Suburban Cowboy (Chapter One)

I’m fighting rush-hour traffic in suburban Washington, D.C. on a summer Friday. It’s after 5 o’clock, and I’ve been trying since three to leave the office and go horseback riding. Now I’m working the car phone, waiting for lights, crawling along the parkway, wondering what in the world I think I’m doing. Between calls, the fatigue and frustration of a long day and a long week start to set in. I can’t say I need the exercise — compared to my push-ups, aerobics, racquetball, and occasional jogging, horseback riding seems pretty mild. So much work: grooming, saddling, longeing, schooling. So hot and sweaty. And dangerous, too. Aren’t I old enough to know better? How old do I have to get? When I finally get home, why don’t I just relax with a tall, cold drink and watch the horses from the air-conditioned house? All the
reasons.

I decide to take it one step at a time. After all, I don’t HAVE to go riding, HAVE to groom, HAVE to saddle up. I can stop at any point, right?

Thus do I cajole my tired old bones into changing my clothes and walking out to the stable, I start by looking around at everything, seeing if the workers have left any problems. This activity, of course, is a lot like the office, but the sun feels good on my back, and I notice the breeze on my face. After “fixing” a couple of little things, I decide to go the next step.

I go out to the pasture with a few treats in my pocket. All the horses notice me as soon as I get within range. It’s kind of funny to see how they arrange themselves to approach me. Maia, my beautiful grey Arabian mare, is the Queen of the little herd. She dispatches a friendly old gelding named Speedy (he isn’t) to find out if I have any treats. But before old, slow Speedy gets to me, Sir Prize, a friendly, supremely self- confident four-year-old gelding reaches me and starts begging for a treat, which, of course, he gets. By this time, Speedy has arrived, quite upset that Sir Prize got there first, but he quickly forgets his pique when he too gets a little reward. In fact, instead of reporting back to Maia, he’s hanging around.

I keep walking.

Next is Moniq, a perfectly formed young Arabian mare, whose nickname is “kissy- face” because she is so affectionate. She is also smart as a whip, and, while still chewing her little cookie, starts trying to get her nose into my pocket. This of course
leads to petting (me), nuzzling (Moniq), inspection of her body (me), inspection of my other pockets (Moniq), and general fussing.

All of this is observed by Maia. As a couple of other mares start toward me, Maia decides enough is enough. She moves over to meet me and my entourage, sticking her nose aggressively into the halter, and walking proudly beside me, announcing to all and sundry that everyone else can go away, because she has been chosen by the Dispenser of Treats as his favorite!

As we walk back to the stable, I tell Maia that I haven’t thought about business since I opened the gate to go into the pasture. Maia doesn’t say anything, but I decide to take the next step.

Maia somehow talks me into giving her a good, vigorous grooming. With the sweat pouring down my face and soaking my shirt, longeing doesn’t seem like a great idea right now. Of course, I’m not as much of an advocate of longeing or even schooling as English-style riders and trainers, anyway. So I slap my hat on my head, and “step into the leather”, as Louis Lamour used to say.

After a few exercises around the ring just to remind Maia who is in charge, we head out onto the trail, determined to make the best use of the last couple of hours of daylight. Somewhere in my mind’s peripheral vision is the realization that I’ve gone a couple more steps without noticing it.

Maia loves the trail. She gets bored easily, and the constant newness of even a familiar trail is much more to her liking than going round and round a ring. (More to my liking also.) I bought her as an eight-year old green broke horse, and the only things I can claim I’ve taught her are how to enjoy being handled, neck-reining, and how to be what I consider a good trail horse.

I’d been away from horses for thirty years, and the idea of riding around on a green, high-spirited Arabian “war-mare”
should have seemed preposterous if not thoroughly intimidating. Well, they say the muscles remember. And it’s true — but not all at once. Before long I was riding again, encouraged by my daughter and gradually remembering what I used to know about riding, horses, tack, handling, and lots of other things. But not all at once. Maia helped me remember a lot. I must say that riding this untried horse took more physical courage at times than anything I had done for years. Luckily, the horse experience of my youth began to come back and the beginner’s learning curve was telescoped, so
that my skill returned within a few months — not to the level of when I was 20 years old, but enough.

