Always ask the steed's name

There are few images as appealing to the American mind as the cowboy on horseback. I even know people who own a horse - but never ride it - because they derive satisfaction from leaning over a split rail fence and imagining a life in the saddle.

Even I, the inveterate Easterner, recall all those Saturday mornings of my vintage-'60s New Jersey childhood, watching Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, and the Lone Ranger on television. All of them cut heroic profiles as, mounted on their trusty steeds, they leaned into the wind, speeding after bad guys.

Is it any wonder that the 1950s and '60s were the heyday of cowboy and Indian outfits and paraphernalia? I know that I had mine: a white 10-gallon hat, boots, and matching "six-shooters."

But back to horses. It wasn't until I was in my late 20s that I had my first opportunity to ride, really ride, an adult horse. I was visiting friends in Iceland at the time. They had a farm near the north coast and raised the stocky Icelandic breed.

One evening, with the midnight sun still shining brightly above the horizon, the family patriarch asked if I knew how to ride. Instantly, my sense of the saddle shivered within me, and I answered, "Are you kidding? I'm an American!"

Convinced by my confidence, my host went into the barn and returned a few moments later with a sleek black stallion that had fire in his eyes. My first thought was to approach him and stroke his neck, but when I did, he bucked and whinnied, never taking his defiant gaze from me. But I had already announced my expertise, and the farmer and three of his children were watching. What could I do? I gulped, girded myself, and mounted the beast.

My host hung onto the bridle as the animal sidled and pawed the ground. As for me, I felt that I was sitting atop a large, willful machine. And the distance to the ground suddenly seemed vast.

"OK?" asked my host. I nodded and, without ceremony, he whacked the bronco on the flank, and I was off like a shot. The horse immediately got my number, and it read "Inexperienced." He leapt, galloped, and bucked.

I had to drop the reins and throw my arms around his neck, trusting myself to the belief that the animal probably wouldn't do anything to hurt himself. This faith was tested when I looked up and saw that we were thundering toward a cinder-block wall.

But just short of the wall, as I was searching for appropriate last words, we stopped. Shiny with sweat, his chest heaving, and with steam pouring from his nostrils, my mount had proves his point: He could have his way with me.

As the Icelanders came toward me, one little boy shouted, "You're a cowboy!" How sweet. The fact was, I didn't feel anything more than just fortunate.

As the farmer helped me dismount, I had the presence of mind to ask the horse's name. "Devil," he said. And then he added, "Maybe you'd like a more cooperative animal?"

My shrug slowly turned into a nod. I watched as the farmer retired Devil and brought out a tan, overweight, swaybacked mare with pleading eyes. She immediately came over and nuzzled me. "Her name?" I asked.

"Grandma," said my host. A minute later she and I were ambling off together, perfectly at ease.

After that inaugural experience, I stayed clear of horses, Devil having knocked the bravado out of me. But recently I was visiting a friend in New Jersey. (Make that western New Jersey, pardner.) Henry had bought a horse farm and asked if I'd like to take a ride through the snow-covered woodlands. The image seized me, and I assented.

Henry showed me the horses and pointed to a coal-black stallion as sleek and contoured as a Cadillac. The horse turned and glowered at me. There was a flash of fire in his eyes, and he snorted, as if to say, "I know you, don't I?"

Well, it clearly couldn't be. "Er, Henry," I said as I eyed a slightly porky mare that was quietly tearing at a hay bale, "I have a preference for tan horses."

"No problem," he said. "We'll put you on Abuela."

"Abuela?" I echoed.

"Yes, he said. " 'Grandma.' "

We were a match made in heaven. Or Iceland. Well, it really didn't matter, because I mounted and we ambled offat a leisurely pace. For me, the low hills and modest bridle paths of New Jersey were every bit as good as the open range. Maybe better.

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