My husband has heard me say many times that when I close my eyes in death I hope to wake up on the back of a horse.
Now if I’m 90 when I die I also hope that something will have been done about my crummy decrepit 90-year old body so I can at least enjoy the ride. I suppose if the Lord Almighty can plunk me onto the back of a heavenly horse He can also arrange for an adequate body to boot.
It’s been a lot of years since I’ve ridden. Decades. Multiple decades. Don’t even ask. As a girl growing up in Colorado, horses were what my thoughts and activities revolved around–except on Friday nights when The Partridge Family came on TV and I sat on the floor in front of the set and held up my cassette player’s recording microphone to that beautiful boy, David Cassidy. Ahhhhh. Anyway . . . horses.
We didn’t actually own a horse because we lived in town, and I’m sure for other reasons too that kids don’t get in on (money, she’s not responsible enough, that would be insane, etc.) but I took lessons and hung around the barns and cleaned hooves and mucked stalls when anybody would let me. For a while the lessons were in north Boulder at a place called Hidden Valley Ranch where the riding was Western, the saddle horns were large, and my first horse was named Mud. Yep. Mud. That’s your basic starter horse. He was old, swaybacked and slow. I wondered if he’d always had that name even when he was young, straight backed and fast, or whether they changed it from something like Rocket after he turned 20. By the time the teachers at Hidden Valley decided I wasn’t going to be a repeat offender in the “losing control of the horse” or “crying for mama” department, they let me graduate to Max. Oh that animal was a beauty. The sight of him was humbling. Solid black except for one forelock. Sixteen hands. I needed not only a footstool but a significant boost. I felt on top of the world on that sleek gorgeous horse. Never looked back at Mr. Mud. Sorry, dude.
On summer weekends, Mom, Dad and I would occasionally drive up the canyon to their rustic cabin near the ghost town of Eldora. It was stupendously scenic high Rocky Mountain country with craggy peaks covered in miles of quaky aspens and towering pines. “So what?” said little me. I didn’t care about any of that scenery or relaxation stuff because just before the bustling burg (ha!) of Eldora when the asphalt turned to dirt there was an old ranch by the side of the road with horses to rent. My dear dad, who clearly needed down time more than he needed saddle time, usually succumbed to wheedling and took me. Riding wasn’t really his thing but that sort of notion never stopped him from doing whatever presented itself, especially if the idea came from The Kid. The horse I always zeroed in on at the rent-a-horse place was called Creamy. Kind of a middle-of-the-road old gal. Used to being ridden by lots of different people and still had a bit of spark. I think back now and wonder if those horses could’ve used a touch more TLC and it makes my heart hurt a little.
Dad and I would take off on our rented horses through the woods on what I assume was a trail. I came to realize later in life that his sense of direction never developed past the embryonic stage (Sorry, Daddy, but you know it’s true. You once got so lost on a shopping trip that you came home and declared that they’d “moved the mall.”) so the fact that we actually managed to arrive back at the horse barn every time was semi-miraculous. Kids trust their dads though and we loped along as if there was nothing to worry about. Maybe the rental guy gave him a horse whose nose naturally pointed toward the barn. Maybe my dad and the rental guy had a history of us not returning for a really long time one time. Ha! Also, my memory is fuzzy on details of a particular day of trail riding when a horse spooked and disposed of one of us into the shrubbery and I honestly don’t remember who it was, me or Dad. I hope me.
Falling off a horse is an art form. You can do it well or do it in a way that will make you unwell. Ha! And yes, sometimes it just happens how it’s going to happen. There are a few tips to keep in mind, however, that in some circumstances might keep you out of the hospital.
After taking Western riding I eventually moved on to a bit of English and some beginning jumping. Loved it. Loved my teacher, Helen. She had a long thick braid down her always plaid-shirted back and never raised her voice. She taught me how to fall. Where was she, I’d like to know, the other day when I biffed it walking in my front door with the groceries? Ugh.
At her acreage that included barns, stalls, an outdoor riding arena, an unused slimy above-ground swimming pool and maybe a house but I didn’t really notice, Helen put me on a dapple grey horse named Dawn Boy without a saddle or reins and sent me up a steep hill. I quickly learned it was in my best interest to take mounds of that scruffy mane in my little hands, scooch up tight and grip his neck with all the power my kid knees could muster. Helen, from her horse beside me, said if I fell off while we were slowly climbing the hill, I most likely would get hurt because I would have time to brace myself and stiffen up before hitting the ground. “Oh good,” thought I.
We climbed that hill bareback a lot over the months of lessons with Helen. And I found going downhill wasn’t exactly a piece of cake either. Fell off once in a while but my kindhearted teacher was alongside and somehow eased the disaster. Good teachers are like that. I learned a thing or two about how to handle myself in a falling situation. And how to get back up.
