In the summer of 1973, after three years of begging, pleading, and promising I would never ask for anything else, ever, my mom gave in and let me start taking riding lessons. From that day on, I seized any opportunity to spend time with horses.
For the next 40 years, riding remained a regular part of my life. But then, a variety of circumstances kept me away from the barn for two years and I was faced with the challenge of returning to a sport after a long break. That first day back, I was as excited as a kid on Christmas. I couldn’t wait to walk-trot,-canter the day away—they were going to have to pry me out of the saddle!
My maiden voyage was on Capote—an 11-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred. Capote and I had been friends for several years. He was a lovely animal with a sweet disposition. He was also extremely smart and enjoyed nothing more than to size you up, determine your weaknesses and then exploit them.
It took him about 30 seconds to realize that while I knew what I was doing, I currently had zero ability to do it.
My request to go forward was met with that slow-motion shuffle that a horse does when he thinks he’s going back to the barn but you turn and head for the arena instead. In his defense, my request had not been very specific. My out-of-shape attempt at applying leg didn’t say ‘please perform a working walk’ as much as it said ‘um, stop standing still.’
But when I tried to squeeze a credible walk out of him, I was horrified to discover I had nothing to squeeze with. Where had my leg muscles gone? And my ankle joints were tingling from flexing and pressing my heel down. Seriously? I’d been on for all of five minutes.
Despite my best effort, Neptune could have made it around the sun faster than I made it around the ring. I spent the time reviewing the basics of position and ran through my repertoire of walk-work. Except I didn’t practice halting—I was afraid to halt because I didn’t think I could get him going again.
Feeling acclimated to being back in the saddle, I decided it was time for a posting trot. Easy-peasy. I could post all day.
I pressed my fiery steed into a jog that would have done a western pleasure horse proud (too bad Capote was a hunter). At one-third of a lap, I’d achieved an almost-working-trot. In a moment of ill-begotten confidence, I took my leg off.
Capote dropped to the walk so abruptly that I ended up halfway up his neck. Okay, fine, I thought. That one was my bad. Making a mental note to write to my congressman about the need for seat belts on saddles, I re-positioned myself and rallied for a second attempt at trotting.
I got once around the ring before I was gasping for breath and felt like my heart was going to explode.
Capote did another one of his hit-a-brick-wall downward transitions. While he clearly believed his participation was optional, he’d been participating enough to identify the exact moment I was out of energy. I should have kicked him back up to the trot and made him do the transition smoothly, but I couldn’t and he knew it. I just let him do his walking-dead-horse shuffle while I tried to steady my breathing and looked for an inconspicuous place to vomit.
A snail on the railing whizzed past us. Maybe it was a slug. I didn’t get a good enough look at it before it blazed out of sight.
Since posting had proven so taxing, I decided to try sitting a quiet trot. I went back up to the trot, posted a few steps to establish rhythm, then sat. At which juncture I inadvertently took my leg off.
I settled myself solidly into the saddle, sunk in to my heel, and began the sitting trot again.
Ow. Bouncy. Too bouncy! Ow. Bad Idea. Gotta re-group.
It reminded me of the time I’d tried to learn to drive a stick shift. Lurch. Stall. Lurch. Stall. Lurch. Stall. The only thing missing was the sound of gears stripping.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Capote’s nickname around the barn was “union worker.” In his mind, he had a contract. If you asked him to do something that wasn’t in it, he didn’t feel obliged. Evidently, providing a re-introduction to riding to a boney-butted, weakling redhead was not part of his agreement.
Determined to do one more lap at the posting trot, I reversed and requested working trot in no uncertain terms.
I completed a lap and a quarter before my lungs felt like they were on fire. But I did it! While congratulating myself on this milestone, I took my leg off.
By this time, my lower body had started to tremble. My legs felt like jelly. I could no longer feel my toes. Somehow, I was maintaining good posture, because a friend of mine who was also riding in the ring commented that it looked like I’d never missed a day of riding. I wanted to say thank you, but feared putting the extra demand on my respiratory system.
The only thing more difficult than getting Capote to trot when he’s feeling lazy is getting him to canter. But cantering would have taken far less effort than the bouncy power trot he elected to give me instead. I guess it was worth his extra effort to make me flail around on his back like a kid attempting her first canter departure on a recalcitrant school pony.
About the time I felt as though my liver and spleen were going to change places, he cantered. Poorly executed or not, it was a victory in my book. I kept my leg on and we made a full circuit of the ring before Capote felt my energy wane, and….
Cantering to the left never happened. Every muscle in my body was screaming. My lower back was fatigued to the point of failure and my whole left leg had either fallen asleep or fallen off. It had been a valiant first effort, but it was time to quit.
That’s when my friends Lindsey and Sheila, who were in the ring taking a lesson, started calling out ‘Jump a fence! Jump a fence!’ Bless their moisture-wicking socks, they were excited to see me back on a horse again and they just wanted me to have fun.
Our trainer, Hugh, set up a cross-rail. He may as well have built the Great Wall of China. I didn’t know if I had the strength to stay on, especially if Capote had some landing-side maneuvers I didn’t know about.
But the lure of jumping was too great. I did jump it. Once from the trot, and twice at the canter. Capote was a perfect gentleman. We met the jump out of stride every time and he cantered away softly. Jumping, it turned out, was the one thing I’d asked that was in his contract.
Though my ride had gone nothing like I’d expected, I was right about one thing—they had to pry me out of the saddle. I was too tired and my legs were too stiff to dismount on my own.
I gave Capote a “good boy” nose rub and he and rolled his eyes—I swear, he rolled them.
On my way home, I reflected on my experience. I’d spent so much of my life in the saddle that I had become complacent to the reality of how much athleticism riding required. I took for granted that, even after a two-year break, it would be easy. My body told a different story. Riding was hard work!
The next morning, I felt like I had been beaten with pipes. I could barely move. My muscles hurt in places I didn’t even know I had places. I was exhausted. I was sore. I was walking like John Wayne.
I couldn’t wait to go back and do it again.
Update: Jody has successfully cantered Capote and a variety of other horses around the ring, and has advanced from cross-rails to oxers. While muscle strength is returning quickly, aerobic capacity is taking longer. She still walks like John Wayne.
After years of trying to fit in with corporate America, Jody Lynne Werner decided to pursue her true passion as a career rather than a hobby. So now, she’s an artist, graphic designer, illustrator, cartoonist, web designer, writer and humorist. You can find her work on her Misfit Designs Cafepress site. Jody is one of the winners of the Chronicle’s first writing competition. Her work also appears in the Dec. 2, 2013, Amateur Issue print edition of The Chronicle of the Horse.