One Saturday morning my mother casually decided that it would be fun to go to a horse auction. I was 8 years old and had never ridden a horse. There was a spunky pony with a long black mane and pawing hoofs that she found "adorable," so she bought him for $250. My mom was, to say the least, a bit eccentric. Because of his size I was the only family member equipped to ride the little sprite. And sprite he was. My new "pet" came to the auction block straight from the circus, where he had been a trick show mount. Dart, as he was named, could rear, buck and spin in distressingly reckless circles on command. He thoroughly enjoyed doing these things when not instructed as well.
Dart was the first love of my life. Each day after school I would race to the stables and jump on his back sans saddle, and we would explode out of the barn, down to the sandy wash, and gallop as fast as fate and his feet could fly. He and I bonded over speed and going places where walls or fences could not confine our adventures. I would never recommend that a parent put a child on a horse with no training and allow them to race off into the wilderness; of course, I'm thrilled my mother allowed me to do exactly that.
Dart, like most horses, had an innate sense of his rider's limits. On those particular days where I did not maintain that intimate connection to my charging host I would tumble and land smack on my out-of-focus butt. Dart would stop and look back at me with a tolerant expression that seemed to say, "Seriously? How many times are you going to plummet to earth before you learn to be attentive of our relationship?" He would then trot back to me and wait until I dusted myself off and jumped back on. Staying on the ground would have meant sacrificing that extraordinary feeling of freedom that comes with the good moments when one is perfectly balanced on the back of horse while barreling through space and the wind with the sound of hoofs pounding below.
At the end of our rides I would spend hours grooming Dart. I carefully made sure every rock was gently removed from his hoofs, washed his coat and dried him by hand with combs and brushes and cloths until he shone. I would run my hands over his body and massage his legs to make sure that there was never so much as one sage needle left that could cause him discomfort. We would sit together and eat apples and enjoy our simple lives. Time with a horse is always time well spent.
Over the years I have jumped horses (poorly), cut cattle (in my opinion a form of cow abuse justified by the cow truly having no idea what happened after being herded), toyed with the precision of dressage and vaulting (jumping on and off a galloping horse and occasionally dismounting backward in the form of a somersault). Each discipline is unique in the elements of how you use your body and cue your partner, and all have the exceptional element of allowing you to learn from a horse about how they are cuing you. Riding horses involves the art of paying attention.
Staying on a horse is a far cry from being an equestrian, which is a lesson I personally learned inhospitably. I decided that I wanted to master the "Airs" (1) practiced by the classical European riding academies. "Airs" include a series off jumps where two or four of the horses feet are "in flight" at one time. Rather than do something logical like find a beginners class or even something extreme but sane, like heading to Europe where people spend a lifetime learning these skills, I bought a very young Andalusian Stallion. Not one of my more responsible life choices. While most Andalusians are proud, calm horses my young boy, Amore, had a couple screws loose in his brain and wobbly rivets in his sense of partnership. He was like a bipolar mental patient who happened to be 16 hands and weigh more than 1,000 pounds. Levades for him were not an art form but a nervous mode of transportation. I became totally convinced that the poor boy saw ghosts. Each day as we headed across the path toward the arena he would reach one particular spot where he would look off into the empty air and his eyes would open with fear. I could feel his muscles tensing and constricting under me, followed by those powerful front legs lifting off the ground toward the sky. Often he would rear so high I would have to wrap myself around his neck to keep from sliding down his backside.
One day a young Spanish equestrian master, Jose Manuel Martin de Leon, (3) was visiting the riding center and saw me trying to control Amore as he cavorted about the arena. Jose-Manuel walked over to us and calmly reached out and took hold of one of Amore's reins in his left hand and then firmly set his right hand on Amore's neck. The horse instantly stopped moving. Jose-Manuel looked up at me with his beautiful smile and charming Spanish accent and said, "A lot of horse for you, no?" He was right. I did not know enough to take Amore on the journey that Dart had taken me and it was unfair that I had tried.
Life is about learning our own limits as much as expanding them. We find ourselves failing when we try to take on a task for which we have not prepared. It has been said that if you fail to prepare you are preparing for failure. I had epitomized that by buying a horse I did not have the experience or knowledge to safely ride. I found a remarkable trainer in San Diego, Cynthia Royal (4), and I gave her Amore as a gift. Within six months Cynthia had a 12-year-old novice riding him.
In 2012 I moved to a new area and went out to explore. I found myself on a small road that spilled into a hidden valley that was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. A week later, when I was browsing in a small store I noticed a photo of a horse on the wall and arbitrarily asked the shop owner if he knew of a great riding teacher in the area. He told me that he had spent 30 years training race horses and that there was a exceptional trainer from Germany who worked in the area: Edith Stephens (3). I called to make an appointment and found myself driving down the road I had discovered the week before.
Watching Edith ride is inspiring. To see someone do something effortlessly usually represents a lifetime of devotion to the activity. I am finally, slowly, patiently, learning about the art of horsemanship. I have learned many lessons from horses about trust, relaxation, subtly, overcoming fears, and love. I hope that over the next few decades I can also learn to ride.
(1) AIRS above the ground: Pesade, Levade, Capriole, Courbette, Courpade
(2) Jose Manuel Martin de Leon: email@example.com
(3) Cynthia Royal: www.CynthiaRoyal.com
(4) Edith Stephens: 805-402-9810
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