By Ann E. Michael
Web Exclusive, December 13, 2006
When my daughter was four years old, she announced her plans to become a blacksmith; she wanted to shoe horses. I figured it was a phase. At six, she wanted to be "a horse rider," and requested riding lessons. It didn't take me long to imagine my 40-pound child atop a 16-hand stallion and reply, "When you're older." After all, it was just a phase.
On her ninth birthday, she received a voucher for a riding lesson, courtesy of my sister-in-law. I had to admit defeat. If this was a phase, it was clearly a persistent one. I researched local stables' safety records and reputations, got out my checkbook, took a deep breath and walked, with my excited kid, through the barn door for an introductory lesson. Just to get a taste of riding. I mean, she might discover that the prospect wasn't really so appealing.
At her first lesson, Alice marched purposefully into the stalls, eager to learn to groom and tack. Her instructor led a gigantic chestnut gelding out of his stall and demonstrated the process while I stood as far away as possible. There was no way on earth my little girl could brush the back of this beast—she was too short. "You can help her out 'til she's taller," suggested the instructor. My daughter looked at me with such hopeful trust—how could I turn down a chance to help her with something she wanted so dearly? I picked up a currycomb and got to work. She was ecstatic. I was petrified.
There was, after all, a compelling reason I'd put off lessons for so long: I'm afraid of horses. They are beautiful, useful animals with an important historic relationship to humankind; but they're also 1000 pounds of hoof and muscle, with a prey-animal's instinct to be skittish and an amazing ability to fling large objects off their backs. As I don't scare all that easily and have always felt that my few fears are logical and well-founded, I consider my response to horses perfectly rational. Try convincing a horse-loving pre-adolescent of the rationality of such a reaction; you will fail utterly.
Alice and I cleaned up the chestnut, a process that largely consisted of brushing tons of horse-scented dust into our nostrils, and watched the instructor as she settled the saddle on "Mr. Stocker" and tightened the girth. There's usually a procedure of lengthening the stirrups, but my kid was small enough that the stirrups were wrapped, instead. The instructor guided the horse to the ring. Alice fairly leaped along beside her; I kept my distance again and managed to stay calm throughout the brief time my child sat mounted on her new pal. But as it was clear she considered Mr. Stocker to be a newfound and most excellent friend, it was equally clear that I was doomed to a horse-encumbered life.
That was six years ago. The lessons have continued (we have leased horses in the interim), and Alice has grown quite a few inches. She can groom and tack any horse in the barn and haul her saddle off the tack rack without whining for my help. She loves to learn the horses' temperaments and quirks, loves to nuzzle and groom them and nudge them into a smooth canter or nice trot, to trail-ride for fun or work them in dressage patterns about the ring. When she's with horses, she feels confident; she's among friends. She calls them brats when they refuse to listen to her and pats them encouragingly when they perform as requested. She sits up straight and looks ahead at the world, ready for anything. Isn't this what I want for my daughter: practical self-confidence? Fresh air and exercise? Compassion and curiosity? Somewhere a teenaged girl can feel at ease with her body?
And though I never had the "horse crazy" bug as a child, spending every Saturday morning at the stable has benefited even me. I'm gradually adapting myself to the company of horses, learning to respect what I've feared—even to trust the creatures—thanks to Alice's belief in me and her patience with my ignorance. It turns out the riding lessons have taught both of us a good deal. I had to learn common-sense horse handling safety before discerning the difference between a halter and a bridle, and I patted many noses before venturing to offer a treat of carrots. Now, I can even hold a pony's hind leg and pick its hoof clean. I've come a long way. And the person who brought me here is still in high school. Kind of makes me wonder what adventures lie ahead, for both of us.
Ann E. Michael (www.annemichael.com) writes poems and essays from her home in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley, where she lives with her husband and two children. She teaches at DeSales University.