When Q and I crossed through Colorado while returning home from our American Road Trip, we stopped overnight at Rocky Mountain National Park. Q’s hunger for animal interaction had reached a fever pitch after we saw a pack of wild horses run free through the Montana wilderness, so we embarked on a horseback trail ride that would takes us through the most gorgeous parts of the park.
The operators of the trail ride gave me Jackson, a mild-mannered horse well suited to someone like myself who had no experience riding. Jackson was indifferent to all of my commands; he paid no mind to his fearful passenger who pulled on his reins frantically when he was off balance, who could barely muster an audible “Whoa!” when he was inches from crashing into another horse’s butt. Jackson was like a electric slot car on a track – making all the twists and turns himself, while letting me assume control just because I was squeezing the trigger.
I know these sort of trail rides are set up so even a youngster can excel. The eight-year-old a few horses behind me was totally nonplussed as we traversed through creeks and rocky terrain, though it makes me feel better if I assume she was some sort of prodigy, the Bobby Fischer of trail rides.
To make crystal clear which of us truly held the reins, Jackson would sometimes stop without any warning. No matter how hard I kicked him in the sides, he would not budge, and it was only until I got a whiff of the excrement falling out of his backside that I understood the reason for the abrupt stop. True, other horses on the trail ride would stop for bathroom breaks as well, but Jackson’s dumps just had more intent behind them. He would swing his tail back and forth, wafting the putrid smell in my direction, as if sarcastically asking, “Who’s riding who?” I didn’t even have the confidence to correct his grammar.
My grandfather loved Westerns. Whenever he visited us, he would plop down in the armchair closest to the television, turn on AMC when they still stayed true to their acronym, and watch John Wayne or Clint Eastwood annihilate whatever group of bad guys came to pillage their town this week. I would attempt to watch with him, but having little attention span for movies that didn’t involve Macaulay Culkin placing booby traps, I found their glacial pace to be unbearable. They could have, at the very least, added a wisecracking donkey to the mix.
Even though I was only able to sit through ten minutes of any given Western, it became obvious that riding a horse was a cornerstone of masculinity. It’s a combination of factors: taming a wild beast, the thrill of untethered riding, and the look, my God, the look. That visage of the Duke sitting high above his steed with perfect posture and holding onto the reins with the slightest of grips just oozed confidence and assertiveness. It’s the archetype of the loner hero, the man who needs no other to vanquish a swarm of enemies, that kept my grandfather transfixed for hours on end. If I wanted even a shred of the Duke’s poise atop a horse, I’d need more instruction.
Like so many of my previous manly challenges, Q has the edge on me by a mile. Q started horseback riding when she was six years old and rode English style throughout grade school, high school, and college. I visited her once at the stables when we first started dating. She took her favorite horse out into the ring and cantered along the oval perimeter, effortlessly avoiding obstacles in her path. I don’t have the communion Q has with animals of every species, so seeing her in complete control of this thousand-pound beast was a sort of magic trick. It was one of the moments in our relationship when my perception of Q palpably changed. I knew that she rode horses, but actually seeing it with my own eyes was something altogether different, like reading that Stevie Wonder can play the drums and then watching this.
The trail ride with Poopmaster General Jackson was a demoralizing experience. I wanted to manhandle a horse into following my commands instead of the other way around. So Q and I made an appointment for a half-hour lesson each at Bergen Equestrian Center in New Jersey, home to Columbia University’s equestrian team.
We fill out some paperwork and sign a waiver upon arrival. I’ve been conditioned to become excited any time I sign my life away in these challenges – the best ones always start with absolving the MANtor of any responsibility. Afterwards, we enter through the enormous indoor training ring and head towards the back of the equestrian center where the stables are located. It’s there that we meet Ellen, a spark plug of all five feet tall, who will be both Q’s and my instructor for the day. Q will be showing off her stuff so she can be placed at a certain skill level for future lessons whereas I will try to show up the six- and seven-year-olds who are currently riding ponies in the training ring. I’ll save you the time of scrolling down to the bottom of this post – it doesn’t happen.
Though it’s been nearly six years since she has adorned her riding gear, Q returns to horseback riding like a fish to water. Most impressively, she adroitly handles her horse over a series of poles set down on the ground like yard markers on a football field, letting a hoof fall in the break between each pole. Knowing that horses are prey animals and wouldn’t be able to tackle an obstacle like this without an assertive rider makes her accomplishment all the more impressive.
Seeing Q’s skills in person again puts the idea of “manhandling a horse” in a new perspective. To gain control, I must first show that I am deserving of it. There’s a modicum of violence involved in kicking a horse’s sides with spurs and yanking on its reins, and perhaps it is my hesitance that sets me up for failure. It’s probably impossible to overcome considering I could barely remove a hook from a dying fish’s mouth, but my new worry proves to be inconsequential because I look up and see Q dismount her horse. There’s no time to be inside my head. I’m up.
