When I was a tween, I was seriously into horses. Maybe it was all the fairytales with princesses and their horses. Or Black Beauty or Misty of Chincoteague. Maybe I read too many historical novels where queens and ladies galloped about on their faithful steeds. I didn’t have much use for dolls and I preferred books to the usual girly stuff, like ballet or cheerleading. But I wanted to be poised and graceful and ladylike on a horse. Dammit, I wanted a pony.
Since we lived in the suburbs, a pony was not an option (although believe me, I made the case more than once. We did have a big backyard.). But my parents were willing to indulge my pleas for horseback riding lessons. “Some girls are just horse girls,” my stepdad observed. And he would know–his sister, Aunt Trish, was a grown-up horse girl. She had a farm in Virginia’s hunt country, where she raised and trained horses, and so, when I was old enough, I was kitted out with a helmet, boots, and riding pants and sent to Aunt Trish’s farm.
Tall, blonde and ladylike, Aunt Trish was also a formidable horsewoman. And like most horsewomen, she was a serious athlete. I learned pretty quickly that while horseback riding looks graceful and feminine and pretty, it’s damn hard work. After my first full day of riding, Aunt Trish presented me with a box of Epsom salts and recommended a long soak in the tub before bed. I ignored her and stayed up late reading a book instead. I only made that mistake once. The next morning, my legs and back were so sore I was convinced a whole mafia crew had worked me over with a lead pipe while I slept.
But I was undeterred. I was determined to have that graceful upright posture, to canter through the fields with the wind in my hair like the heroines of my favorite novels. So I kept at it, and learned to appreciate horseback riding as a sport and horses for being, well, horses. I have always loved animals, and while horses are a lot bigger than me, I never feared them they way some people do. For one thing, they are way dumber than me. Beautiful? Yes. Graceful. Absolutely. Smart? Not so much. Horses are prey animals and prey animals evolved with one thing in mind: how not to be eaten. Besides that, there’s not much rattling around in those big heads of theirs. So relating to them is fairly simple: be nice, speak in a soothing low voice, don’t make any sudden movements, and be willing to forgive a certain amount of fussiness while they get used to you. I’ve found this is generally good advice for relating to all animals, including homo sapiens.
Horseback riding also proved to be a great sport for female bonding. I went to college in a fairly rural area of Virginia, and horseback riding was offered as gym elective. Twice a week I’d head to a farm about 15 minutes from campus, saddle up, ride for an hour or so, then comb, brush and pick hooves in a barn full of chatting, gossiping girls. For stress relief, it was unbeatable. By the end of the first semester together, we all wore matching shirts with our IHSA division number and the slogan, “Put Some Excitement Between Your Legs–Ride a Horse!” And by the end of the second semester my legs, back and abs were so ripped that my roommate–a varsity athlete herself–was impressed. Maybe all those women throughout history who embraced the ideal of graceful femininity on horseback were–conciously or subconciously–more interested in the physical strength and independence.
When I bought my apartment in Brooklyn, I was delighted to move only a few blocks away from New York’s best stable. I still ride in Prospect Park, cantering past yuppies with their strollers and dodging dogs in the bridle path (seriously, people, keep your fucking dogs leashed unless you want them to get squashed by a lumbering 1,000 lb. creature with sharp hooves). I don’t fit the princess mold in my helmet and leather gloves, but I gave that up a long time ago. I don’t care if I look ladylike–although I think I do–because galloping at full speed makes me feel badass, which is even better.