Riding For My Life, Part Two: Hello, Ana

That fall Caroline’s big sister went off to college.  Caroline had to confine her voyeurism to her mating parakeets.  The big Thoroughbred went to a new home, and I was horseless all that winter.

The name-calling and mocking continued unabated at home, and since I really was a bit pudgy, the kids at school were relentless.  Twiggy made a splash as Model of the Year: “Thin was In.”  I stumbled through that school year by immersing myself in Latin.  I took a bullying beating for that one too (“Egghead, Dork, Brain), but I didn’t care because I knew they were just jealous.

By the time school got out that summer between Junior High and High School, I resolved that things were going to change.  I would not enter High School pudgy.  I would be Thin.  Very Thin.  I hatched a plan.  Half a piece of toast with butter, sugar, and cinnamon for breakfast, with black coffee; a blob of peanut butter for lunch; and as little for dinner as I could get away with.  The latter turned out to be easy, since my mother approved of my efforts to lose weight.

Since I had lost “my” horse, I looked to the nearest horse-source: the riding stable in the center of town.  It was around five miles from our house.  I mounted my Schwinn three-speed and pumped my way mostly uphill to the stable, marched in, and announced to the owner that I would be willing to clean stalls and tack in exchange for an hour of riding a day.  He almost fell over backward with joy.

I started that very day, mucking out stalls, tossing the manure and soiled bedding into a wheel barrow and toting it to the manure pile out back.  It was back-breaking labor, but I counted the seconds until I had finished and would get my first ride.

The owner looked at my sneakers and clucked his disapproval.  I flushed, knowing that sneakers were not only inappropriate, but forbidden, because one’s foot could slide through the stirrup and get caught, leading to a bad accident.  He pointed me to a pile of cast-off riding togs left by disaffected (and wealthy) pupils.  I found a pair of tall boots only two sizes too big, and a pair of baggy English britches to go with them.

He nodded his approval and pointed to a ragged-looking, skinny nag.  I eagerly took up a rubber curry, brushes and mane comb, and soon had him looking as presentable as he was going to get.  I tacked him up with saddle and bridle, led him out into the arena, and clambered onto his back via the mounting block.  The owner watched as I steered him around the arena, demonstrating my expertise at posting to the trot.  The poor old horse could barely manage a canter, so I didn’t press him.  My hour passed before I knew it, and I led my mount heaving and steaming into the barn.  His name, I found out, was Kelso, named after the great race horse.  I wondered if that was someone’s idea of a bad joke.

Kelso and I became best friends that summer.  I was soon allowed out of the arena with him, and we wandered the wide network of trails that sprawled behind the stable.  With care and patience, Kelso soon filled out, and became sleek and fast.

As Kelso was filling out, I was, to my great satisfaction, shrinking rapidly.  I learned to recognize the dizziness of hypoglycemia as a welcome sign of becoming thinner.  I abandoned the noontime peanut butter in favor of spending more time working and riding.  My English riding britches started falling off me, and I had to dig through the cast-off pile for a smaller pair.

I noticed that as a thin person, my mother’s rants meant less to me.  They lost their sting.  I was Thin.  I was In.  I forged ahead with my campaign, determined to get as willowy as possible.  What was possible, I didn’t know.  I only knew that for the first time in my life, I felt in control of Something.  And that Something was Me.  My life.

In the meantime, the owner of the stable got a trailer load of horses in from Out West.  “Green-broke,” he called them.  As I later discovered, “green-broke” meant that someone had been on their back before.  It did not mean that someone had stayed on their back.

He called me over and pointed out a fine-looking gelding, about fifteen hands high (a “hand” is four inches).

“Think you can ride him?” he asked casually.

“Of course!” I snorted.  What a foolish question.

“Tack him up, then, and take him out in the arena.”

He was a little skittish in the cross-ties, and shied violently when I tightened the girth.  He clamped his teeth firmly when I went to put the bit in his mouth, and bit me good when I used the horseman’s trick of sliding my thumb into the space behind his teeth (called the “bars”) to make him open his mouth.  That just made me more determined, and we had one hell of a fight, until I had saddle and bridle both properly on, and lead him out into the arena.

He wouldn’t stand next to the mounting block, so I pulled him up to the fence.  No sooner had I got one foot into the stirrup and the other off the ground, preparing to swing into the saddle, when he commenced bucking.

