Back in the Saddle
Summer brings relief for most professors, but also a fair amount of stress. Unless you’re tenured or on the tenure-track (spoiler alert: most professors aren’t), then you’re going to be without a reasonable salary for three months. Instead of full-on panicking (and I might have done some of that too), I wanted to use my time pursuing something I cared about. This summer, I decided to rekindle my love of something from my childhood: horses.
It had been five years since I’d seriously ridden a horse. I contacted the owner of my old riding stable on a whim and was in luck, they needed help with their summer camps. I soaked my old saddle that had been sitting in my dad’s garage. I found my old stable boots with cracked leather. We tracked down my riding helmet. I scanned the corners of my closet to find my old jodhpurs. Despite the extended break, it was almost as if nothing had ever changed.
Arriving at the stable after five years meant that, actually, a lot had changed. My old instructor, the one who taught me for ten years, retired shortly after I left. There were new staff members, new horses, and a brand new barn. I quickly became worried that I was in over my head. The owner told me to come back in the week before camp and start riding again to get a feel for the horses.
There were just four lesson horses that I recognized. One of them was particularly special to me, a horse named Bob that I rode a lot when he was young and new to the lesson program. In true romantic fashion, I wondered if he would remember me. If he would whinny at me or push his nose through the bars of the stall. He didn’t. After five more years of lessons and camps, Bob had become lazier and more stubborn as most school horses tend to. But I caught many glimpses of the old Bob: how he follows you around in a stall, the way he gets excited about food. I am reminded of all the long summer days we spent together and of the summer days we would have together again.
I arrived with my old saddle in the trunk of my Toyota Camry. I paced around the barn until I tracked down someone who could tell me who to ride. They wanted me to work Peaches, a big palomino who had recently been nerved (put simply, had surgery on her hooves). The other people around quickly dispersed and I was left alone to groom, saddle, bridle, and then ride this horse I’d never met.
Luckily, my body and my brain had retained most of its horse memory. I easily went through the motions of grooming. I logically found a girth that would fit. I eased the bit into Peaches’s mouth. Before I knew it, I was leading her into the arena. As lots of people said to me over that week that you don’t really forget how to ride a horse. I mounted with ease, remembered how to cue her gaits, and heard my old instructor in my ear saying “heels down, eyes up.” It was lovely. I was definitely sore the next day.
Over the week, my confidence returned and when the staff suggested I ride some more advanced horses, I jumped at the chance. I got a fast horse to stand still. I got a beautiful simple lead change. I was increasingly surprised at how much I remembered. This isn’t to say that I can’t still improve. I know that I need to. There are things I remember doing at the peak of my riding days that were easy for me. When I try to do them now, I am reminded that horseback riding takes practice and requires a very specific set of muscles to form. When I tried trotting without stirrups, I soon discovered that my balance and leg strength isn’t what it used to be. I’m working on it.
When I described my summer job to my friends, they replied with how wonderful it sounded. I taught horse camps in the mornings and rode in the afternoons. Of course, horses don’t come without a lot of hard work. I am constantly sweeping, feeding, watering, picking stalls, lifting saddles, jogging around arenas and much more. Anyone that works with children knows that keeping them safe and happy is an enormous task in itself. But I’m not complaining.
There are parts of the horse world that I truly didn’t know if I would ever see again. Most mornings, I am one of the first people there which means I help bring the horses in from the pasture. Once, I watched the entire herd gallop together. I get to listen to their excited whinnies when we feed them. I see their ears perk up when I enter the stall. These are the moments horse people live for.
It has now been two months since I started working at the stable. I am preparing for my last week there because I’ll soon head off on vacation for two weeks and when I return, it will be time for the semester to start. I’m feeling all the bittersweet emotions. I’ve been so lucky to ride more than I would have in any other situation. I’ve done bareback, trail rides, group rides, and will soon participate in an upcoming horseback game day. At the same time, I’m happy to be returning to air conditioning. You don’t know hot until you’ve worked in mid-afternoon July heat. I am grateful for all the people I’ve met and who have helped me along the way, for all now-hilarious memories, and, of course, for all the horses.
To end this blogpost, I thought I would end with a list of some things I’ve learned over the past couple months:
1. Eight-year-old children love goats. And I mean love.
2. Ponies really are more stubborn than horses.
3. Most of them love to eat watermelon and drink Gatorade.
4. Bobbing for apples is the best summertime activity. The horses are pretty good at it too.
5. You never get tired of horses.