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For Women Over 40 Succumbing to the Desire
to Start Riding Again

  Somewhere along the way in the 20 years since I've had horses, I'd almost given up the idea that I'd ever have one again. I'd almost convinced myself that I really didn't want to go through all of that again; "that" being all the worries and headaches of loving a 1200 pound creature who runs first and thinks later, who breaks bones that can't be repaired, and who comes down with deadly things like colic and laminitis and bastard strangles. For all their size and strength, horses are deceptively fragile creatures. I'd learned that the hard way, having my heart broken twice. No, I really didn't want to go through all of that again.

  But there's something about the rhythm of those hoof beats, and those wonderful, enveloping barn smells that you just never get out of your system, no matter how hard you try. Walking through the barn on these cold winter days, those smells bring my youth back to me in the most profound way. But I get ahead of my story.

  When I was young, and could spend entire days mucking and riding, horses were my life. And I showed. Every weekend for years we hauled horses all over the country, bringing home trophies and accolades. I loved it, especially the training, having horses who could do flying changes, half passes, and turns on the forehand at the touch of a rein or a subtle shift of weight. I always needed a goal for my riding. A plan. A purpose. I loved being recognized for what we'd accomplished, and I took it all for granted.

  Those days came to an end when I traded my horses for a husband. It was the logical, appropriate thing to do, so I let it happen without much thought. The husband-to-be was a doctor-to-be, so of course I would have horses again - some day.

  This new life I'd mapped out didn't exactly follow my plan. In short order the doctor-to-be-husband became doctor-husband, then doctor-with-girlfriend-husband, and then doctor-ex-husband. The horse in my future turned and trotted away.

  To sum up the next 12 years of my life, let's just say I gave up on doing logical, appropriate things. Then one day, in this illogical, inappropriate way of doing things that I'd perfected, I met my soul mate, and a new phase of my life began. Bam. Just like that. The next thing I knew I was a respectable married woman. I traded living on the edge for living on a cul de sac.

  Maybe it's just the way I am, always looking for "the next thing." Maybe I knew it was now or never. Maybe it was the cul de sac. Anyway, after about a year of life in suburbia, I started looking for a horse. Not seriously, of course. Just playing with the idea. I wondered about retired racehorses, so I searched the Internet for adoption programs. Amazingly, I found a group right in the city where we live. I filled out the application the way I shop catalogues: I put everything I want on the order form, then I let it sit for a couple of days until I realize I don't need or want any of it and throw the order away. I mentioned the application to my husband, then, true to form, a couple of days later I told him it wasn't the right time to get a horse, and pitched the paper into the recycle bin. I was so proud of my ability to be sensible. I turned my attention elsewhere for about a month. Then I pulled the site back up, redid the application, asked my husband what he thought, and got the horse.

  One Verse, who we call Cooper, picked us, so my husband says. There were 17 horses to see that day, but once Coop poked his head over the stall door, I was his. Not that it would have mattered, but he is absolutely beautiful. And for a Thoroughbred, particularly a three year old Thoroughbred, he is calm, sane and honest.

  Key phrase here: "for a Thoroughbred."

  I know a little about the lives racehorses lead since I've worked with retired greyhounds, so I was prepared for the re-learning stage. Trading the cloistered life of a high maintenance money-maker for the laid back life of a companion animal isn't always an easy transition. I wasn't surprised that I had to chase Cooper around his stall to get him to try a bite of carrot or apple, or that he wasn't quite sure what to do when an irresistible impulse to hug him around the neck came over me. I understood that his training for racing and his training for pleasure horse had little in common save the fact that he was used to having a bit in his mouth and a rider on his back. The adoption program stressed that these horses were not for inexperienced riders. Though it had been a lifetime ago, the coordinator deemed that I had enough experience to qualify. I felt honored. She suggested a month or two of ground work before I got on his back. I was fine with that, since at this point I was pretty content just to sit in his stall and look at him - a habit that the other boarders at the stable where I kept him found a bit strange.

