The blog of Chicago-based freelance writer David Johnsen.
Saturday, May 28, 2005
Several Minutes Of Sheer Terror
I started this whole thing by suggesting for some reason that we could go horseback riding on a vacation out West. We never took that vacation, and I soon came to my senses--I'm no John Wayne. In the meantime, my wife started taking riding lessons. In the past ten months, she has fallen off three times. In fact, she fell off a horse just hours before we left for a weekend trip earlier this month. Every time we stopped for a meal, I had to endure the icy stares of locals who presumed from her bruised face that I was a wife beater. She tried to explain her injuries to our waitresses, but I sensed that they weren't buying it. "I fell off a horse" may as well have been "I walked into the door again" (to quote Suzanne Vega).

Not content to punish her own body, my wife has been trying to get me to take at least one lesson. I have nothing against horses, but they are huge animals that can hurt a person without even trying. I watched her once last year and tentatively petted her huge horse (he was part Clydesdale). Just getting that close made me a little nervous.

Friday, against my wishes and wisdom, I joined my wife for a horseback riding lesson. This time I intended to do more than spectate and take pictures.

We went to a different stable than last year. At this stable my wife has been riding a great horse named Gabs. He was once a world champion quarterhorse worth $50,000. After years of touring the country to compete, he suddenly decided to retire. How does a horse "decide" to retire? Well, Gabs had his own way. Whenever someone would ride him into the show ring, he would buck until the rider fell off. These weren't ordinary riders, either, but Gabs threw them all regardless. Clearly, he didn't want to do any more shows. Now he's 15 years old and spends his days as a leisurely school horse. Outside of the show ring, Gabs is fine. He's muscular but gentle, a little over 16 hands tall. In fact, his only problem these days is that he's "more whoa than go"--he'd rather stand or walk than trot or canter. Of course, that was perfect for someone like me who would rather sit on a pommel horse than a moving one.

My wife brushed Gabs while I watched and tentatively stroked his neck. Then Jamie, the instructor (and Gabs' owner), put a big western-style saddle on him. We led him into the indoor arena. There were no other horses, so Gabs wouldn't be distracted. Boy, did he look tall. I could see the top of the saddle, but barely. Jamie set up the mounting block on Gabs' left side and held him in place. I stepped up on the block, put my left foot in the stirrup and swung my right leg over his thick body. It wasn't as hard as I expected to get on. Now I was sitting on a horse! And I was scared to death.

Even when a horse stands, it still moves plenty. As Gabs shifted his weight from one foot to another, his body moved beneath me. I started to panic. There was nothing to hang on to if I lost my balance, no way to steady myself in the saddle other than to sort of ride out the waves. It was like canoeing on a big lake. Although I wasn't likely to fall, I felt like I was constantly about to slide off the side. People compare the balancing to bicycling, but there is a huge difference--my feet can reach the ground from a bicycle! My nerves began to frazzle, and I asked if I could get off. Jamie encouraged me to stay on. As someone who has been riding for over thirty years, she probably couldn't understand the anxiety I felt. My wife encouraged me to take deep breaths; she could see that I was going to hyperventilate if I didn't relax. My fear grew stronger. I felt like a rodeo bull rider trying to hang on even though the horse was standing still. Gabs didn't do anything unusual, but I was terrified nonetheless. I looked down at my left leg in the stirrup. It was shaking uncontrollably. I kept glancing at that leg until I couldn't take it anymore. My fight-or-flight reaction was to abandon ship. "I-I-I've gotta get off," I said, my voice wavering. If Gabs had taken a single step, I would have broken into tears. I was that scared.

I pulled my right leg out of the stirrup and swung it over the horse and back onto the mounting block. I pulled my shaking left leg out and stepped down (I resisted the urge to kneel and kiss the dirt). Dismounting turned out not to be as hard as I had expected. If only the part between mounting and dismounting had been so easy! My wife rode for the remainder of our lesson, and I took a few pictures standing on solid ground. I cannot imagine ever sitting on a horse again, much less riding one. I feel like a bit of a failure, but I know getting off was the right thing. Don't expect to change focus from bicycles to horses anytime soon!
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