As an exchange student, I looked forward to watching Shakespearean plays at Stratford-upon-Avon, making new friends and traveling to other countries.
I knew attending college in Worcester, England would be an adventure. I didn’t expect horses to become an unforgettable part of the experience.
Members of the local Rotary Club volunteered to interact with exchange students at the college and introduce us to cultural and local events. Their plan was to provide a home away from home. My roommate and I were assigned two families.
The Chalmers invited us to dinner soon after our arrival and arranged to pick us up on the campus. We received a call from Mrs. Chalmers the afternoon of our dinner.
“We’re so looking forward to meeting the two of you this evening. Unfortunately, we’ve just had the Bentley waxed. It would be a shame to take it out of the garage in this weather.”
“Should we reschedule?” I asked.
“No need for that. We scarcely live three kilometers from the campus and English mist is wonderful for the complexion, you know. We’ll see you at 6:30?”
“We’ll be there,” I said hanging up the phone after getting directions.
* * * * *
As we introduced ourselves, Dr. Chalmers spoke up.
“Which one of you is the psychology major?”
“That’s me,” said Barbara.
“Everyone I know who has studied psychology did so because of a neurosis or dysfunction. What’s yours?”
“I couldn’t say,” said Barbara twisting the strap of her purse around her finger.
“Not to worry, my dear. You’ll figure it out.”
“Dr. Chalmers is a gynecologist,” said Mrs. Chalmers.
“That’s right,” he said, “and, as you will be at the college for six months, I am sure you will be in need of my services. I hope you won’t hesitate to ask.”
“Thank you,” I said studying the pattern of the carpet.
Later Barbara and I would laugh as we speculated what sexual dysfunction motivated the doctor’s career choice.
“Dinner is served,” said a matronly woman wearing a white apron over her crisply ironed black dress.
As we took our seats at the table, my eyes met Barbara’s. She shrugged her shoulders slightly. Our place settings mocked us. Five forks, four knives and an assortment of bowls and plates of various sizes challenged our grasp of etiquette. Later we learned there was a cocktail fork, a fish fork, a salad fork, a dinner fork and a dessert fork. Who knew?
Food is passed to guests first. We did our best to put it where it looked like it belonged. The charming Chalmers raised their eyebrows and did it correctly. We felt like we failed a test.
They invited us to a symphony performance. We accepted. Mrs. Chalmers was scandalized by the first violinist. The young woman wore a lovely floor length black dress.
“It’s vulgar for a woman to play the violin in a sleeveless dress,” said Mrs. Chalmers. “I am so sorry you had to see that. It was better before they allowed women to play in the orchestra.”
* * * * *
A few weeks later, she canceled a dinner invitation. Her sons came home from college unexpectedly. We speculated that it wouldn’t do for them to meet the vulgar Americans.
One good thing came from our connection to the Chalmers. Dr. and Mrs. Chalmers had horses at a nearby stable. They arranged for all six exchange students to ride regularly.
The Newmans, our second Rotary Club family, explained it was a privilege to be invited to ride at the stable. The horses were privately owned and not available to the general public.
Dinner with them was like eating with our families. Hearty dishes were passed as their three children regaled us with neighborhood and school stories. There were no
superfluous utensils on their table.
They showed us the best places to shop and where to purchase fish and chips served in funneled newspapers. It became our favorite.
Mrs. Newman scolded us as we were sure our parents would have.
“I know there is no transportation to the country stables but do you think it’s safe to hitchhike?”
“It’s eleven kilometers. If we walked seven miles, we’d be too tired to ride,” I explained.
“I should call your mums,” she threatened.
“Maybe you should, but you won’t. We know you love us,” said Barbara.
“All right luvs but do be careful.”
* * * * *
There were no lessons at the stable. It was assumed we knew how to ride. I planned to cover up my inexperience by carefully watching those with more.
We were escorted to our horses. What magnificent animals! Thoroughbreds. I was drawn to a cream in coffee colored mount with a long neck and intelligent face.
“Hi buddy,” I said holding my hand for him to smell. “What’s your name?”
Then I saw the nameplate on his stable. George.
“Hello, George. I’m Judy. Do you know that my boyfriend’s name is George? Do you think that means we’ll be friends? I hope so.”
