Riding 'The Pie' in the sky

Ariel, my daughter, has grown up with horses. She is only 15 years old, but it seems as if she has loved horses for even longer.

Ariel first showed her affection for equines by playing with small horse figurines. She arranged them in the wooden-block stalls she constructed around her room, and carefully combed their shiny nylon manes.

Now, she grooms the real thing, even braving their big hooves. Still, much to her dismay, the only horse she has ever owned was no more than 10 inches tall.

When she was in kindergarten, every time we walked past the toy store downtown, Ariel longingly inspected the boxes of plastic horses, arrayed like a herd in a paddock, in the front window. Little by little, she acquired quite a variety of noble steeds. There were Arabian stallions, Percheron draft horses from France, and palomino ponies. Of course, naming them was nine-tenths of possession, part of the lore of horses.

"The Pie" was her favorite name, and the Pie phase lasted several years. I don't know how many times Ariel and Hilary, her older sister, watched Elizabeth Taylor and Andy Rooney in "National Velvet," but they certainly had all of their lines memorized. And they rode broomsticks in their own steeplechase every morning after breakfast, and every night after dinner. Sometimes they rode on a circular course around the dining-room table, with sofa pillows placed every few furlongs as the high jumps. And sometimes the sofa pillows went outside to the front lawn so that the Grand National could be run on real grass. Wherever the course of the day was established, the horsy sisters galloped in a special bouncy gait. They always took turns in the winner's circle, and shared the one English riding helmet from the dress-up trunk.

Next came Peanut, Ariel's first real horse, whom she met during a family vacation at a ranch in Colorado. But she never actually managed to ride this one, perhaps because the leap to the real thing from riding figurines and the imaginary Pie was too much. As intensely as Ariel liked the idea of riding Peanut, at age 5 she just couldn't muster the composure to actually sit in the saddle, even with the shortened stirrups. The big, snorting, moving animal was just too much.

How my heart ached over her horse-dream dilemma. The reality of what it felt like to sit on that enormous beast - even if he was named, diminutively, Peanut - versus what she wanted it to feel like, was an insurmountable gap. No problem. Back to The Pie, for the time being, and a few more laps around the front lawn.

Patience has paid off. When we moved to Maine five years ago, Ariel was ready to truly ride. Since then, she has gradually blossomed into a confident young horsewoman. Her feet finally fitted the stirrups as she had imagined.

Once a week, and more often in the summer, Ariel goes to the farm where Marnie and her two daughters board horses and give lessons. The daughters grew up with horses - real ones - and, now young women, work with them for a living. Just to step into their barn and inhale the perfume of fresh hay and oak beams, and hear the gathering swallows twitter in the skies, makes Ariel - and me - feel good.

Ariel goes to the pasture and fetches Rena or Caliban or Banner ("He's from France - a retired race horse," she tells me. "Ca va, Banner?" I whisper into his big face. "Que tu es beau!"). She then grooms and saddles the horse du jour and then rides, with Marnie's patient encouragement and instruction. Ariel learns how to keep an obstinate Banner in a trot, or how to steer Rena around the ring for another lap, when she would rather walk her tired old bones back to the cosy barn.

Once, Ariel took a tumble from atop Caliban - probably a rite of passage for any rider - and suffered from bruised confidence for a while. Nonetheless, Ariel didn't want to miss any time hanging around horses. So she went to work at the farm and put riding on hold. Marnie, and Rena, coaxed her back into the saddle. And this summer she's working at Marnie's riding camp, managing the intense traffic of many horses getting saddled up for many kids - and helping other girls feel comfortable around horses.

The other shoe was bound to drop. Now, Ariel never misses a chance to insinuate horse ownership into a conversation. We have enough land, and I concede the usefulness of plentiful horse manure to my gardening ambitions.

"A horse would be nice to drag logs from tight spots in the woods, where the tractor can't squeeze through," she suggests. True. There's also something nice about looking out the window toward one's own pasture and seeing one's own horse. It completes a certain rural fantasy of my own.

Perhaps our dreams have merged at this point? As soon as she can afford the feed bill, we'll see if old Rena would like to come and stay with us.

Yes, Ariel has grown up with horses. Which means that someday I might even look out the window and see my dream pasture.

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