  Now, there was another thing I was sort of prepared to accept, but didn't really know how good I'd have to get at it: everybody at the stable treated me like a beginner. I got the most well-intentioned basic advice. It made me want to hold up photos of me with my other horses, posed next to girls in cowboy hats with queen tiaras or men dressed in spiffy hunt attire as they handed me huge trophies and attached long, flowing blue ribbons to the horses' bridles. I knew I couldn't really do that, but there were times when I did blurt out totally inappropriate references to past success. Then I'd feel quite dumb.

  To further complicate matters, years in dog and cat rescue had opened up a new paradigm for me. I'd learned about holistic health, which was totally foreign to pretty much everybody I'd come across since I'd moved to cul de sac land. It seemed everybody in the stable was either a vet tech or vet student at OSU. OSU is not much into holistic anything. The barn managers found crystals in Cooper's water buckets, which fueled rumors that I did not vaccinate my horse. I took Cooper off of the schedule for routine worming. People did not want their horses stalled next to us. I figured I'd wind up paying board for three stalls - Cooper's, and the stalls on either side of him.

  Since I hadn't done quite enough to make these people fear and loathe me, I had to tack Cooper up in a synthetic leather saddle. ("Dear God, she's vegetarian, too.") Then I started surfing the Internet again. This always gets me into trouble. There was a site advocating the bitless bridle. I mean, it makes perfect sense. Having something in your mouth triggers your digestive system. So here you've got this cold, hard piece of metal in your mouth, and you can't eat it. You can't even chew it. It just sits there, til the human on your back decides to start pulling on it to make you do things. I ordered a bitless bridle. In synthetic leather.

  This is where things got a little fuzzy for me. I'd done the ground work; lungeing and working with long lines, plenty of walks and a couple of massages. I was ready to ride, but I didn't want to ride "the old way." So much had changed since I used to ride. There were new ways of looking at the human/animal relationship. I'd worked on having this new kind of relationship with the dogs and cats, and of course wanted to do that with Cooper. I'd never really mistreated my other horses, at least intentionally, but I wanted to do things better with Coop. But a horse is a lot different than a dog or cat, plus I was just a teeny bit unsure of myself, plus everybody was convinced I was either an idiot or at least very strange, plus I had lots of advice. In spite of it all, and this is unfortunate, things started out really well. Cooper was wonderful. I was convinced that we understood each other. We were buddies. He was going to be great. This is where the "for a Thoroughbred" part comes in.

  15.2 is not a big horse. It's still a long way to the ground. I'd ridden for 15 years and never gotten hurt. Two months into this retired racehorse gig, and I was in the hospital. It was no big deal, just a minor concussion and some bruises and the promise that I was going to be really sore the next day - due to my age. I couldn't understand how one minute Cooper and I were going in basically the same direction, and then all the sudden, he was way over there. (I continue to learn of many other similar abilities which are unique to Thoroughbreds.) A lot of times people will tell you that things like this happen in slow motion. They see everything very clearly. Not me. It was a Wiley Coyote moment. I looked down and saw air instead of horse. Then things went black.

  Now I had a dilemma. I had to figure out a way to stay true to what I believed without getting killed. What was I doing? What did I expect? I realized that I'd been in two camps: one was about having this horse whisperer kind of relationship, the other was about taking him to clinics to work on his lateral movement because he was coming along so well. I slid back into what had "worked" for me in the past. I listened to other people talking about training. "Kick him hard with your spurs! Harder!" "Lunge the hell out of him." It made me very uncomfortable. The day of the clinic had been coooold. My toes had frozen solid. My arms hurt. I really felt that I was pushing Cooper too hard, but he was doing so well and everybody noticed and encouraged. But it really wasn't fun.

  It finally clicked. One day a really sweet woman was telling about how her horse had fought her about doing something and how she'd corrected him. I said, "That's not what I want." I realized I don't need to do that. I'm not training for anything. I'm not on a schedule. I don't have a goal, a plan, a purpose. I just have a horse. If he can never do a flying change, or if he doesn't have a perfect headset (which, by the way, restricts their breathing), so what? I don't have anything to prove anymore.

  Cooper can come along at his own pace. I can enjoy the mucking without rushing through it to get him into the arena, or I can just sit in his stall and look at him. When someone asks me what I want to train him for, I don't feel obligated to say "to do dressage" anymore. I just smile. I'm already doing what I want to do with him, and he is great.


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