My horseback-riding career began very inauspiciously in then-Communist-controlled Poland in 1973. My father was a visiting Professor of Environmental Engineering, invited by the Ministry of Agriculture to lecture for 3 months about the as yet theoretical potential of Biogas (gas generated from animal wastes that could be used to power the farm hosting said animals). Professor Stolarczyk had put us up (family of five—three kids under the age of 10) in a bleak, grey apartment in Warsaw, in a concrete complex of apartments that shared a courtyard where a gigantic Buckeye
tree grew. Granted, our neighbors probably did not think of it as a Buckeye tree, but my father was a professor of Ohio State, and anything that looked like our football team’s State fruit mascot was a Buckeye for us.
One day we were taken for a ride to the countryside by Professor Stolarczyk. Along the way we had him explain a few words in Polish, of which, for some strange reason (or, as Providence would wisely have it) I remembered only one, “Stoi”, which meant “Stop!”
And stop we did, at a horse farm where it seemed they rented horses by the hour. I almost cried with joy at the thought of getting to ride a horse, and then was suddenly terrified by the huge black beast they presented me with and threw me on top of. We were taken to a small corral where my brothers proceeded to chase each other at the trot while I hummed with happiness at a slow, lazy walk. The farm worker, a huge man in overalls, came over and his ruddy cheeks opened into a huge smile as he gestured to me in sign language. “Do you want to go faster?” he seemed to ask. “No, no,” I replied, my head whipping left and right in what I thought was the international gesture for “No stinkin’ way”. But he kept grinning and my heart rate spiked as I realized my “head-whipping no” must have been an emphatic Polish “yes”. He stepped a few steps over to a tree and broke a branch off to make me a whip.
Well, that cracking sound that comes when a branch is ripped off its tree limb? You would have thought a shotgun had been fired. My horse vaulted into a wild gallop, and in doing so, that vault propelled me onto his neck. I clung to that horse’s neck with everything I had! He ran and ran, and I could see the ground like a blur beneath his front legs, as his mane stung my eyeballs. “Stoi! Stoi!” I shrieked, propelling the horse ever faster forward. In what seemed like an eternity, the farm worker grabbed the horse’s reins and got him to stop, but I was molded to the horse’s neck and had to be pried off. I could hardly walk as I was in that rounded, hang-on-for-dear-life position, and I cried as I murmured “St—oh-oh-oi.”
That, my human friends, was just the first of many inauspicious moments with the equine species.
The second horrendous exposure to "how not to have fun with horses" was in a far-flung corner of Southeast Asia in the mid-70s. I was about one decade old, in a tropical island nation where my father would, for 12 years, bring biogas theory to reality. As happy little expatriates whose father was working on a joint UN and Singapore government project, we were welcomed to the Civil Service Riding Club and all the pools, tennis, and horseback-riding it could offer. I loved that little Civil Service Riding Club! This particular one was, ironically, on the backside of the glorious Singapore Polo Club.
I say ironically, because for the two years that I rode at the Civil Service Riding Club, the word “polo” just evoked images of a big covered arena a little ways down a trail at another club where we got to ride for our lessons if our arena got too mucky from the constant rains. It never occurred to me that “polo” was a sport. A sport played with horses. So, the irony comes into play when a little over a decade later I would finally begin to understand horses and how to ride them when I was given a chance to work horses in Los Angeles, California. And not just any horses. Polo ponies!
But, back to my inauspicious start as a horseback-rider.
My brothers and I (back then we were an inseparable trio for lots of adventures) had our faves at the club: me—Sunray, a bay mare with doe eyes; big bro—Pepego, a black, elegant gelding; middle bro—Goldie, a shiny chestnut gelding, with a luscious, lively mane.
Each of these horses had their go-to maneuvers to get you off their back:
Sunray would be sweet and pliable until she lulled you into a false sense of security. Then, at the canter, even though the instructor asked you to be ready for it, she would swerve into the center of the ring at the most relaxed moment (perhaps when you were allowing your butt to float off the saddle as you thought how wonderful the world looked from atop a horse you loved) and come to a complete stop. It was inevitable—you were coming off. She would then look at you sorrowfully as if all that had just happened was a figment of your imagination and say “What the heck are you doing down there?”
Pepego was the Prince of Pep. His Royal Bucking Highness. The Fiery Goblet of Fear. Needless to say, I never rode Pepego. I just watched with trepidation as my big bro did. And felt bad when big bro, inevitably, came off, usually after landing a spectacular jump!
