Back in the Saddle, Again, or: The Kentaurides

Charles Bukowski may or may not have written: “Find what you love and let it kill you.” Whoever did say it, at times I’ve taken it a little too much to heart. Case in point, the Unfortunate 2013 Broken Neck Incident, when a weekend of revelry ended with me hitching a ride back from Philly in Miss Ooh La La’s (Dr. Ooh La La’s) car and asking her (over a disgusting roadside hot dog) whether the pins and needles in my hands were normal. Turned out I had ruptured a cervical disc, which wouldn’t have been much of an issue except for the fact that, as it was then discovered, I have a congenitally narrow spinal canal–somehow related to my heart being three sizes too small. Hence, my spine is compressed. Largely, I’ve learned to live with my hands oscillating between Numb and Number (“I thought the Rockies would have been a lot rockier–that John Denver is full of shit, man”). On a bad day, my knees give out when I’m walking, I feel as if someone’s pressing on my shins, my back can hurt, I drop things because my fingers get weak, sometimes I get dizzy. None of this is actually too bad: indeed, my neck aches a lot less than it used to before the Unfortunate Incident (it always felt about to pop, until it popped!). But it does mean I am at a higher risk than others for even a slight injury to be disastrous. Hyperextensions of the neck, especially toward the back, are not recommended, so no yoga or Pilates (can’t keep up with the fashion!), and I DO NOT want to be in a whiplash situation. Go tell that to a friggin’ NYC cab driver.

All of which explains why last fall I held a stubbornness contest with Sexy Neurologist:

–I must absolutely, inevitably, perhaps fatidically, get back
on a horse. With your encouragement and blessing, please and thank you.
–If there is no convincing you to take up Extreme Macramé, do what you must. It will either kill you or it won’t.

The matter, in the end, was more complex. If trotting or cantering simply caused me discomfort, probably no harm done and I myself would want to give up. I was never one to stick with a pain in the ass (or neck)–just ask my childhood ballet-tennis-guitar-chess-etc teachers. However, falling from a horse I might easily follow in the sad steps of Christopher Reeve. Although I rarely give any thought to things I really want to do (impulse queen), this time I did. And I explained it to my loved ones as best I could: in the end, did Superman stay home because there might be kryptonite out there? What if I slip on ice on the sidewalk right outside my building? I’d be just as fucked as falling off a horse, and die without having gone riding, and THAT would really blow. As Bukowski may or may not have also said, “all things will kill you, both slowly and fastly, but it’s much better to be killed by a lover.” Luckily, no one depends on me for their livelihood or care. I leave money (hopefully) for my lavish Joan Rivers funeral (with all my PhD advisees wearing feather boas, as they’ve been instructed to), paying my (many) posthumous bills, and maybe helping send my godchildren to some cheap crappy college. My debts to society settled, Metropolis needs me able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

So this Friday I went to riding class for the first time since leaving for Spain/England in June. It was GLORIOUS; felt like wild, untamed, flying in the wind! Even if, in all honesty, it looked like this:

 

Although, in my life, very few triumphal tours-de-force have been preceded by the words “give Bill a squeeze”–usually leading to NO GOOD!–on this occasion they led to a thrilling ride (thrilling for me at least).

Bill, above, is not even my favorite horse. Not owning one, in the six years since I started (a midlife-crisis whim if there ever was one), I’ve had a succession of favorite school horses, the latest of whom is Jack-of-the-Quick-and-Smooth-Canter:

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On the arena, as in life, I don’t always get my chosen mount (which is, surprisingly, a good thing). But Bill is a beautiful, gentle giant, about 16.5 hands tall, I’m told (roughly 5’8″ at the withers–the base of his neck–to my midgety 5’1″). I’m not sure exactly how heavy he is; an average horse his size weighs well over 1000 lbs. Astride him, I tower high off the ground (which could be scary but is NOT). On the down side, he can be a little contrary; sometimes I practically have to carry him to the ring, just like Pippi.

pippi

And sometimes when I cue him to canter he takes off on a bumpy trot for several strides (wherefore my instructor’s–Miss T’s–“squeeeeze!,” “a little more leeeg!”). But when he recognizes me, he puts his head down for me to pat and rubs his nose against my neck and it is instant love.

If you clicked on the video above, you probably guessed I kind of suck. Not a lot, but a little bit, as in: between all the 8-year-olds in the riding school and me, guess whose living room is full of ribbons. Ribbons or not, I’ve gotten to be a somewhat skilled rider, and adventurous–it’s taken me on several unforgettable trips.

