I arrived for my first riding lesson wearing brand new beige jodhpurs, just like the ones Caro, the slender, older blond with the popular boyfriend and the prize-winning palomino Arabian, wore in Horse Crazy: Horseback Summer. Emily was the heroine of the book, the freckled redhead whose recent ascension into puberty and, by extension, womanly hips, left her with only ratty jeans to ride in but whose wisdom enabled her to see through Caro’s phony attempts at friendship meant only indebt Emily to her in a big way. But I wasn’t going to be Emily. In an effort to leave the young girls of 1980s America with a moral lesson worthy of the Girl Scout and the 4H clubs I had dropped out of after just one meeting each, Virginia Vail, I was certain, had painted a very slanted picture of Caro. I knew that being Caro was better than being Emily. There were no Arabians at the barn I went to and I was a brunette, but at eight years old, I had read between the lines of enough books written by Vail and her peers to understand the rules for getting to the top of the tween pecking order. Those jodhpurs, ordered from a real tack catalog, were a good start.
They couldn’t, however, compensate for the ridiculous vision of my 50 pound, four foot self atop a thoroughbred that stood over 16 hands tall. My legs, splayed into full cowboy posture by the horse’s girth, didn’t even extend halfway down his belly and my fingers could barely wrap around the reins. I was an ant atop an elephant. Wearing an emerald green hockey helmet. My parents had been willing to pay for the jodhpurs, but they were not going to pay for a proper riding helmet until they were certain I was going to stick with horseback riding for the long term. I had a habit of quitting. Quitting art contests, quitting the flute, quitting my interest in having a little sister. If my imitation of Caro had been unrealistic before, it was downright farcical with the green hockey helmet. Caro, of course, had a velvety black show helmet with a red satin interior and a leather chin strap that smelled every bit as delicious as her Arabian’s saddle.
I did eventually get a proper riding helmet, for Christmas or a birthday, after I had been riding for several years. I also got a stable and instructor more befitting my fictional idol and her picture-perfect life. Gone was Stephanie with her rubber-soled, faux leather upper boots, her neon pink bubble jacket, and an omnipresent cigarette like a sixth digit between her pointer and her middle finger. I was with Diane, an elegant horsewoman with full leather boots who presided over 30 acres meticulously separated from the neighboring land by immaculate white picket fences alongside which ran a dozen or so muscular quarter horses in all shades but palomino.
Although these compact steeds, if you can call a docile horse named Pilgrim a steed, suited my compact frame much better, my skills never improved. I did a few shows, trotting, cantering, and jumping poles in a dusty ring while parents actually looked on attentively—only because iPhones hadn’t been invented yet. I even won a few blue ribbons when my competitors numbered three or fewer. But I was also thrown a few times and started to develop a fear of riding, a fear that would have had both Caro and Emily shaking their heads at me. I tensed up each time Pilgrim neared the poles, certain he was going dig all four hooves firmly into the sand and I would be the only one making the jump. I invented reasons to skip lessons in the spring when the melting snow on the barn roof came sliding off in great sheets causing Pilgrim to run wildly around the ring kicking his legs for a few terrifying seconds. I didn’t even want to offer him apple slices with the flat-handed technique that had kept my fingers safe from teeth for so many years because I was certain he would suddenly turn carnivorous and decide to remove the little hands that had tugged at his mane in terror one too many times.
When I decided that the next best thing to being a champion horsewoman was to be a full-fledged, A-list, Hollywood movie star, my mother made me a deal. She would drive me all the way into the city and back every week for acting lessons if I promised never to ride again. She was aware of all the falls I had taken and had wanted me to quit riding a long time ago. But she was unaware that I shared her less than enthusiastic attitude toward riding, and she thought she was going to be in for a fight to get me to accept this deal. And just as any good teenager would, I pretended that her requirement wasn’t fair and that she was being really mean and unreasonable, all the while rejoicing inwardly at the con. The expensive helmet went into a storage box beneath my bed for many years and, I suppose, was given away at some point, but not likely before I had already given up on acting too.
Written in Paula Younger’s Managing Time in Stories (June 16, 2015)