“You picked a calm one, you did miss,” said the groom as he helped us lead the horses to the trail.
I smiled at this revelation. George had an intelligent face and a long stately neck. He hadn’t yet committed to friendship but was not resisting my approach. I knew to mount from the left side and was soon sitting in the saddle.
“Relax Judy, you look like you’re sitting in a chair,” said Barbara who had promised to keep an eye on me.
I relaxed my knees and tried to align my legs mimicking the others. Curved shoulders of insecurity kept me from sitting tall in the saddle.
We followed each other on a trail through a lightly wooded area. George seemed to know the way. Soon we were trotting. I tried to learn to post and match my rhythm to George’s. The next day’s sore muscles told me I didn’t quite succeed.
I was drawn to George and made the mistake of looking at him instead of where we were going. Startled by a low branch, I reacted. I could have reined in the horse. I could have leaned forward and hugged his neck. Instead, I leaned backward losing my equilibrium.
I felt like I was falling in slow motion: a sideways somersault followed by a rump first landing. I was shaken but not hurt. Barbara said my fall looked like a ballet move.
George trotted off to the side and stood there watching me warily. Some say animals can’t express emotion but I know George was embarrassed. He lowered his head and warily watched my approach.
“It’s okay George. You didn’t do anything wrong,” I said soothingly.
We bonded over my mistake.
As the weeks went by, I started to look more like a rider. I developed the ability to sit tall. I’d like to think George looked forward to our jaunts. Riding taught me how to trust myself and to move in sync with the horse.
* * * * *
The circus came to Worcester and no one wanted to go with me. I wanted to see a British circus. I decided to go alone.
Once inside, I bought a large stick of cotton candy and looked for a safe place to sit. Next to a father with two small boys seemed like a good choice. The boys had never seen cotton candy. I shared.
“Look,” I said. “You can pull off a piece. It’s just spun sugar.”
“Why do you talk so funny?” one of them wanted to know.
“I’m American,” I answered.
“Really? Do you have a horse? Do you know any cowboys?”
“No. It’s not like that. I don’t know any cowboys.”
“Aren’t they all over America? I’ve seen them on the telly.”
“Maybe there are some out west but not where I live.”
“Our policemen are Bobbies. They carry sticks. Policemen in America have guns. Did you ever see anyone get shot?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“But they shoot people, don’t they?”
“They try not to.”
“Wouldn’t sticks be better?”
“Maybe,” I said glad that the show had started cutting sort the questions.
Midway through the show a majestic white stallion entered the ring.
“Is there someone in the audience brave enough to ride this stately steed?” asked the ringmaster.
British reserve was in full force as no one volunteered.
“Surely someone has the courage to accept this challenge.”
“You can. You know cowboys,” said one of the little boys.
“I told you I’ve never met one.”
“But you can ride a horse,” he continued.
“Well, yes—,” I began but was cut short by the boys jumping to their feet.
“She can, she can, she rides horses,” they chanted pointing at me as I tried to shrink.
“No, don’t, sit down,” I whispered.
My objections were ignored. Two clowns grabbed my hands and pulled me into the ring.
One of them removed my glasses. Everything was a soft blur. A belt was secured around my waist. It was tethered to the top of the tent. Before I knew it, I was on a bareback galloping horse. There was nothing to hold. Forgetting form, I hugged the horse with my knees, amazed that I had stayed on for several seconds.
“Kneel,” someone ordered.
Adrenalin took over. I knelt and bounced.
“Now stand,” I was told.
I did, falling off immediately. I was airborne. The clowns lifted me with by the belt pulley. I flew to the top of the tent spinning like a starfish with my limbs forming an X. I continued to spin as I was lowered. Dizzy and blind, I couldn’t control any of my appendages.
I kicked a clown. His yelp told me it hurt in spite of the comical fall that elicited audience laughter.
Two others dredged up courage to follow my example but the little boys insisted.
“You were the best.”
I never did convince them that America is not teeming with cowboys.
I can’t think about my experiences as an exchange student without thinking about horses. My riding adventures taught me many things about myself.
I learned was that falling off a horse was easier than meeting the Chalmers.
About the Author
Judy Salcewicz recently retired from teaching and is working on a memoir. She enjoys writing, gardening and travel.