TRUE TALE

The de­mands of mod­ern life may take you away from the barn, but it is pos­si­ble to make your way back to the sad­dle.

EQUUS - - Contents - COVER PHOTO BY BOB LAN­GR­ISH

You can go home again: The de­mands of mod­ern life may take you away from the barn, but it is pos­si­ble to make your way back to the sad­dle.

For 27 years, my life re­volved around horses. I went from a kid who raced home from school for a gal­lop in the woods, to one of those lucky girls who brings her horse to col­lege, to that ca­reer woman who slips out through the back stair­well in boots and breeches to meet the other Night Rid­ers be­fore the barn closes. I’d drive 45 min­utes each way to ride for an hour after work, and re­turn home to flip omelets or toss sal­ads at 10:30 at night.

Horses were sa­cred. The barn was my tem­ple; dres­sage lessons pro­vided struc­ture, long week­end trail rides, ther­apy. When Jenda, my child­hood mare, grew too old even to am­ble through the woods, I re­tired her to a friend’s farm an hour from my home. Un­daunted, I kept up my four- to five­day-a-week sched­ule, some­times wak­ing be­fore dawn to go see my old friend and then to ride a warm­blood called Max who was boarded at the same barn.

When I got preg­nant, I or­dered ma­ter­nity rid­ing pants, as­sum­ing that Max and I could en­joy many more rides be­fore my cen­ter of grav­ity went com­pletely off kil­ter. I wore those breeches five times be­fore rare and painful com­pli­ca­tions of preg­nancy forced me to pack them away.

I had a rot­ten preg­nancy, fol­lowed by a surgery im­me­di­ately after my C-sec­tion, a long re­cov­ery and a new­born son who needed surgery at 4 months. My hia­tus from rid­ing dragged ever longer. Then the sta­ble be­came my son’s first non-med­i­cal out­ing.

Three or four times per week we made the trip to groom and cod­dle Jenda. (Max now had a new ex­er­cise rider.) My son would hang out in the bucket car seat and watch the pro­ceed­ings. He rarely com­plained. I sup­pose he didn’t know this pas­time fell out­side the nor­mal in­fant purview of new moms’ groups and sing-alongs at the li­brary.

When my son was about a year old and we were both fi­nally healthy, it was time to say goodbye to my old mare. Jenda was push­ing 33, sick with a stub­born and painful in­fec­tion, and had no rea­son­able hope of re­cov­ery. I am grate­ful the decision was easy. I stroked her head and neck, my vet­eri­nar­ian pushed in the drugs and my old friend slipped away.

For a week I moped in bed as much as the mother of a 1-year-old could man­age.

And I stopped rid­ing. Be­cause after grief came a for­eign, un­wel­come, almost shame­ful sort of re­lief.

I was no longer de­vot­ing 20 to 30 hours per week to my hobby. An ex­pen­sive, long­time de­pen­dent was off my pay­roll, and since I’d left cor­po­rate Amer­ica to be with my son, I couldn’t jus­tify the ex­pense of another horse.

I misse­did theh barn,b es­pe­cially when the au­tumn fo­liage peaked and the air turned crisp and dry. Aside from a few blips---a beach ride on va­ca­tion, a field trip to try a horse a friend con­sid­ered pur­chas­ing---I went cold turkey. Horses had been such a huge fac­tor in my life that dab­bling wasn’t an op­tion. Of course I missed rid­ing, but I couldn’t imag­ine work­ing the fi­nan­cial and time com­mit­ments into our fam­ily rou­tine.

Fi­nally, when my son en­tered preschool as a 4-year-old, I had an epiphany: I re­al­ized that I wanted to ride, but I didn’t nec­es­sar­ily need to own a horse.

I briefly shopped for dres­sage or event­ing lessons, since those were the types of barns I’d fre­quented in my younger days. No­body in rea­son­able driv­ing dis­tance had a suit­able school horse, and I wasn’t up for the com­mit­ment of even a par­tial lease.

Un­de­terred, I put the word out that I’d be happy to ex­er­cise or hack a horse for some­one once a week, be­cause as much as I missed the barn, I also craved the woods, the quiet, the sim­ple ad­ven­ture of see­ing what was be­hind the next bend. Again, no tak­ers within a doable com­mute.

Fi­nally, I was put in touch with Al­le­gra Valberg of Ridgetop Farm, a barn in Hol­lis­ton, Mas­sachusetts,

spe­cial­iz­ing in hunters and jumpers. I was skep­ti­cal. After a lifetime of rid­ing a bal­anced seat, would I be com­fort­able tipped for­ward? Rid­ing with my legs in­stead of my seat? In short stir­rups?

I wasn’t. I felt like a cake topper, perched awk­wardly atop a can­ter­ing Thor­ough­bred. But I was in nir­vana at the barn. The first day I went, I would have gladly paid the in­struc­tor for the priv­i­lege of brush­ing the horse, a bombproof school­mas­ter called Ju­nior, and feed­ing him car­rots.

So I went back the fol­low­ing week. We ne­go­ti­ated the length of my stir­rup leathers, and I re­learned how to pop over cross rails. After a cou­ple of months, I was paired with a sea­soned hunter named Eno.

Eno isn’t the most popular horse in the barn, due to his pen­chant for bit­ing peo­ple, his need to wear earplugs to face the out­doors, his out­ra­geous per­sonal space needs, and some other lessthan-lovely quirks.

But he’s a hand­some beast, with a flashy white blaze. And he’s ath­letic. At our first meet­ing, he at­tempted to take a pound of flesh out of my shoul­der with his teeth; I was too fast for him. He tried to buck me off; I stayed on board. He reared and smacked his head on the ceil­ing; I aban­doned my at­tempts to brush his face.

But soon Eno and I de­vel­oped a mu­tual re­spect that blos­somed into some­thing close to af­fec­tion. He re­laxed. I re­laxed. I bribed him with treats. He be­gan nick­er­ing hello when he heard my voice. After four weeks, he let me brush his face. I learned to pi­lot him around a full course, to mea­sure dis­tances, to hunt fences.

I am grate­ful Eno is eas­ing into his se­nior years with a good home. Th­ese facts help re­move the temp­ta­tion to of­fer to buy him. It’s not a burn­ing temp­ta­tion any­how. More like a twinge, a nostal­gia for the days when own­ing a horse de­fined me.

For now, I am only a woman who rides. And that’s OK.

GREET­INGS: The au­thor in­tro­duces her son to her 31-year-old horse, Jenda.

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