of this extraordinary, trusting, wise creature one last time, and I thanked him, told him I was sorry and that he was loved. I watched as he was loaded up and driven away.

Life moves on, and so did I. Boyfriends, college, university, a career, babies. I kept a halter hidden away for years to remind me I wasn’t done with horses, they were just shelved for later. Much later, as it turned out.

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(flickr.com/vidrio)

One day I found myself middle-aged, financially solvent and with the facilities to do horses again. The time had come. The teenage girl in me was thrilled. She set it all up like she never could before. The stables were fabulous. The paddock was picture-book pretty. The tack room was filled with the kind of goodies she had once lusted after, nose pressed up against the window, on the outside looking in. Then came the horse. A beautiful black mare, just what she would have chosen. I thoroughly over-indulged the impoverished girl in me, and reveled in her excitement. Everything should have been perfect. Except it wasn’t.

To my shock and horror, I discovered I didn’t actually enjoy riding anymore. It didn’t feel right and it didn’t feel safe. There were too many cars on the roads. The tarmac looked hard and far away. The teenage girl was incredulous, stamped her foot and said, “Ride through it, silly old woman.” And I did try to ride through it for months, with older bones in a stiffer body, which I knew would land heavily, should the worst happen.

I tried to get to that place again, where nothing mattered, just me and my horse, but it was impossible to reach. It had gone. It must have been the horse’s fault. We weren’t suited. She was too wild, too young, too strong. Another horse came on trial. A more suitable horse. I suddenly realized one day while riding him that it was not the horses who had the problem. It was me, and the horses could feel it. This particular day, the horse was nervous to be out alone in a strange place, and was getting spooked by the silly things that spook horses when they are nervous. My own nerves were frayed, too, by the time we reached home.

The penny suddenly dropped that it was not that he was too wild, too young, too strong. He was just a horse being a horse. It was that I was too cautious, too old, too weary. Horses hadn’t changed, I had. I had lost touch with them, lived a whole life between and become aware of my mortality. I hadn’t visited them enough over the years, and I’d left it too late to reconnect.

I apologized to the teenage girl and dismounted. Forever. We both wept that day, for different reasons. Some things can’t be recreated, no matter how much money one throws at them, and no matter how much one wishes it to be so. Sometimes memories have to be enough. I can close my eyes to catch a glimpse of that girl and her horse, galloping at full pelt across a sunlit cornfield, lost to the beat of drumming hooves and hearts, so in tune they could be one being—the world, still new and full of promise, at their feet.

How lucky am I to have been her, and to have known him? And yes, it is enough.

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Back in the day.

Written with my thanks to resigned mothers, horse loaners and kind farmers everywhere.

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