Goldie was the least “dangerous”, but still had an interesting weapon of rider destruction. He, now that I think of it, was a gaited horse who, when asked to canter, just did a lightning fast version of a trot…endlessly. No whipping, kicking, yelling, or smooching of the lips could get him to move up into the next gait. He would “tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick” at high speed until you felt your eyeballs jiggle out of your head and fall into the arena. The result? You would ask him to slow down so you could find your eyesight, and he was happy to do so, again, very quickly, such that you landed on top of your now sandy eyeballs.
When the economic boom hit Singapore, the Civil Service Riding Club was one of the first wild, natural places to go. It was sold, the horses taken away, and our lovely memories covered up by 15-story apartment buildings. A year later I begged to be given lessons again (notice that it is “I” who begged; not “we”. My bros were older now, and no longer interested in horsey stuff.) My mother took me to a new place behind the Singapore Turf Club (i.e., the racetrack). Behind the giant racetrack, stables, and stands, was a small wilderness where the Bukit Timah Saddle Club lesson stables were.
The place held about 20 horses, a nice clubhouse, two riding arenas, and a tiny little “forest/jungle” to ride in. Sounds idyllic, huh?
Well, let me help you experience how anti-idyllic my time at the Saddle Club was. Enter, if you will, my skin, a couple decades ago...
It is 1978. You are in middle school. After-school sports do not yet exist unless you are a boy and want to play intramural American football or baseball. You already take Tae Kwon Do at the local YMCA, but you really want to be around horses. Your parents give in to your whining and pay for riding classes at the Bukit Timah Saddle Club after school on Thursdays.
Your mother drops you at the clubhouse to go park her car. You go in, find out which pony you have been assigned (yes, pony. Not polo pony. Nasty, fat, short piece of equine work. Today it is Lulu.). You cry, go to the bathroom to evacuate fluids nervously, try to be
positive (you could have been assigned the pony Billy), cry some more when you see your mother ordering tea at the bar, cry as she pushes you out the door to the stables, and then dry your eyes because you don’t want your “pony friends” to see that you are TERRIFIED.
You tell the Malay “syces” (grooms), "Lulu, please. Terimah kasi," and they make sounds like “Ayoh, ta bagus lah" (translation: "Oh man, that does not bode well”) and then giggle maliciously. Your right leg starts to tremble. You see the syce smack and whip the pony that is trying to attack him as he tightens the girth and then he drops the reins in your hands and giggles some more as the pony tries to bite you as you try to lead him away from the stable area. Now both legs are shaking off the charts and it takes all your strength to lift each one to get you closer to the mounting up area. By then everyone else is there, up on their ponies, as if their world is not about to fall to pieces, laughing, relaxed, comfortable. Except you. You want to pee again, but it’s too late; the instructor is yelling at you to get on.
Miraculously, you make it to the arena alive. You and your pony set off at the walk. Next thing you know, you've graduated smoothly to the trot. You begin to think that maybe you are an exaggerator. That maybe these ponies are not so bad after all. Then, all of a sudden, you know that time has come. As it always does. It is THE MOMENT.
One of the riders is bucked off. You can almost hear the collective guffaws of all the ponies and how they cheer on the four-legged bad boy who did it. (Who else, but Billy?) But then that bad boy decides being riderless is not enough fun. More chaos must be created. He starts chasing after the other ponies in the ring until another rider is bucked off (this time off of Golden Coin). Now there are two arrogant, aggressive ponies on the loose. The instructor finally decides to shut them down—but it is too late. Cortisol has kicked in. Instinct, too. Every pony is thinking of fleeing to buck and prance and run without riders on their backs.
You are the last one in line to exit the arena. You are trying not to lose your sh--. You are staring straight ahead in abject terror and therefore unaware that the ponies are rushing straight at Lulu's behind. Your pony swerves right and you land on your left arm. Something feels off, but all you can think of is “GET OUT, OUT, OUT!!!”
You do, crawling like a commando and squeezing through the fence slats. When you are safely on the outside of the arena, you look down at your arm. It is bent at a weird angle. Something about its triangular shape makes you nauseous. You hear your disembodied voice that seems to come from high up in the clouds say, “I think I broke my arm.” The instructor rushes over to confirm the diagnosis.
This is the last time you touch a pony. Until you are 40. And a man walks up to you at a ranch up in the mountains above Salazar in Mexico, and says, “Señora, quiere comprar un caballo?”
But that’s a story for another day…