When I began learning techniques about falling from a faster horse or a jumping horse is when something clicked inside me. Though I would never get to continue my dream of living with and loving and riding horses due to a severe allergic sickness suddenly overwhelming me that year, one of the most dynamic life lessons ever to come to a young girl — or maybe ever at all — came to me in that sawdust arena:
It is better to fall when you’re going fast (trying your best) than when you’re going slow (being overly cautious or fearful). You don’t tense up because there’s not time. You roll with the punches, so to speak. You’re limp. You’re limber. And you’re much more likely to get back up on the horse. Yes, I realize sometimes there are fractures and concussions and unconsciousness, but that’s not today’s story.
Falling well. Easier said than done. And Helen wisely set me up for success–or failure–depending on how you look at it. She sent me out for rounds in the arena with a saddle that wasn’t cinched properly. To her credit, she did warn me. But that didn’t keep me off the ground or from dusting off my derriere when the cantering animal rounded the first corner and the saddle shifted. Sounds worse than it really was. Helen helped me cinch ‘er up past the tricky purposeful bloating this horse was capable of and gave me a foot back up. Into a solid seat. And off we went for the next falling lesson. (There actually was more to our fun times together than constant “unscheduled dismounts” but that’s not today’s point either.) My teacher didn’t want me to be afraid. Fear of the animal and respect for the animal are two different things. Fear is bigger.
Fear can crush. Choke. Keep you chained in place on the ground in the sawdust. Prevent you from ever getting in the saddle in the first place. Or getting back up after a fall. And what’s to say that even if you do manage to get up into a riding position that you won’t:
- Embarrass yourself
- Hurt yourself
- Hurt your horse or others
- Spoil your reputation as a horsewoman
- Damage your friendship among the horse people community (Wait. Is that how you say that?)
- Invite criticism from folks who really are experts at riding
The possibilities are too brutal and endless to imagine. Horrible. Stifling. Standing on solid ground in the sawdust is safe.
But friends, horses are SO great! Overcoming fear is worth the work. Sitting in a saddle that smells like old leather and squeaks in all the right places — nothing like it. Giving a hard pat or two to that sturdy neck, watching the horse-aroma dust scatter away from him and saying, “Who’s a good boy?” over and over to the beautiful animal. When you’re up there and the wind is in your hair and you give a little slap to the rein so the world moves faster underneath you and all sounds disappear except for the rhythmic, almost musical, hoof beats. That’s the stuff. That is good. That’s nearly heaven.
And no, we’re not still necessarily talking about actual horses. It might be more what you yourself dream it could be like waking up your first day in heaven (not everybody wants to land squarely on a horse). Or maybe it’s about setting out to do whatever your “thing” is that is difficult and frightening, possibly even potentially embarrassing or hurtful to you. A dream or a task here on earth. An aspiration. For which you must be brave. For which you must take the initial step of putting your foot in the saddle’s stirrup to lift the rest of you up. It’s running fast and hanging on tight. And knowing how to fall well if necessary. And remembering the One, the Almighty who has instructed you, comes alongside you, and whose open arms will surely cushion your fall. Who knows though? There’s not always falling involved in riding. Just be prepared and get on up there!
Dear one, God knows your deepest dreams. He understands the grief you feel from past failures and falls. He sees your fears and comes to you as a gentle, knowledgeable teacher who will help you if you come unseated today and also when you remember that long-ago day when you fell. He’ll pick you up, dust you off, and strengthen you for the endeavors at hand when you turn to Him for instruction and example.
There is direction for your ride through the deep woods and you’ll not lose your way. Your saddle may need an extra tightening cinch or you might even want a couple slow basic bareback trips up and down the hill before you’re ready to tackle a jumping wall. Give it time. Hang around the barn and absorb the atmosphere. Make friends with the other riders who know the Teacher and learn from their lives as they follow Him–Jesus. Always be listening to Him and His gentle words. You’ll soon be looking back from viewpoints of courage you never knew you were able to reach. Yes, you might fall, but you’ll fall well (somebody said to roll up like a hedgehog on your way down–ha!) and recover to ride again because you know the Savior whose strong arm supports you and gives you courage for the day. Keep striving. Keep learning. Keep working toward your dreams.
Just a final note . . . horses are good. There’s something about sitting tall and straight in a saddle. For one little girl who didn’t get much of a chance at it, the impression ran so deep that it gave her a “first day in heaven” wish. Give it a try. Both in reality and in your Christian journey. Life on a horse can be grand even on rough paths and steep hills. Getting back up after a fall is the best. Happy trails!
So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Disclaimer: If you’re a horse/riding/falling expert and you take exception to anything above, it doesn’t surprise me. Yeesh. I was just a kid. What do they know? Horse facts weren’t really the point. It was a story. =)