I first wrote this essay in November of 2012. It's one of my personal favorites. I decided to post it again in honor of the Kentucky Derby.
I was given directions the outskirts of town, an area I once feared. I was told that the concentration of confederate sympathizers was high and to proceed with caution.
I drove down a few empty dirt roads till I met the farm gates. There was 90 acres of green pastures, and a manmade lake at the western side of the property. The road met a dead end at a barn. I parked, gravel a-pop, and a woman came out of the barn to greet me.
Miss Amy was tall, with blonde hair and plump cheeks covered in sun spots and a generous tan. She was flanked by three black lab dogs, who nuzzled her bare knees. She introduced herself, even though we’d spoken on the phone when I planned my visit. I was there merely for a tour, just to decide whether or not horseback riding was something I wanted to pursue.
She began by showing me inside of the barn. It was a big, open room with lots of hooks and cubbies for tacks, saddles, bits and crops. The horses – unlike most stables in films – were all kept in pastures, collected and returned before and after each lesson.
“Why don’t you meet some of the other girls?” Miss Amy asked. She called over two girls mounted on horses. I was introduced to Morgan and Dave-Ann. Morgan was very pretty, strands of blonde hair were sticking out from under her helmet. She had a deep southern accent, offset by her witty tone and choice of words. She was astride Easter, a snow-white horse who blinked nonchalantly at our conversation. Dave-Ann was the quieter of the two, who explained that she leased a horse for free, since she helped out at the barn three times a week.
“Why do you want to ride?” she asked me.
“I think it looks fun,” I said, feeling my answer was too weak.
“Our motto at the farm is ‘Learning life lessons through horses,’” she said. “And it’s so true. I used to be a brat before I started riding.” I was skeptical that at 17 I had any more life lessons to learn, but nodded, as if I agreed.
I followed them to the ring, and we chatted about where we went to school, what mutual friends we may have had in common. There was a show jumping course set at one corner of the training fields. The girls demonstrated for me. Easter cantered toward a three foot set of horizontal poles, Morgan made a face of determination and cleared them, but Easter tripped on the landing.
“What are you doing?” she said. Then she turned to me. “Easter is a psychopath.”
The horses were powerful, but also graceful, and the girls, for their age (probably younger than 16) looked fearless and strong. They showed me the riding ring and the dressage ring before walking me back to my car. Miss Amy handed me a thick waiver to sign if I decided to return.
“We hope you come back,” Meredith said, still mounted on her horse. I told them that I would.
My first lesson was on a Monday. Miss Amy greeted me again, with the dogs, and showed me to my horse for the next few months, a golden blonde, short horse named Blondie. She had a very shy demeanor which was why she was given to all the beginner students. I was taught how to approach her, how to tack her up, clean her hooves and put her bit in by sliding the reigns over her head until she positioned the bit behind her teeth. Everything had to be done from the left side first, for consistency.
I mounted Blondie and at this time, the other girls joined us for our lessons. Most were around 7 or 8 years old, on little ponies. They were very welcoming to this near-adult stranger who now joined their group. They asked my name, complimented me on my fresh pair of navy jodhpurs and boots. “Thanks,” I said, “the leather is fake though.” The little girl nodded her head. “I know.”
The first few lessons were the basics. I was taught how to hold the reigns under my fingers but over my pinkies, and at the neck of the horse. I was taught 2-point position, required when I needed to jump (or rise up to see). I was taught out to “check my seat” to stay in synch with your horse when he was trotting. Every lesson ended the same, a slow walk back to the barn at sunset, while watercolor pinks and blues creeped across the trees.
In a month I began to learn more. I began to trust my horse more. I loved Blondie, I loved how easy she was in the ring, and I liked talking to her when I got her ready for lessons.
But, not all the lessons were good. One afternoon because of a holiday I had a solo lesson. Miss Amy warned that Blondie was a “follower horse,” liking to be where all the other horses were. When she saw me approaching an empty ring she veered away from it, and Miss Amy, her face flush red with anger, slapped her hands together.
“Make her go into the ring!” She yelled. “Make her do it! She won’t learn if you don’t do this, if you don’t show her you’re in control.” It took three tries. Blondie kept pulling me away, trying to join the other horses in the pastures. I was frightened by her power, I was pulling in the opposite direction but her 1,000 pounds pulled me the other way. When we were finally in the ring, I could feel her trembling in her legs -- mine trembling too. Tears welled in my eyes.
“You have to be strong,” Miss Amy said. “What are you afraid of?”
“I’m afraid of hurting her,” I said. Miss Amy pouted.
“You won’t hurt her,” she said.
I had just begun to get used to Blondie, to anticipate her reactions to make our lessons smoother. The best part of riding was becoming a team; learning to read the inaudible messages she gave me. Earning her trust.
