|The Lovely Leopard Appaloosa Near Bear Butte - photograph by Robert Clements|
I used to be able to canter, whinney, toss my head, two-step backward, rear, slash with my front hooves, trot as if I was royalty, and win every race. That's when I was a horse running with about five others in my small but heartful herd. Then, my four legs morphed into two, my herd dispersed, and I became a girl, then a woman. I can still gallop, though, if I put my mind to it - for very short distances, and only when I'm wild and out beyond the fences of my humanity and out-of-sight of other ex-horses.
One thing that South Dakota has done is re-awaken my passion for horses. In South Dakota, horses are everywhere. I see one or several of them every day; grazing, being ridden, used as a pick-up animal or barrel-racing in rodeos, and bucking off cowboys (Did you know that horses are bred for their bucking capabilities? I didn't.) I see their arched necks, their careless and magnificant manes and tails, the sunset gleaming off of their mahoghany/black/paint/gold/roan/appaloosa/white/bay/and-so-on hides, their long, elegant legs holding up their powerful trunks, and I want to know them better. I want to be a part of their club.
So ar, it's been mainly an at-a-distance admiration, as the privilege of actually knowing horses on a personal level, wherein I might ride them, groom them, and be a significant part of their lives, was stunted when I was about eight or nine. But tonight, near Sturgis, I am going to take riding lessons, from the ground (literally) up. I am excited, nervous, and still a little in awe. I have my cowboy boots and my jeans, and lots of hope that I can do this. As I wrote to my fabulous friend, Lee, I will either re-invent my relationship with horses, or I will cross this experience off my bucket list.
For crying out loud, I hear several people saying, what is the big deal? Hop on the feckin' horse, ride it, and shut up. But it's complicated. The worship I have for horses is mixed up with my imagination and awe for the coolness of these creatures, the reality that I might fall off, be kicked or break my neck, and being bullied.
The story begins back in Maine, where I grew up, when a nearby rich girl's father bought her a horse named Baby Doll, a buckskin mare that probably was a great horse, now that I know horses a bit, but one that haunts me. There was a corral, two older girls who were much more experienced riders, the scorn of one, my own misunderstanding of her cruelty and impatience with my presence, and my fear of failure. I remember sitting in Baby Doll's saddle, terrified to move, afraid of messing up more than falling. I remember my friend, Colleen, growing impatient with me, and my own shame surrounding my inability to get over my fear. I remember going to a riding stable with Colleen, being put on a Shetland Pony, and somehow, that pony took off at a gallop for the barn, me hanging on, scared past all knowledge of fear, and then, later, a physical fight between Colleen and the bully (I will not name her) over Colleen's choice to take an inexperienced rider to the stable, and how the owner was upset by this. I remember eventually falling away from the barn and Baby Doll - I don't know what happened to her - and I remember, finally, walking away from the bully, when a remark that I recognized as being mean upset me. Walking away was the beginning of recognizing and respecting mySELF, but it was still painful, and I hate that it all involved horses.
There's good news in all of this, however. In every experience mentioned above, I did NOT fall off. And the other thing - because every story needs growth to thrive... I remember a moment of triumph, although I cannot tell you when or where it was - it was a brief relationship with someone who knew someone with a tall, gorgeous palomino that somehow I found myself astride, looping a meadow by myself, walking slowly, and then somehow, signaling to the horse that I wanted him to canter. And so he did, rising like a gentle wave un,derneath me, heading up a small slope in a meadow, me initially afraid, but then relaxing with his sweet pace, as I looked between his ears at the grass and the sky bobbing in front of us. It was a moment of heaven. And that is where I will leave you.