There is a terrific scene in the film, “City Slickers,” when Billy Crystal and Daniel Stern recline around a campfire after a long day in the saddle. Crystal asks Stern if he can recall the best day in his life.
It is a no-brainer that giving birth to each of my two boys are memories so delicate and fraught with emotion, they exist in a category all of their own. But what of other moments?
After a lifetime of poignant memories, I can still say with absolute assurance that the very best day of my life was my tenth Christmas, when my parents gave me a horse of my very own. Having waded through a mass of presents, which included a tack box filed with brushes, I discovered, with a sinking heart, that there was to be no horse under my Christmas tree.
About twenty minutes into the clean-up phase of our Christmas morning, my father wandered down the stairs with a wrapped shirt box inside a paper bag.
“I don’t know who this is from,” he said, offering it to me casually, “but it has your name on it.”
As I sat down to open the box, I noticed the bag it had come in had cut-out letters all over it, in the style of the very best ransom notes. Slowly I read aloud.
“Your new horse is waiting in stall 16 at Saddle Acres…”
I jumped up, screamed at the top of my lungs, hopped up and down, and proceeded to run throughout the entire neighborhood, shrieking like a banshee that I had been given a horse. A horse of my very own!
There were times over the next few years that I’m sure my parents regretted that day. Horses became my entire world. Our summer vacations were marked by horse shows in such dubious holiday Mecca’s as Moses Lake, Washington or Lewiston, Idaho. Our winters could be tracked, not by the number of times we hit the ski slope, but by the amount of riding lessons I took. Horse were not just my life, they became my family’s, as well.
Most parents interested in getting their kids into riding joke that they are doing so to keep their kids off the streets. Horses are great for that—and so much more.
In my own life, they have taught me how to be responsible for a living creature, and how much work goes into that. As a kid, my room was usually a candidate for “condemned” status, but as an adult with a house to keep, I have tapped into the lessons I learned in keeping my expensive saddles clean and well-oiled. I learned, in the endless hours of trying to perfect a “halt-salute” movement for a dressage test, the value of patience. And in forcing myself to jump an ominous ramp with an eight-foot drop on the other side, I learned to take risks, and to push myself through moments of perfect fear.
My seven-year-old student, Selina comes every Wednesday for a lesson on our thoroughbred, Calibre. Astride this 16-hand bay, Selina can, at times, look like she’s just along for the ride. It is hard to believe that a 60-pound child can control something that outweighs her twenty times over. But Selina usually handles herself in the saddle with a seriousness and confidence unique in one so young.
A few weeks ago, in front of an audience of aunts, uncles, and grandparents in town for the Thanksgiving holiday, Selina suddenly melted into a puddle of tiny tears.
“The horse is scared,” she murmured, embarrassed and frustrated.
“Okay, let’s talk about who’s really scared,” I said quietly, taking her away from all her ardent fans. For a few moments, we talked about fear. We also talked about the importance of focusing not on the problem itself, but on the solution.
I know she wanted to end her lesson right there, but Selina listened to all I had to say, went back out and performed flawlessly. Even the flash of the cameras didn’t bother her.
At age seven, Selina is indeed learning to ride, but in learning to handle the reins, she is gaining vast amounts of knowledge that will serve her in all other areas of her life. Because of riding, she will be a better friend, a more responsible child, a better student, and a more compassionate human being.
My parents worked very hard to give me a worry-free childhood and, succeeded so well that I frankly found early adulthood confounding. But when I tapped into the lessons I learned through my many riding coaches, and through the day-to-day responsibility of caring for my horses, I find the answers are always there.
If you are expecting a horse under your Christmas tree, or are thinking of putting one in a loved one’s stocking, know that, in addition to providing hours of wonderful time in the saddle, you are giving a host of other values that will serve that person throughout their lifetime in all they do.
The gift of horsemanship is truly the gift that continues to give throughout the year. In my case, it has been throughout a lifetime.