I have missed many a lesson, by choice and due to injury, and now, due to global pandemic.
#StayHome and read about my very first horseback riding lesson. It’s the very first thing I ever wrote about my experience, well before Many Brave Fools was even a glimmer in my eye. It’s also one of the first posts I chose to feature in the book. Feelin’ sentimental…
9 SEPTEMBER, 2006 The wee girls circle round and round, legs pounding the sides of their ponies, and I am feeling breathless.
As excited as I was to take my first horse riding lesson, well—I’d actually have to be on a horse to have it, and they’re big, aren’t they, and watching those kids flying around the ring I felt increasingly fluttery and anxious. As little as I know about horses, I knew this was a bad thing. Already feeling under the weather— headache, scratchy throat, exacerbated by the heat of the day that had turned the number 63 bus into a trundling sun trap… ah, hell, I could always come back another time…
I can’t come back another time. I spent the entire week in the run up to this day talking about it to the girls at work. I have been yearning for this for four years. Why, I don’t know, but I have. In August, I got the yen yet again, and the day before I finally Googled equestrian centres in Dublin, I saw: horse statues on a house on the coast road that I’d never seen before; a horse trailer; an actual horse; and on the way home from work, my iPod opened the evening’s commute with Land from Patti Smith’s Horses. !
I GET IT.
So I’m here. I don’t know where anything is, I don’t know who to make myself known to, I don’t— I need a helmet, I know that much. I wander a little, I’m an hour early thanks to the bus, I’m intimidated by the thoughtless ease with which a clutch of girls in white hard hats inhabit the entrance to what must surely be the barn. I can’t go near them— I don’t have the right.
I drift back to the inside thing, the ring, whatever. Parents chat amongst themselves and happily compliment their daughters as they pass. These kids are jumping. Jesus. I drift away again.
Then a bunch of riders come back from somewhere, the horses enter the ring place, everyone slips effortlessly to the ground, ponies are lead away, voices are raised simply to be audible, I back away, I need a helmet. I go to the portakabin again, and the guy is there, the guy in charge, I say who I am, he says, ‘You’re late,’ and a helmet, stinking with hours of other ladies’ sweat, is jammed on my head and I’m told to go back to the arena [ah] and I do, and the teacher asks me who I am and have I done much riding, and I tell her my name, and none, and she says get on up— a black horse, big— and I do, and she shows me how to hold the reins, and I hold them, and she tells us all to walk on, and—
And the horse takes one step, and I think to myself, ‘Feck,’ and he takes another and I think, ‘Fecking hell get me the feck offa this feckin’—‘’ and another step and another and I am no longer a human woman but a sack of frozen potatoes sporting a stinking black hat.
I can hear myself breathing, air is whistling in and out of my nose. The horse— I don’t even know his name, how am I supposed to bond— I can hear myself breathing and it’s about all I can hear, I hear a voice shouting but it’s not language, it sounds like short, sharp raps, there’s a sensation that it’s the same series of sounds over and over rap rap rap and I’ve yet to fall off.
And with maybe fifteen minutes to go [I can’t glance at my watch, because if I move my hands, or waver in my unstinting regard of the back of the horse’s head, something bad will happen] it occurs to me to maybe relax my stiffened legs a little, like, even grip the sides of the horse, with my calves? Is this is a good idea? It may have looked like I was doing it— my legs weren’t sticking out at ninety degrees— but it sure hadn’t felt like it, so I did it, and I’m no longer hyperventilating. The teacher doesn’t seem bothered that I won’t do anything but walk [‘Sue, want to give the trot a go?’ ‘No.’] and I can sense that my lesson mates are still where they’re meant to be, on the back of their horses, no writhing around on the ground clutching shattered limbs… and I relax.
And this relaxation, and the action of the calf tightening, the action of decision, results in a somewhat straighter spine, I’m sitting better, and I can hazard a look around, and drop my elbows, a little— although my arms are so tense you could break concrete breeze blocks on them, my hands so thoroughly clenched on the reins that my palms surely must be bleeding.
And then the sounds become language: ‘Turn in and give them all a big pat— feet out of the stirrups— swing your leg around the back— drop down,’ or something, and I’m on the ground and a there’s a name tag on the horse’s bridle and I whisper in his ear, ‘Mercury. Mercury! You are great!’
I walk down the long hill to the long road, my hair having fully absorbed the honest sweat of women like me, women who have ridden a horse, I haven’t a trace of flu, of a headache, of a sore throat, nor of a single critical thought, of a single bad thing to think about the thing I’d just done, swaggering like a cowboy [there’s a good reason why they walk like that] and all I think is I did it, I did it, I did it!
I’m fairly sure I’ve never been so delighted with myself in my whole life.