My horse Toby looks at me with a studied ambivalence as I meet him in the stables. I suppose the horses they give to beginners are the ones that remain cool as a cucumber despite the frantic and nervous novice atop them, so maybe I should be encouraged by Toby’s indifferent greeting. In that regard, I wonder how different an apathetic horse will be from a trail ride pooper like Jackson. Toby might just do his own thing whether or not I give him the correct instruction. But Ellen doesn’t strike me as the type of person to go easy on her students, so I have faith that I’ll get the full experience today.
Ellen asks me to lead Toby into the ring and explains that you always lead the horse from his left side and never from the front, so you avoid accidentally spooking him. Her simple instruction makes me rethink my initial fear of Toby. Q told me that horses can spooked by shadows, birds, and other seemingly inconsequential things, but it was surprising to learn that something as simple as my placement while leading could create such a crisis. Unconsciously, I find myself rubbing Toby’s skin and murmuring a few “attaboys” as we head into the ring. It begins to feel like walking a pet on a leash, and it becomes oddly relaxing.
Next, Ellen teaches me how to mount Toby with the help of a stair set, which is just giving ammo to the six-year-old pony riders to mock me, but I suppose we all start somewhere. I’ll be learning English technique today, in which both hands hold onto the reins, as opposed to the Western technique, where one hand remains free to swirl a lasso or shoot a pistol. Though in appearance Western technique may be the more masculine of the two methods, I like that riding English is more akin to a steering wheel – pull on the left rein and the horse miraculously turns left. Even though Ellen says I can use a light touch on the reins, I worry that Toby might be of the same ilk as Jackson, in that no matter how hard I pull, he will move however he pleases like a planchette on a Ouija board.
As we walk around the ring, I don’t feel fully autonomous as Ellen (or perhaps Toby) seems to do most of the work in steering. It’s not that I figured I would be competent after fifteen minutes, but knowing that we’re already halfway through the lesson makes me hesitant to believe I’ll see any results. I wonder if Ellen senses my frustration because she stops Toby and asks me to try something different. She says a horse can sense body movement to the finest degree, so as we walk around the ring once more, she directs me to simply twist my body in the direction I wish to go instead of using the reins. I’m incredulous – I do believe her methods would work with somebody else, just not me. I don’t have the assertive energy to move my guinea pig out of his plastic igloo without the promise of food, so what chance do I stand with Toby?
I propose to give Ellen’s farfetched idea the old college try, if only to be a respectful student. I kick Toby in his sides to start him up, but he stands stoically until Ellen nudges him forward, holding onto the bit in his mouth. It doesn’t give me a lot of confidence for our upcoming attempt at telekinesis. I have a premonition that as soon as I let go of the reins, Toby will take advantage of his freedom and jump over the fence, no matter how frantically I twist my body in the opposite direction. He’ll gallop through the lobby and out the doors, enjoying the brisk cold air rushing against his face as I hold on for dear life. I hope that Q has her iPhone on video mode for this moment.
Of course, none of that happens. I slightly rotate my body to the left and will Toby to follow in that direction with all the mind power I can muster. Almost imperceptibly, Toby’s vector shifts to the left and he glides alongside the fence that surrounds the ring, adhering to my silent command. He and I met only fifteen short minutes ago but now this invisible thread connects us in a way that allows him to react to my slightest movement. It’s like how I imagine riding a Segway feels, only I’m not ashamed to ride Toby in public. And it’s at this moment that I realize how dense I’ve been.
The loner hero I idolized was a misnomer because my loner hero was never really alone if he was accompanied by his faithful steed. Riding a horse is not like driving a car; the reins aren’t a steering wheel and spurs aren’t a substitute for a gas pedal. Neither is a horse a pet, something that needs your charity to survive. Once I successfully communicate with Toby I realize that a sort of symbiosis is forming between us. It’s only when I view him as a partner, and not as a beast to be tamed, that I get anywhere with him. It’s then that we start to move as one.
Ellen finishes my lesson with some refinement of my posture and an introduction to trotting, so I can get a feel for what it’s like to move at a faster speed. But nothing could match the epiphany in discovering that a horse isn’t an animate vehicle to be bullied around. It makes me wish I could go back to Colorado and take Jackson on the trails once more. Unless that place has a horse that can limit its trail ride bathroom breaks to a single digit. Sorry, Jackson, I haven’t changed that much.
ON THE MAN SCALE…
I just saw a film that played the exact same scene from the beginning of the movie at the very end; however, your opinion of the scene on second viewing is completely different with knowledge of the full story. I’ve started to realize the same effect can occur from rewatching films I first saw when I was much younger. I was too transfixed by the steely gaze of John Wayne to see the proud and majestic animal in the bottom of the frame. Toby and I made a palpable connection that was only possible once I let go of my misconceptions. Though I still find poetry in the idea of the loner hero, there might be something more special in the relationship between a man and his horse. 4.29.
NEXT WEEK: Sparks will fly.