NONFICTION July 6, 2012

Horse Latitudes

The flyer said FREE RIDING LESSONS and featured a picture of a horse jumping a tall hedgerow. It was November 1986, and I was in my first semester as an exchange student at Essex University in Colchester, England. In those days, Colchester was a grim, wet garrison town ninety kilometers up the A12 from London. The place smelled of fried fish, unemployment ran into the double digits, and most nights the pubs were overrun with drunken soldiers, skin heads, and heroin-addicted punks. Needless to say, this was not the picture of England I’d had in mind when I left my home on the plains of Kansas to seek adventure abroad.

The same day I spotted the flyer, I walked two miles in drizzling rain to meet the owner of the stable, an angular, middle-aged woman named Jane or Elizabeth (I forget which) whose tangled, gray-at-the-roots hair and filthy barn coat announced confidently to the world, “I am the sort of person who has ceased to give a damn about anything but horses.”

“So you’re a Yank,” Jane observed, looking me up and down. “Ever mucked out a stable?”

I shook my head. “I’ve done farm work since I was a kid, though.”

“Splendid,” she said, showing me a mouthful of tobacco-stained teeth.

I spent the next hour shoveling horseshit into a wheelbarrow and hauling it up a muddy hill to a field behind the main barn. When I finished, Jane saddled one of the lesson horses, an ancient gray gelding, and led him into a large hilltop arena. There Jane’s eyes narrowed, her manner stiffened visibly, and her voice took on an abrupt, almost angry quality. “No, no, no!” she barked when I stuck my muddy boot into the left stirrup, preparing to mount. “That’s not how we do it. We face the back of the horse. I thought you said you’d ridden before.”

“I have, “ I said. “Western.”

“Well, no wonder,” Jane said.

Once she had shown me the proper way to mount a horse, Jane went on to demonstrate the correct method of sitting an English saddle. The whole thing felt pompous and stiff and was nothing at all like what I was used to. “We are not rounding up doggies on some Texan cattle station,” Jane announced. “Neither are we preparing to hurl a lariat. We are riding. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” I answered through gritted teeth.

At this, she hooked a lunge line to the side of the horse’s halter and stepped back twenty feet into the middle of the arena.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Preparing to lunge the horse, of course.”

“But I thought I was going to ride.”

“You are, yes. But first we must do something about your dreadful posture. Now, straighten your back and get your heels in line with your hips. You’re slouching!”

And so it went. Week after week, I mucked stables for free, and in return Jane did everything in her power to kill off any joy it was possible to feel while riding. She’d have made an excellent ballet or piano teacher. “Goodness, your hands!” she’d cry out as I rode in circles at the end of her long leash. “I have seven year olds who hold their hands more even than that! Heels down! Toes up!” Hearing this, I’d be seized by a desire to run her down where she stood in the middle of the arena. That accomplished, I’d jump the arena fence and be gone into the countryside beyond.

I did none of this, of course. Instead, I joined the campus saddle club, whose stock-in-trade was large trail rides deep into the neighboring moors. It was on one such ride that I witnessed something that reminded me what it was that had drawn me to riding in the first place. We were stopped at a country crossroads, and had been ordered to hold our horses so that a group of fox hunters could ride through at a trot. Here they came, one after the other, all of them posting leisurely in time with their horses. It was a pleasing sight, albeit nothing to write home about. Then, just as we were preparing to resume our own ride, a final member of their group, an older, jockey-like man with a white pencil mustache came barreling past us at a dead run. Whereas all of the other riders had skirted the hedgerow that lined the road where we had stopped, the old man went right over it, his body rising in unison with the horse, so that the two of them, rider and horse, appeared not just to glide over the hedge, but rather to fly.

That was twenty-five years ago. I still wake some mornings dreaming about it.