Learning to Ride At One's Own Pace

AT age 11, my mother decided I needed culture. I did not agree. I already had homework. That was culture enough.

Somebody had sold us a piano, but none of us could play with any accomplishment. Guess who got elected to carry the culture load? For some reason, my piano instructor always wanted me to practice songs I didn't like. The movie ''Casablanca'' was on television. I heard Sam play ''As Time Goes By.'' I pointed to the screen. ''That's the song I wish to learn....''

The idea went nowhere. ''The instructor knows what he wants you to play,'' Mom said.

I practiced a number called ''The Little Speedboat.''

''Putt, putt, putt, putt, putt, putt, putt, goes the little speed-boat,''

''Putt, putt, putt, putt, putt, putt, putt, cross the deep blue sea.''

There are other verses that time has mercifully erased. In time, it became clear that I was not bound for Carnegie Hall. My mother had a second idea: riding lessons.

Her idea this time was a winner. There was a large stable in the next town. For two hours every Saturday I was an uneasy rider. There was a strawberry roan named Old Joe. He was a honey, gentle and inquisitive. I brought Joe apples, corn cobs, and the carrots I didn't want at supper.

But the instructor wanted me to have a more spirited horse. Residing at the same stable was a dappled gray mare named Judy. When I pushed the saddle up on her back, her head came around to the left, and she bit me. The saddle crashed to the stable floor as I danced backward. A love bite from a horse is an unforgettable experience.

The instructor put the bridle on, because I was busy distancing myself from Judy's mouth. Her teeth were the size of sugar cubes, and she kept them in shape by gnawing tree trunks and fence posts. The instructor insisted that Judy would behave once I got mounted.

Judy liked to run, not to trot, but to gallop full speed, without the slightest encouragement from her rider. If Judy was headed toward a rail or hedge row she would sail over, and you had to go along for the ride whether you wanted to or not, and I most certainly did not.

The moment Judy saw an open pasture, it was National Velvet all over again. Her hooves thundered the grass, as I hung on with knees and one hand, trying vainly to slow her down with the other.

The instructor gave me a lecture about needing to have more confidence in the saddle. I was not a horseman, but a parachutist looking for a place to bail out. I wanted a horse that would travel in the direction I wanted to go and at the speed I wanted to get there. I wanted a kind mount who would like me, not bite me.

So Old Joe became my friend for the duration of summer 1958. There was a horse show before Labor Day. I put on a credible Davy Crockett outfit and took second place. But wearing a coonskin cap in summer was warm. I would see Judy race by with a confident rider aboard. Old Joe and I preferred to shuffle.

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