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Along the beach and through the rain forest in Puerto Rico; across Andalusian olive groves and Sound-of-Music Pyrenees landscapes; in the woods of the San Juan Islands; over lava fields in Iceland (the one time I truly had to GALLOP to keep up, whether or not I’d previously learned how!); with a Bedouin guide in Galilee (SO Lawrence of Arabia!!!) and a bitchin’ cowgirl scout in the Arizona desert (down almost-vertical Man from Snowy River inclines, I SOLEMNLY SWEAR–she said it was filmed around there and you really should watch one of the most amazing riding scenes ever).

I went a little slower, of course.

Since the Unfortunate Broken Neck Incident, I have not been on a riding adventure, because I haven’t yet gotten to the point where I can trust someone other than Miss T to have the will and know-how to both push me to my limit and keep me safe, with clear knowledge of my proficiency level and my injury. It is a little dispiriting. What if I never feel comfortable enough to do that again (I hope I will!)? What if it’s become seriously impractical to continue thinking of retiring in Jackson Hole with a sassy filly named Mrs. Robinson? Is there a point to continuing my lessons if I may never be a true horsewoman? (At my first school someone said you’re not a true horseman/woman until you’ve fallen off a horse seven times. As a beginner I quickly made it to three, and I intend to keep it there.)

I’ve given all this hard thought as well (my brain!) and the answer is still YES. Evidently, at root it’s because Oreo would rush to the fence of the turning pad when he saw me arriving, and Pippin would stop playing to come say goodbye when I called:

 

I already told you what Bill does, and I never rode a horse that didn’t feel like it loved me a little bit even after just one date. (I fancy that my dear Miss T loves me a little bit too! And Cowboy O!)

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It’s also because even those formerly weekly, now twice- or even once-a-month lessons take me away from crazy city life (which, granted, I totally dig) and into blissful communion with so many inspiring parts of nature, to each of which (beginning with horse hair) I’m horribly allergic.

And because it CAN feel like you’re flying faster than a speeding bullet, and sometimes you are (I’ll always have Iceland!). Because even within the confines of the school arena, it makes you feel POWERFUL. The first time you ride a horse is always a test of wills: which one of us is going to be in charge? And when, by sheer force of your thighs (which are going to hurt like shit for the next five days), you make that 1000-lb beast do what you want, you feel like an Amazon warrior.

Kiss-Amazon

But power, if fun, is not what it’s about. Because, deep inside, that 1000-lb beast sees itself as prey (and you as a predator), and has to get as much over its fear as you do to ultimately trust you to protect and soothe it. If you find that bond, and the feel, and the timing, it will rush forward at the pressure of your legs and make dazzling circles and figure-eights and turns around a barrel at the slightest signal from your body.

Even at a walk, or standing, at your subtlest cue (sometimes almost telepathic!), the horse will dance with you a genuinely intimate dance, in which you both move beautifully. It will sashay left or right, it will bend around your leg or take a few steps forward or back, or turn on its haunches and make you feel like Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained:

(I actually can–sort of–do that!)

And when you’ve REALLY got it, it will know what you want with barely a touch of the reins. In fact, nothing more fun–if a bit unnerving–than dropping them entirely and letting your instructor lead with a lunge line. Stretching your arms out and knowing you’re NOT going to fall because you are glued to that saddle and the horse and you are moving as one. No longer an Amazon, but a Centauress!

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Centauress_-_John_La_Farge_-_overall

Do I look like a Centauress?

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Often I feel like one!

 

And so, even if I never win those goddamn ribbons, or have my own ranch, or even my own horse; even if I feel silly that my lessons are the adult equivalent of children’s weekend pony rides; and even if I run the risk of breaking that neck for good: I must absolutely, inevitably, perhaps fatidically, always get on a horse at least once more. Although on bad days I refrain from too much trotting and concentrate on precision work, it actually feels great on my spine, since good form is all about breathing through your whole body, sitting tall and centered, remaining balanced and flexible. It definitely makes my heart three sizes bigger. It makes me feel alive, and if it kills me it will only be because it’s life that kills you, both slowly and fastly (but it’s much better to be killed by a lover!).

[And if you’re tempted, you should call Fox Hill Farms. Beautiful barns with beautiful, well-cared-for horses. Lots of friendly faces. A hop, skip, and a jump from NYC on MetroNorth.]

About WRF

New York-based Spanish Cultural Studies professor and academic author venturing (nervously) into new forms of writing: travel and food-logue, cultural commentary, pseudophilosophical speculation, opinion, reminiscence, prophecy, examination of conscience.
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