The ex­per­i­ment

EQUUS - - Contents - By Su­san Sughrue

My story started out like many: My daugh­ters wanted a horse. This must be some ge­netic trait, be­cause I, too, was born want­ing a horse. Un­for­tu­nately, my par­ents re­sponded to my re­quests with plas­tic toys, so I vowed that my daugh­ters would have the op­por­tu­nity de­nied me.

We set out to buy a horse, even­tu­ally set­tling on a 10-year-old Ap­pen­dix Quar­ter Horse geld­ing. My girls, aged 10 and 15, walked him in a cir­cle on a snowy slope, pro­claimed his face beau­ti­ful, and it was a done deal. They re­named him Robin Hood, but truth­fully, he should have been called Dumb Luck. He took my younger daugh­ter all the way through her B Level in Pony Club and be­came a sec­ond-level dres­sage horse---and that doesn’t even come close to what he taught them about love and life.

Robin Hood taught me a thing or two as well: how to muck, chase a horse in the dark, load an un­will­ing beast into a trailer, sur­vive on vir­tu­ally no sleep…. I be­came a groom and a hu­man tack rack. I sloshed wa­ter on my­self on icy morn­ings. I wrote checks, lots of checks. I learned to al­ways look on the bright side. And that’s the end of the story for many horse show moms, right?

One evening my younger daugh­ter pre­sented me with a propo­si­tion. She was by then a col­lege ju­nior ma­jor­ing in psy­chol­ogy, and she wanted me to be the sub­ject of an ex­per­i­ment for her be­hav­ior mod­i­fi­ca­tion class. Her idea: She would turn me into a dres­sage rider.

She would achieve this goal by pro­vid­ing re­wards and by hav­ing me keep a jour­nal in which I wrote ex­cuses for why I did not ride on any given day. Oh boy, where do I start? It’s too hot, too cold, too wet, too windy. I’m too tired, too ner­vous, too busy. Sound familiar? Still, what par­ent who is shelling out for col­lege tu­ition would refuse to help her child get an A? And so it be­gan….

Let me be clear: I am a li­brar­ian. I have never been an ath­lete of any kind. But I was game. It was de­cided that I would learn on Robin Hood’s suc­ces­sor, Strider, who once had a rear­ing prob­lem. He was much too old to pull his stunts any­more, but I was old enough to have a clear mem­ory of them. The first ex­cuse in my jour­nal was, “I am scared.”

I was also determined. I would ride five days per week, take regular lessons and aim to­ward com­pet­ing. It looked so easy when my girls were rid­ing. It wasn’t. Talk about a role re­ver­sal. I whined, I made ex­cuses. My daugh­ter yelled at me, telling me to “lighten up,” “have fun,” “get back on.” Where had I heard those words be­fore? I was used to dish­ing out the ad­vice; now it was be­ing served to me.

I’m not sure ex­actly when, but some­where in be­tween “let’s try this ex­per­i­ment” and the fi­nal grade, I de­cided I was do­ing this for me. I un­der­took a horse-board­ing busi­ness to pay for lessons. I rode sev­eral horses, and each one taught me not only about rid­ing but more about my­self. Even­tu­ally, I found a free lease on an amaz­ing Prix St. Ge­orge school mas­ter. And while he is more dif­fi­cult to ride than any horse I have en­coun­tered, he has so much more to teach me and the largess of pa­tience to go with it.

Not a day goes by that I don’t marvel over this jour­ney. I am not the per­son I used to be. I have learned to work harder than I ever thought pos­si­ble, to em­brace fail­ure as progress, to be more pa­tient and un­der­stand­ing with oth­ers. I am no longer the groom, the spon­sor, the spec­ta­tor. Now I am a rider, and this is for me.

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