Part II of My Odyssey to Become a Horseback Rider
The day I fell off Lulu and landed on my left arm at the Bukit Timah Saddle Club was a day on which more than just arms were broken. Dreams were, too.
As my mother drove me away from the club to the hospital in our little canary yellow Datsun, a cool cloth of ice on my distended left arm, hot tears drying on my cheeks, I think I knew that my foot would never again step in the Saddle Club or be suspended in a stirrup. The Universe had finally succeeded in scaring me off horses for good.
At the National Hospital, I was rushed through the door and received immediately by the most gorgeous man in a white lab coat I had ever seen. He was tall, with a huge shock of black hair, and Rock Hudson-esque looks (if Rock Hudson had been Singaporean Chinese! That's him on the left.).
His smile filled his face with light, and my spirits were brightened by my proximity to him. He was the head of orthopedic surgery, and happened to also be a regular tennis partner of my parents and a member, like my Daddy-O, of the Singapore Tennis Association. Dr. Ong was so kind and sweet, it was almost worth getting my arm broken to get to be attended to by him! His assistant injected my wrist with a numbing agent, and a few minutes later Dr. Ong pulled on my arm from elbow to wrist and “Snap!” the bone was back in place. Painless! Dr. Ong never stopped smiling and chatting, and I left the hospital humbled by my experience, but nowhere near as desolate as I could have been had it not been for his kind, caring manner.
A day or two later, sobering reality kicked in. As if it weren’t bad enough that I was probably never going to ride a horse again, I now had to sit and watch as my schoolmates got to fling themselves up and over another kind of “horse” in P.E. Yes, it was the gymnastics rotation, and I missed out on all of it. To top it off, daily life became so difficult: showers, getting dressed, even trying to brush my hair were exercises in futility and impatience---it wasn’t fun to be suddenly helpless after graduating more than 8 years before from being a toddler.
On the bright side, the cast made me feel temporarily elevated and singled out among my peers, distinguished by that mix of plaster of Paris and cloth that clung to my left forearm and part of my upper arm. Dozens of friends and schoolmates signed the cast with cute doodles and phrases that I pored over later to see if I could decipher what they were really trying to tell me. For a moment, never to be repeated, I knew what popularity could feel like as boys and girls that might normally not have noticed me were gathering around me to ask about my cast and wanting to sign it. Later, as I read their cutesy phrases but couldn’t remember their faces, it made me realize that popularity wasn’t going to be all that popular with me. It just seemed too much like unsatisfying fluff. Social cotton candy. I guess I had my cast to thank for that realization. But I wasn’t feeling all that grateful in the moment.
At the air-conditioned school the cast didn’t bother me so much, but, later, at our non-air-conditioned home, the 80% humidity Singapore is famous for and its 80 degree-Fahrenheit temperatures turned it into a mini-plaster steam oven, throwing me into itchy agony, which could only be endured with constant puffs of talcum powder and jabs with my mother’s knitting needle. Afternoons at the Dutch club were torturous as I was sidelined in the non-cool shade able only to watch my brothers project themselves with glee into the cool, chlorinated pool. Those moments gave me plenty of time to reflect on my life.
It seemed pretty clear that in every non-equine-related aspect of my life all was well; there was no fear holding me back or turning my insides to ice. So why continue to suffer when it came to horses?
After school time was now going to be spent living out my dreams vicariously through a voracious ingestion of fiction. I believe my parents can honestly testify that that was the year I read a book a day. (The now long-retired librarians from the Ulu Pandan campus can back them up.) Okay, I’m not saying I was reading Shakespeare, or Kant, or Tolstoy. I was a kid, remember? I devoured books like The Good Earth, The Great Brain series, Nancy Drew mysteries, etc…and, of course, any book that had to do with somebody owning and riding a horse or pony.
The pony books were not necessarily the most well-written, with imaginative plots or fantastical worlds, but they sucked me in. What fascinating words they offered up! Surcingle, girth, hocks, colic, martingale—I didn’t know what these words meant, but they
inspired a frisson of excitement as I read them. I fantasized about being in a world in which I could know their meaning, and actually use them myself in conversation!
“Yes, please hand me the martingale because Freckles (my imaginary pony’s name) is going to need it when we tackle the jumps after tea and crumpets.”
“Have you seen my surcingle? I’m sure I oiled it just yesterday and hung it up with the colic in the tack room.”
But, even just reading about young girls grooming their horses made me tremble! How could they not be terrified as they stood so close to their horses? Oh, if only I could just be them--what adventures I could have in that fictional world with my loyal, cooperative mount! Yet, the more I read, the more I knew that such horses and horse experiences only existed in fiction and for fictional characters that had more courage than I.
Life had shown me that it was useless to try to be with horses in reality. Best to engage in activities that actually came naturally to me: excelling in academics and team sports.
For the next eleven years I did exactly that. I lettered in all my high school sports teams: soccer, basketball, volleyball, track and field, and tennis at the Singapore American School. We traveled to
Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, and Jakarta for competitive games, and on the weekends I participated in adult and Junior Team Tennis.
Regional tennis tournaments would take our family to Port Dickson and Melacca in Malaysia, and, of course, weekends were also spent at the pool at the Dutch Club
and the American Club when we weren't water- skiing off Shell Island with friends.
I graduated top of my class and went to the Ohio State University where, upon realizing there was no Varsity Women's Soccer Team, I walked on and made it onto the Ohio State University’s Women’s Varsity Tennis Team, co-captaining it by senior year.
I found that I excelled at team sports competition and my appetite for sports only helped fuel my academic commitment. I graduated from OSU at the top of my class, scholar-athlete becoming my new identity.
During those years, a life with horses seemed so distant to me—a childhood dream. A faint memory of fear and distress.
But, remember what I said in Part I about the funny way doors can open? And remember me saying something about opportunities to be with horses opening up for me in Los Angeles?
Well, everything I had worked hard at, sports and academics, had led me in one direction—graduate program scholarships to Chicago, Texas, or Arizona upon getting my bachelor’s degree.
But, because of something very different I would defer my graduate education and the money offerings made to me. And because of that, horses, once again, would enter my life.
“What? What was it that did that for you?” you ask.
Well, that’s a story for another day…