Most little girls grow up with a fascination for horses. They admire their graceful beauty, flowing mane and fearless canter. As a pre-pubescent girl, I too daydreamed about owning a sleek black stallion and galloping away towards the freedom of the horizon. So it came as quite a shock when, the first time I rode a horse, it was an experience seared with humiliation and awkward, self-conscious bouncing.
In a defining moment at Y-camp, where many children’s first experiments in life often happen, I am given the chance to ride a horse. I am equally ecstatic and apprehensive. As I approach the mare I realize, despite my misty-eyed admiration, I know nothing about horses. Up close the pony is a huge, terrifying beast with large teeth and sharp hooves. Not wanting to appear afraid or foolish, I anxiously puzzle over which foot to insert into the stirrup. I grab a hold of the saddle horn and hoist myself up. Unsure of the required heft, I don’t swing my leg quite far enough and, to a shy girl’s absolute mortification, find myself sitting behind the saddle, directly on the horse’s rump. My cheeks scorch in the heat of my embarrassment. I shuffle forward into the saddle, avoiding eye contact with the chuckling camp counselor. He gives the mare a slap on the rump. The horse canters off down a well-worn path around a meadow. To my surprise, instead of a fluid, flowing movement, I feel like my bones are being knocked together. I have to cling to the reins and squeeze my legs just to stay aloft. I have no control of direction, speed or stopping. By the time the horse returns to the start, I can’t wait to get off. That night I toss out my horse calendar and Appaloosa t-shirt.
It is years later, on a trip to Costa Rica, that some friends convince me to give horses another try. We are eager to explore the lush, tropical jungles, and a horse-back ride seems a fitting and natural mode of transportation. The guide pairs each of us with a pick from his stout pack of brumbies. He takes one look at my long, five-foot-ten frame and, with a impish smirk, assigns me to the runt of the litter. Sitting astride the small pony, my feet drag along the ground. Tucked into the stirrups my knees just about graze my ears, and I feel like a jockey ready to race in a derby. The guide helps Sue, who is much shorter, up onto a large stallion with a devilish gleam in its eye. My husband Larry is given a docile mare who likes to dawdle behind the group and snack on tasty shrubs. Sue’s husband Doug, an experienced horseman, confidently rides the feisty leader of the pack.
As we trundle off, I teeter precariously in the saddle, squeezing my knees against the horse’s girth. The guide grins. Cantering around us on his own stately steed, he flashes me a mischievous smile, says something in Spanish, and my horse turns its head and licks my pant leg. The guide laughs out loud at my astounded expression.
Meanwhile, Sue’s horse is making it abundantly clear who’s in charge, and it’s not Sue. The horse pays no heed to her coaxing on the reins or verbal commands. The stallion likes to ride high up on the berm alongside the road. When I get too far in front, it charges down and cuts me off by pressing its body against my horse, crushing my leg in between. Neither Sue nor I can do a thing about it.
As we reach the turnaround point, the guide shouts a command and the horses break into a spirited gallop. I cling frantically to my animal’s neck. My courageous little pony races desperately to keep up with the bigger horses. But I am a heavy and bulky burden. The pony gasps in short, ragged breaths and its flank and neck froth with sweat. I can feel its laboring heart pounding in its chest. I am horrified, convinced the little pony will collapse underneath me from a catastrophic heart attack. The horse pulls up abruptly as we reach the stable. I dismount anxiously and watch the horse heave and hack, lathers of sweat pouring off its body.
“Good grief! I think I almost killed my horse!” I exclaim. The guide laughs unconcerned, and wipes down the drenched, laboring creature. I pat its nose sympathetically and offer a carrot as a way of apology. Apparently, even for horses, the axiom is true; that which doesn’t kill us, really does make us stronger. Up close, that little pony looked surprisingly graceful, beautiful and fearless to me.