Life lessons on horseback

Not long ago, while cleaning the closet under the stairs, I found a box with my old riding leathers. It has been 10 years or more since I sat on a horse, but I had kept the girth and the leathers for the stirrup irons. They were still supple, with no cracks, but I applied neat's-foot oil anyway. Slowly, I rubbed the oil into the leather. The rich aroma tingled my nose and memory..

As a child, I'd dreamed of riding. Horses intrigued me, and I always begged to ride on the carousel or take a pony ride at the local fair. I watched people riding and imagined what it was like.

Back then I was a plump, uncoordinated child, completely ignored by her physical-education teachers because I couldn't hit a softball or walk across a balance beam without falling. I figured I'd never be good at anything athletic. But still I dreamed about riding horses.

When I was 21, a friend persuaded me to take riding lessons. Mindi, the instructor, took the time to explain how I was supposed to move my hands, legs, and feet. She demonstrated how it should be done. She stopped and took the time to correct my errors patiently, one by one. And there were many errors.

Mindi matched horses with each rider's skill and needs. I needed to learn patience and persistence. Duke, a large roan, was an unforgiving tutor. If my hands were in the wrong position, if I sat too far forward or let him break stride, he'd ignore me for the lesson's duration. I struggled for months, fighting with myself, with Duke, and giving up in frustration as he plodded around the ring.

Then it coalesced: I would determinedly ask for a canter, and Duke would pick up that stride. I would set a firm pace for a fence, and he would keep it. He would halt and stand quietly. I was amazed. My classmates were amazed. Mindi assigned me another horse – another challenge to overcome.

I never became a show-quality rider, because that wasn't my goal. I didn't care that I lacked elegance. Instead, I rejoiced when I reached the point where I could hop on a hack horse in a public stable and it would do what I asked. I enjoyed surprising professional trainers who didn't think that a rider from a public stable could know anything other than riding in circles. Riding showed me that with a little help, and persistence, I could accomplish almost anything.

I recently dropped by my old stable. Mindi was still there, teaching a group of adults, just as I remembered her: correcting their mistakes, praising their accomplishments, helping them develop the confidence to achieve their dreams.

We spoke briefly between classes. I told her what I had accomplished since I left, educational achievements and professional advancements. All had required the patience and persistence I'd learned in that riding ring years ago.

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