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Why I’m not that girl in the book

I once longed to be a storybook heroine. Today I aspire to joy. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Girl with draft horses in Johnson, Vt.

I never rode horses as a child. Not really. I took a pony ride here and there, and remember one year persuading my parents to send me to a day camp that offered a half-hour of riding in between the swimming and crafts. But I never took lessons. I never learned how to put on a saddle.

That didn’t stop me from collecting horse figurines, though, or from reading “Black Beauty,” “Misty of Chincoteague,” and “King of the Wind” over and over. I knew which character I’d be: the girl who didn’t have a horse herself, but who mucked stalls just to be near the animals. The one who, to everyone’s surprise, turns out to be, at some crucial plot point, a fabulous rider.

But lessons, no. This was not because of any particular family hardship, although even at age 10 I knew that it would be much more romantic and literary if it were so. It was because my father, born and bred in horse country, was not going to have his daughter turn out to be one of those “horsey girls,” as he put it.

I can see him rolling his eyes now. The expense. The outfits. The manure. Not to mention the distraction away from the sort of athletics he believed – ahead of his time in those early days of Title IX – were crucial for a girl to grow up strong and confident.

And so I played baseball – and tennis, basketball, and soccer. Later, after college, I ran. I didn’t think much of horses anymore.

When I lived in Southern Africa I took a few trail rides. Those were fun. There, nobody cared if you kicked your horse into a gallop. It’s a different sense of safety and liability. If you fall off because you had no business running your horse, well, that’s on you. But even after that, I still knew nothing about horses.

It wasn’t until this year, nursing a sore hip that was interrupting my runs, that I thought about taking a riding lesson.

It’s something I could do with our daughters, I explained to my husband. They’d like that. And the little one might be scared if I didn’t go with her.

He looked at me. You don’t need to make excuses, he said.

The teenagers working at the stable told us that we could choose whichever saddle blankets we wanted. My older daughter eagerly pointed to the one with butterflies. My 5-year-old chose pink. I laughed indulgently, being far too old to care about horse accessories. I grabbed the closest one, only to realize it was a trendy mom-who-shops-at-J.Crew plaid. The high school girl smiled knowingly.

The delightfully competent instructor kept the children’s attention with games and props – magic wands and plastic swords – and candy. 

I was the only adult in the class. I realized I no longer felt the old yearning. Perhaps, I thought, I had moved on; my horse obsession had followed the path of imaginary friends and SATs and pizza nights with single girlfriends.

Then, about halfway through the lesson, the instructor took me aside and asked if I’d like to learn how to trot.

I didn’t tell her that I had galloped in Mozambique, or that, in the shadow of Cape Town’s Table Mountain, a white horse had nearly thrown me as it pounded across the beach, the Atlantic lapping fiercely to my left. That didn’t matter, because, indeed, I did not know how to trot, and I quite wanted to learn.

And so I trotted. She explained how to post – that way of standing repeatedly in the stirrups to avoid feeling like popcorn. 

She said that I seemed to be getting it quickly. And although I could tell from the sound of my rear hitting the saddle that there was nothing particularly graceful in my efforts, a feeling began to swell in my chest and tingle down my arms. It was a familiar but forgotten electricity pushing me toward ... what?

You had a good time, my husband says when he sees me. 

I start gushing. I think I want to take more lessons, I say. I really love this. The words sound simplistic, banal; they don’t capture what I am feeling.

He shrugs. OK, he says.

Much has changed from long ago. I know I will never be the girl in the book, nor am I driven to become a late-blooming version of her. I do not want blue ribbons and certainly not a horse of my own. (The expense. The outfits. The manure.) I do not even want to go galloping dangerously down a beach in Africa again, even with better training.

What I want, I finally realize, is to exist at the beautiful, vulnerable beginning of a path without goals. 

This is no small feat in a life – in a society – marked by aspirations and objectives. It is the rare chance, I realized during that knee-brutalizing lesson, to happily ride a horse badly. It is a joy worth seizing. One for which I am immensely grateful.

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