“You’re not a cowgirl until you fall off ten times,” sighed my teenaged riding teacher at my tenth riding lesson. She held the pony’s reins as the mare looked down at me dubiously.
Dusting off my jeans and sniffling, I ignored the pain in my shoulder – it took me years to learn not to block falls with my arms – and climbed back on Snooky. Maurie, my teacher, gave me an encouraging squeeze on my calf. I said nothing, eyes forward, and we hesitantly trotted off again.
I was one of those little girls who loved horses for no rational reason. I had no family connections to the equine set, no particular love of the outdoors, and somewhat overprotective parents. So when a card on my tenth birthday contained a certificate for ten riding lessons, I was ecstatic.
The fall at lesson number ten was actually my twelfth spill – yes, I was counting, and yes, I remember. The embarrassment of being hopelessly uncoordinated on horseback still smarts worse than the falls. My mom rarely stayed for those lessons, even when ten became twenty and twenty became a lease on the pony so I could practice several days a week. I don’t think she had the stomach to watch my pudgy legs and arms flail hopelessly as the hapless pony weaved around the ring. And Maurie never mentioned the falls to my mom, although my dusty clothes had to be a big clue.
Maybe Maurie was embarrassed. I was her very first student as a fifteen-year-old instructor whose main qualifications to teach were her natural, blue-ribbon winning poise at the 4H horse shows and her solid Christian upbringing. And she was a good teacher, as evidenced by the other students who quickly began to fill her weeknights and the local horse shows. Jill made it to States in her first year of showing. Maurie worked with Laurie to teach her mare to jump, and Laurie began to fly. Ribbons started to line the walls of the tack room. Their moms stayed for lessons and cheered from the rails. Sometimes I took lessons with the others. Snooky and I watched as they danced around the ring. When it was our turn, we’d try our clumsy trot again. If I was lucky, I’d finish still astride.
I joined the 4H club, but my mom practically had to push me out of the car to go to meetings. I didn’t belong with these graceful, slim, focused girls who could make small talk about breeches and boots over kool-aid and cookies.
At the height of my riding career, I won a few ribbons on the intercollegiate circuit – but I blame these on college’s bravery and chemicals. Whatever was in my system from the night before steeled me to prance into a show ring on an unknown horse with more confidence and imagined ability than I actually possessed. Maybe by “ribbons,” I actually mean, “no broken bones,” I don’t really remember. I think I might have been team captain?
Fast forward a few decades, and riding is mostly a solitary and quiet pastime for me. Every morning I go to the barn for a few quiet minutes at morning feed. If I make it back to the barn in the evening, it’s to brush a grateful, retired gelding, or maybe to throw a dusty saddle on his back and go for a quiet walk. A few years back, we tried an ‘Over the Hill’ show, no riders under 21 allowed. Wine and cheese and laughter supplied by some supportive friends pulled me through that super-awkward day. We all agreed that we liked pink ribbons far better than blue.
The thing is, I still love riding, and horses are an incurable obsession. I stubbornly struggled for years to improve my abilities – for no rational reason, because I think I knew at age ten that I was never going to be a great rider. I noticed recently that the son of one of my Olympic equestrian heroes is now preparing for his second Olympics. I think some of my old 4H lessonmates have farms of their own and children who take lessons from teenaged instructors. Laurie got an MFA from Yale and teaches painting at the college level. There are many levels of greatness, and I haven’t achieved any of them. I’m not sure what kept me at the horses. Love? Stubbornness? Compulsion? Some sort of sweet-and-sour cocktail of the three? I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, because it has occurred to me that my early experience with riding was the genesis of the great patterns of my life.
I’ve been throwing pots off-and-on for almost fifteen years. I still struggle with lid settings, and I always retreat to the same forms of cups. I go to conventions and meetings, but I don’t really belong with those articulate, talented masters of the craft. Making pots is mostly a solitary and quiet pastime for me. When I occasionally try a show, laughter gets me through, and I’m able to explain the lack of accolades with a supposed preference for teaching. I still love ceramics, and craft has worked its way into my blood. And I stubbornly struggle to improve my abilities – but I doubt I’m ever going to be great, or even good, at making.
As for teaching – I’ve been doing that off-and-on too, in different ways, for over a decade now. What neither my mom nor I realized when I was so reluctant to get out of the car at 4H meetings was that symptoms of social anxiety were brewing. They brewed, and cooked, boiled over somewhere in my early twenties, and still simmer in introversion. I doubt most of my students would believe it, but every single day of my career as a teacher involves nerves, self-talk, steeling myself, more internal pep-talks, the occasional freeze-up, and necessary solitary, quiet time at day’s end to recover. Laughter gets me through, but it’s often laughter at myself, for choosing a profession so far out of my comfort zone. I love teaching, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be great, or even good, at its craft.
The practice or consideration of being an artist doesn’t come naturally to me. I retreat to my family’s practical roots and to worrying about the loan payments I struggle to make. And yet I’m in a passionate, stormy affair with art that I just can’t seem to stop. Put me into a crowd of people, and I look for the nearest corner. Yet I seem to end up on committees and leading groups. I was always far better at spelling words than stringing them together. But I keep trying to write and swooning over writers who inspire me.
I don’t understand any of this, and neither did Snooky. A cruel trainer had once cut up her mouth with a harsh bit. Her tongue was lined with stitches. Instinctually expecting cruelty even years later, when we met, she always hated to be touched around the head. So when, with time and patience, she started to drop her nose into a gentle snaffle bit, and to let me scratch her nose as a reward, it felt like a little miracle. With steadiness and persistence, she responded by giving something of herself. She’d nudge me with that nose as I sat on the ground, bruised, and I’d smile a little.
There’s a metaphor here, but I think I’m just about due for some downtime after a long teaching day. I still have to pay a few bills tonight, and I want to spell-check this before I fade.
But I think when you add little miracles to the cocktail, it might just be enough to keep this cowgirl in the saddle.