We all remember that first ride…the anticipation…the thrill of actually throwing a leg over the back of a horse and feeling his feet move for you. For some, there might have been fear, too, facing the unknown and perhaps understanding the mighty power of the animal below.
Susan Conley came to horses late in life. She was 42 when, in the midst of trying to find the power to leave her husband, an addict, (for good, this time) she decided she wanted to learn how to ride. What followed was one woman’s recovery from a life of codependency and a discovery of the confident, independent person she wanted to be. In this excerpt from Conley’s memoir Many Brave Fools, she remembers her first time on horseback.
By 2002, I had been muttering about horses to myself for about a year, maybe longer. It transpired that I met Sorcha, a young woman who had just bought her first horse after having ridden on and off since childhood. When she realized that, while I was a newbie, I was as passionate about all subjects equine as she was, she invited me to come along to see her steed. She thought that we might go for a ride.
It occurred to me that a proper lesson might be best, since I’d never ridden a horse before in my life. But I’d been reading about horses avidly; this seemed like an excellent opportunity to put form into practice. I mean, how hard could it be? You’re just sitting there, right? Plus, I’d read all kinds of heartwarming stories, all kinds of women-and-horses stories, and I felt certain that since I wanted this bonding-with-the-horse thing so badly, the horse would sense my need and take care of me.
Roaming around the barn with Sorcha, I was struck by how different all the animals were, one from the other, in terms of personality. There was one horse huddled back against the wall of his box stall, peering at us nervously through his long forelock; a majestic mare looked at us over her shoulder, and then, wriggling her bum and flicking her tail imperiously, proceeded to ignore us; the little gray who trotted up from the back of his stall and rubbed his face all over my chest. All of them, all different, and my friend’s horse different still: long, leggy, and a beautiful dark browny-black color, with big, blinky eyes. He didn’t have much interest in me; Sorcha was the center of his world. I felt a pang of yearning. As she did all manner of things with bridle and saddle, he didn’t move a muscle, except to swing his massive head around, never taking his eyes off her. After leading him out to the front of the barn, she motioned to a mounting block, indicating I should get up there, put my foot in the stirrup, swing on board.
Seriously? I thought I was going to die.
I had never felt so unmoored in all my life. I was a million miles away from terra firma, the animal was lurching from side to side as Sorcha led him around in a circle, and I felt completely dissociated from reality. My mind was straining for Mother Earth, leaving my body behind to cope as best it could. This was in no way similar to looking out from the observatory at the top of the Empire State Building, or standing on the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, seven hundred feet above the crashing Atlantic. In those cases, you are so obviously far away from the ground that you don’t think about the distance between you and the earth far below or the possibility of falling. It’s like you can’t take it personally: that yawning abyss exists, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with you.
On the back of Sorcha’s horse, I was just far enough away from and just close enough to my usual, comfortable position, standing on my own two feet, that I didn’t know where the hell I was. I was in limbo. I didn’t recognize anything. Trees, rocks, cobblestones, walls: they were all a blur of background as I focused, as if my life depended on it, on the back of that horse’s head. The world looked utterly changed from my new perspective, perched in a saddle, and I realized that I didn’t have a notion what to do. As I gripped the reins for dear life, I thought maybe going on a ride wasn’t such a great idea after all.