By Jonathon Van Maren
I have always viewed the idea of climbing on top of an animal with some amount of trepidation, partially because my few attempts to do so have usually ended with the beast snorting at me triumphantly and myself trying to recover my breath enough to snort defiantly back. My dad bought a Shetland pony once, but if we climbed on it was generally determined to send us kids hurtling into a pile of sawdust posthaste, or go on grazing interminably without the slightest indication that it was aware of our presence. In Cairo in 2008 I decided, with a couple friends, to ride a camel to the Pyramids. It eyed me as I climbed onto the saddle perched on its hump, feeling extremely well-travelled and more than a little bit cool. That is, until a mouthful of hot desert sand reminded me that camels stand up with their back legs first, and thus I would have to spend more time hanging on to the saddle horn and less time trying to imagine how awesome I looked on a camel. And then there was the ancient Barb I spent an hour or so on in Petra, Jordan that same summer. Barbs originate in the 8th century, and I’m pretty sure that the one I was perched awkwardly on was the very first one. The haggard horse plodded along glacially, only moving at all due to the repeated pushing and urging of his Arab owner, who had tricked us into thinking that the horse was both a) alive, and b) capable of getting us places faster than we could walk.
Today, however, it is time to try again. Six years, after all, is a long enough period of to recast the exhausted desert Barb as a thundering Arabian stallion and recoup unwarranted cockiness regarding my equestrian ability. I approach the ornery looking paint named Bella with a saddle, not at all fooled by her malevolent drowsiness. With instructions from my friend, who seems to be anticipating either my first ride or the airborne abbreviation thereof, we get her saddled up. My friend saddles up Flicka, a substantially more handsome looking horse that I would probably last four seconds on. I stick one foot into a stirrup, and swing my leg over. Bella snorts. Victory! I am on her back. This is definitely going well.
My friend climbs on her horse and swings the gate open. I tug on Bella’s reigns, and she backs up. Ha! A horse is responding to my commands. This is really easy. I feel very powerful. Flicka trots out through the gate and begins to lope towards the field. Bella looks up. I dig my heels in. She moves towards the gate. I feel exuberant, one with the great riders of history—the Mongol riders of Genghis Khan, the Templar knights, the American cavalry—Bella surges out towards the field and I prepare to feel the winds of history whip through my hair. Then, she stops dead and begins to graze, mere feet from the gate. I am very much in the present, and this stupid animal is very much ignoring me.
I yank on the reigns, frustrated. Bella gives me an irritated snort, indicating that the disturbance is unwanted and unwarranted. I shift uncomfortably on the saddle, which suddenly feels very hard. I’m not horseback riding at all, I’m hanging out on the back of a horse, looking like an idiot. No one’s looking though, so that’s good. I urge her forward again, and with a whinny of frustrated resignation, Bella starts trotting towards the field. This is more like it. I lean back again, trying to ignore how uncomfortable the bouncing up and down actually is. Bella picks up speed, and the first tentacles of concern begin to creep up towards my throat. Slow down! I tug on the reigns, trying to point her in the direction I want to go. Bella has other plans, none of which involve me. I shift one hand to the saddle horn and cling to it, hoping my friend doesn’t notice that Bella’s entire performance is completely unprompted and uncontrolled by me.
We ride up next to them, and she says brightly, “Let’s ride up the field and around the bend, get them running a bit!”
“Sure,” I say casually, “But this stupid thing won’t let me steer.” Did I just say steer? That can’t be right. She laughs at me. Yup, that was clearly dumb. But what is it then? Guide? Prompt? Whatever. Flicka takes off again, and I dig my heels into Bella. Bella, however, is grazing again. Not even enthusiastically grazing, like this is some new and special grass. Just calmly munching. I pull on the reigns hard, a bit angry now. Bella shakes her head and snorts, and then returns to her exaggerated chewing. At this point, I’m just flailing around on her back while she enjoys her time out of the pasture. Plus, this saddle is really uncomfortable.
Suddenly, Bella looks up and realizes that Flicka is gone. Her ears prick up. I look at her nervously. She has clearly just realized that the other horse is probably somewhere much more interesting than here, and that she is missing out on all sorts of fun, if not some more perfectly ordinary grass to dedicate herself to. She takes off at a run. I start pulling on the reigns again.
“Whoa! Whoa!” I yell at her. I’ve been told this works, but Bella doesn’t slow down at all. I clamp both hands on the saddle horn and decide that clinging is probably my best option. Every time Bella’s hooves hit the ground my rear leaves the saddle, until I am quite convinced that I’m spending more time airborne than actually on her back. I slide my feet back out of the stirrups. The ground doesn’t look that hard. Perhaps flinging myself off would be a safer option than hanging on to this possessed creature. We pound around the bend. My friend is laughing hysterically at me as Bella skitters to a halt, glaring reproachfully at Flicka for leaving her behind. I catch my breath, suddenly proud of myself for staying on this awful horse during what was clearly a Kentucky Derby-speed gallop.
“Let’s run them off, get rid of their energy!” she suggests, as if I hadn’t just been running at insane speeds for what was easily one whole minute.
“Nah, I think I’ve done enough riding for the time being,” I reply casually. I climb off of Bella, legs wobbly. I grab her bridle and start to walk. My legs hurt, and I think I might be walking a bit bow-legged.
Maybe I’ll settle for walking like a cowboy.