We start walking down the trail. Maia decides to see if I’m really awake by stopping without permission and eyeing a tarp on the ground suspiciously. We discuss whether she is really afraid or just pretending. She decides she is just practicing, and we proceed. Oddly enough, she rarely balks on the trail. I think this is because I believe in listening to my mount. If the horse sees or smells something threatening, or the footing is unsure, I want to take advantage of her superior senses. Listening to my mount has saved me from danger many, many times. Maia only hesitates on the trail when she is genuinely concerned. Sometimes, I agree with her and we go another way.

Tonight we start down a new trail I have wanted to try. I call it the “Judy Trail”,
because Judy Bragan came out one afternoon and chopped a path through the
previously inaccessible foliage. Maia steps gingerly along the rough path, as I inform
her that she is probably the first horse ever to use the Judy Trail. That doesn’t seem
to impress her a great deal. But when we come to a steep bank leading down to a
wide creek, Maia takes one look and can’t imagine that I would seriously consider
going on. She takes some convincing that I am indeed serious, and proceeds
cautiously.

In the water we pass under a superhighway, which sounds like it is going to fall on
us at any moment. But the real challenge is the creek bottom, which is strewn with
construction debris. I guide Maia through the unpredictable footing, and she
helps as she steps daintily around, between, and on top of the rocks. Finally, we
come to the other bank which is mostly mud with a little sand around the edges. I
guide us over the sand, and with a tremendous lunge, Mighty Maia pulls us up the
bank and onto firm ground. I am overcome with pride and admiration at my dauntless
steed, and proceed to pat her and congratulate her vociferously. Maia prances and
snorts and preens, and shows her uncanny ability to read my mind.

Now we enter the forest on the other side of the highway. As we leave the sounds of
the cars behind, the silence of the woods descends like fog. Maia was so energized by
the creek that she wants to trot down the new trail. Other horses might be afraid of the
unknown, but Maia can’t wait to see what is around the next bend. The tall trees
almost blot out the sun, and we come to another creek. This one is a piece of cake,
and we go down our side, across the water, and up the other bank hardly missing a
beat.

Every time we do this, I remember the first time I took Maia across a creek. It took me
a long time to convince her that this was indeed what I wanted her to do, and even
then she finally crossed because she could see that that was the only way I was going
to stop bothering her. Now as she watches her footing, and checks out the other bank,
she hardly notices the water.

We come to a spot where the trail is visible for a hundred yards or so, and we pick up
to a canter. Maia will run as fast and as long as I let her. She is a truly enthusiastic
horse. We come to a rise in the trail, and up she goes, grunting to a gallop up the hill.

 

At the top, we stop and look at the view oQ~hat looks like rolling forest for miles on
end. It seems almost impossible that we are only twenty miles or so from downtown
Washington, D.C. As we trot down the trail from the top, a deer suddenly crosses the
trail at full throttle about fifteen feet in front of us. Maia acknowledges the intruder
with ears erect but never breaks stride. I feel a rush of pleasure at her composure,
and she snorts. I think that we probably ought to slow down, and she slows to a
walk. Sometimes I swear that horse reads my mind.

We turn back to where we saw the deer and stop. Just as I thought. There is a doe
with one, no two, fawns about fifteen feet from the path. Standing motionless,
waiting for us to pass so they can follow Daddy across the trail. Sure enough, there
he is too, waiting. We turn around, and leave them to their evening ventures.

Speaking of evening, the light is starting to fade. Better to get out of the woods while
I can still see clearly. We can backtrack more energetically now that we know the
trail better. Guiding a running horse through the woods, making decisions every
second definitely raises the adrenalin level.

Trotting and cantering, we emerge from the forest to the sound of automobile traffic.
Back across the creek, under the viaduct, up the steep bank, down the Judy Trail,
back to the main trail. Now we are walking all the way back to cool us both off. As the
evening breeze picks up and tries to dry my sweat-soaked shirt, we are bathed in the
golden light the sun spreads out just before it leaves to find another day.

My heart soars at the beauty of the scene. Each of a million leaves is turned a slightly
different way to catch the gold of the sunlight and spread it to the tree trunks and the
grass and the sparkling brook water, all framing the deep azure blue of the sky above.

I think maybe I’ll do this again.

 


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