Well, there wasn’t any choice at that point but to swing my leg over anyway and try to get as much purchase in the saddle as I could, given the commotion that was going on underneath me.  I managed to catch the other stirrup on the fly, and remembering my riding master’s chant, “Keep your heels down, keep your heels down,” I kept my heels down and stood up in the stirrups, hanging on to a piece of mane, until my wild one wore himself out and stood heaving and snorting beneath me.

“That’s a good boy,” I said, trying hard not to shake.  I turned his head and walked him gently around the ring counterclockwise, then turned him toward the fence and rode him clockwise.  Then I urged him into a trot, but when I began to post he stood straight up in the air, teetering.

By the dictate of what instinct I know not, I stood up in the stirrups, keeping my heels down, and sprung off backward, keeping hold of the reins.  The horse crashed down on his back and I let go and jumped out of the way.  He thrashed in the dust of the ring and struggled to his feet panting, his eyes showing white with fear.

I walked up to him, talking to him gently, and took the reins.  The English saddle on his back was smashed.

I led him around the ring until both of our jitters calmed down a bit, then turned and headed for the barn.

The owner was standing there grinning.  I was petrified: a good saddle smashed, a horse nearly killed.  For myself, I thought nothing.

“Well,” he said around his cigar, “You’re a good little rider, aren’t you?”

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18 Comments

  1. I love your writing. is this going to be a novel? Because it is begging to be a novel. You are brilliant in your writing. I can not say enough good about it. Please, please write a book or if you have already let me know the name of it so I can buy it. Pretty please

    Reply
  2. I’m loving your horse stories, Laura!! You’ve had grit and determination all your life, from all I’ve read and the conversations we’ve had. I think both those things were God’s gifts to you b/c He knew what all you’d have to face!!

    There was a song popular in my early teens — can’t remember who sang it — and the chorus was, “Ride ’em cowboy. Don’t let ’em get you down. You’re the finest (something) in town . . . ” (or maybe it was “around” instead of “in town.”) Too bad I didn’t save all my 45s!! 😀

    Looking forward to the next installment!!
    — Kathy

    Reply
    • I wish you’d saved them too! I love the old music, full of real sentiment and genuine passion for life. I used to have a bunch of old 78’s, mostly string band but some like “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” hot-cha-cha! I remember a “Ride’em Cowboy,” too. I believe it was a Texas Swing, can’t quite catch the singer’s name right now but it will come to me. We ought to have a meet-up of us ol’ survivor gals, somewhere central and comfortable and fun. What do you think?

      Reply
  3. Sweet Laura, my heart hurts for you even now. But I also see how amazing you were even then, and how you made it through alive. ♥

    Reply
    • Thank you, dear. I have no idea why I didn’t get killed in the many and varied hell-bent adventures I undertook in the way of attempting to escape my life. But here I am, for whatever that’s worth. Thanks for your love and support, always!

      Reply
  4. You are very brave. 🙂

    Reply
    • Um, I would rather call it foolish….or maybe I read too many adventure books. But I was certainly a determined young thing, for whatever reason, and I look back with aching joints and shake my head.

      Reply
  5. I just love the way you write…so full of description, your own determination and struggles, and some humor thrown in appropriately. I will definitely buy the book of your life if you publish it. Your life has brought you so many challenges, yet you can share them with us today with talent and class and a wise perspective you’ve gained over the years. I so appreciate your sharing with us. Peace to your heart

    Reply
    • OMG you make me blush…thank you so much! You are inspiring me to get back to my memoir, which, although it only covers a 7 month span of my life, is already pushing 100,000 words…oh dear, how will I do it?

      Reply
      • Turn into a series — Part One, Part Two, etc. More and more authors are doing series when they have a character that really catches on. If they can do it, you can do it: “Dina Leah, Soul Survivor: Part One” Ah, yes, I can see an autographed copy of it on my nightstand!! 😀

        Reply
      • Just take a deep breath and start with writing about something you feel passionate about in your life. It’s a bit easier if we feel strongly about the topic. I know you can do it! But do it only as long as it is something you want to do…you don’t need anymore bull in your life than you’ve already had 😉 I’ll be right here supporting you and cheering for you ❤

        Reply
  6. A great read Laura!
    We had two horses when I was little. Your story reminded me of watching my brother one day when his saddle slipped (not sure why) and he hung upside down as the horse bucked and panicked. Fortunately no kicks to the head for him – but took him a little while to get back on 😉

    Reply
    • Oh man….Glad your brother was all right. I have had that happen to me, on a nasty little Shetland pony that held its breath till I got on, then breathed out so the saddle slipped like you said….I bailed out. Yeah, for a “normal” person that might put them off for a bit. You’re so lucky to have had horses as a kid!

      Reply

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