I did not know it, but our last ride would be our most memorable one. The day before Easter I assisted Miss Amy with the annual Easter Egg Hunt, and as a reward me and the other girls were allowed to ride bareback to the lake. I took Blondie to the embankment and trotted along the narrow trails under overgrowth of tree branches and weeds that brushed by us as we passed. We walked over fallen logs and down little hills in the forest.
Miss Amy showed us how to ride our horses in the water; allowing them to wade up to their knees. She went first, guiding her horse down into the lake, and walking back and forth. We followed her lead splashing around in the sun, giggling as new friends.
In retrospect it was a very idyllic day: sunny, hot, everywhere I looked I saw lush green trees, and forests and rolling hills. It made me realize why some people liked the country. I always thought I was an urbanite, maybe I’d had it all wrong.
I came home wet and smelling like mud and grass. My parents asked me where I had been, I told them riding in a lake bareback, to which they shook their heads. Most people I knew reacted the same way, hell, who knew of African Americans that rode on horses? It was all very unfamiliar. Unfamiliar was exactly what I needed.
The next week I went to tack up Blondie, but she was gone. Miss Amy pointed to a very tall brown horse with a thin frame, and black hooves and black mane. I exchanged glances with him, and he tossed his head back indignantly.
“You’re not going to ride Blondie anymore,” Miss Amy said, treading softly when she saw my face. “This is Drambuey.” I said hello to him. “He has a lot of ticks, and he’s very stubborn. He tosses his head and stomps his foot. He is also lazy,” Miss Amy said. Since I was the most stubborn person I knew; I decided we had a lot to learn from each other.
Miss Amy was right about Drambuey. Our first lesson together was a disaster. It took more than one try to get him to trot and canter. He was happy to lazily stroll and stand dangerously close to the other horses.
Eventually we learned each other, I had to tap him under his belly to get him to do anything. If I talked a lot to him during lessons he was usually pleased. When I tacked him up he began taking a step closer to me, and I would fold my arm around his neck to hug him.
One spring afternoon a thunderstorm hit the farm. But before the rain, big bolts of lightning were striking somewhere beyond the grounds. Without the rain we continued our lesson as normal, but the horses were shaken up. Drambuey was the most afraid. A big bolt of lightning gave him a fright and he tore at a gallop through the ring. I was thrown off, the wind knocked out of me. When I looked up Drambuey was standing over me, and all the little students were crying in fear.
Miss Amy asked if I was OK.
“Are you ready to get back on?” she asked. All the other kids were asking their parents to go home, my fall had scared them. They were watching me closely. I had the choice to get back on or walk away.
An assistant brought Drambuey to the mounting block. I walked over, my hand bracing my aching back and hips. Then without a second thought I mounted, and the entire ring erupted into cheers.
By mid-May the farm was in transition. A new two-story barn was being built and everyone was a-buzz about the upcoming horse show competition. It was suggested that I compete with Blondie, but only something easy like a trot and canter over poles. “Just so you can see what it’s like,” Miss Amy said. I agreed to it. Training remained the same with more emphasis on what would happen at the show.
One week prior I met the sole investor in the building of the new barn. Her name was Mrs. Fan, a very wealthy woman in her late 60s, who had begun riding as an adult. I used to see her sometimes with her horse out far in the fields, but remained an enigma. She observed my lesson once and stopped to talk to me.
“You’re new,” she said. “How do you like it?”
“I love it,” I said. “I have a lot to learn.”
“I’ve only been riding for a few years,” she said. “I kept feeling like I didn’t understand, then one day it just clicked. You’ll have this moment soon where you’ll just get it. When everything clicks.” I thanked her for the advice.
When the horse show arrived I felt unprepared. I made certain to dress the part –- a white riding shirt with a circular collar, navy jodhpurs, a black velvet riding hat. Just like the equestrians I’d seen on TV. My family came to watch.
I did a terrible job but placed anyway (I was the only one competing in two of my three rounds). Miss Amy approached me immediately after, “The judge wants to see you.” I trotted over to her perch at the judge’s stand and was introduced to a small woman in a baseball cap shielding her eyes, a sleeveless collared shirt, and a clipboard. She was famous for some equestrian record –- but I didn’t remember what.
“I’ve been told you have only been riding a short time,” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
“You look great out there. You have the perfect body, very long legs, and good hands.”
“I want you to stay in it OK?” she asked.
“Yes I will,” I said. She didn’t believe me. She pressed a flat hand on her clipboard for emphasis.
“I want you to promise me that you won’t stop riding,” she said.
“I promise,” I said.
I never kept my promise. A month or two later I graduated high school and college classes disrupted my normal riding schedule. I spent a lot of time looking out at my antiseptic suburban neighborhood and wishing they were the unkempt country hills. I wanted my toned calves back; the feeling of fearlessness. I still want those things.
To keep myself from missing it too much I imagine that I am my much older self, elegant and strong, post-retirement like Mrs. Fan. And then I won’t stop till it clicks.