Part IV of My Odyssey to become a Horse-Back Rider
The Los Angeles Equestrian Center—the arched gate loomed above me as I rolled the band’s borrowed truck forward. It suddenly occurred to me that this might not be such a good idea. What did I expect to gain from coming here? It’s not like some miracle had taken place over the last dozen years. I was still the same, terrified girl that was inexplicably drawn to horses, albeit a bit taller and slightly more mature. And, now with the prospect of seeing horses up close after so many years, I realized nothing had changed. Perhaps this plan was hopeless.
I parked the truck and wove my way around the nearest barn, fearfully avoiding the touch of every curious horse that popped its nose out to get a whiff of me, and saw a riding ring nestled against perfectly manicured hedges. Several nattily dressed riders where cantering on tall, majestic mounts and leaping over white picket fences. Behind the ring the freeway buzzed and above it towered the Hollywood Hills, behind which were hidden the legendary, gigantic letters of America’s Bollywood. In the center of the riding ring stood an instructor holding a megaphone and a crop. I waved, and after she barked a few more instructions to her pupils, she made her way over to the fence, looking me up and down as she did.
I was a curious sight, for sure. I had come out to L.A. as a rocker, not a rider. My wardrobe consisted mainly of black, lacy thrift store finds mixed with beautiful pieces curated from my previous life as a well-travelled, pampered, international kid. The only boots I had to choose from were my performing boots (Western boots with Black Widow spiders embroidered in red webs on the front—they cost me several months of tutoring money and could not be
sacrificed for my horsey whims)
and a luscious pair of tall brown boots bought on a shopping spree two years prior in Rome, with multi-colored suede patch cut-outs along the sides. Today I was wearing my Italian boots over the one pair of jean leggings I owned, topped by a huge, multi-colored, wildly textured, baggy sweater my mother had knit for me. I looked like a hippy extra that took a wrong turn from the Disney Studios lot across the street.
“Are you lost?” the instructor asked.
“No, no,” I replied, self-conscious of the distaste my appearance
was causing her, “I was wondering who to talk to about getting a job here.”
“Are you a trainer?”
“Oh, no, I just love horses and want to—”
“No, I’m sorry. Why don’t you check at the jumping barn over there?” She dismissed with me with a wave of her crop towards the next set of stalls set closer to the highway.
From the jumping barn another older woman in jodphurs looked me up and down, smirked, and sent me to the cutting barn. There, a sun-baked cowboy with a cigarette hanging on his lip took a look at my boots and shook his head. “Sorry, darlin’, why don’t you try the Arab barn?”
I did, but, again, to no avail. Utterly discouraged, I sat down on some hay bales to lick my wounds. I was sweaty, dusty, and more embarrassed than ever. Everyone had almost laughed in my face, first at my appearance, and second at my naiveté in thinking that anyone would freely allow me access to horses when I was so obviously not experienced in any useful way. The equestrian center had a whole team of Mexican guys who would clean the stalls and feed the horses, so I couldn’t compete with that. And riding? What did I know about riding other than how to fall off? Yes, this had been a silly, time-wasting fantasy.
Just then, I heard laughter across the way. I looked and saw another set of barns, a big riding ring which enclosed an arena and bleachers, and a trailer home with a hand-written sign that said “Polo School” tacked haphazardly above the door.
The laughter had come from within the trailer home. Polo School? Where had I heard that word Polo before? Yes! The Singapore Polo Club! So it was a thing in other countries, too? Before I knew it, my feet were taking me to the door, and my hand was opening it.
“Well, hello there!” came a warm greeting from a voluptuous, middle-aged brunette seated opposite the door at a small desk.
“Hi,” I offered her my hand, “I’m Katerina.”
“I’m Nancy, how can I help you?”
“Well, I was hoping to get an opportunity to be around horses, to
help out, you know, for free.”
Her eyes lit up. She looked me up and down, but not like the others; her perusal seemed friendly, investigatory. “Oh, yes, you’ll do,” she nodded, knowingly, “you’ll have to go see Vincenzo.”
“Vincenzo? Is he Italian?”
“Mm-hmm, he runs the Polo School. You’ll find him in the outdoor arena.” Nancy pointed through the side window at a cloud of dust rising from the ring.
“Thanks!” I replied and made my way over.
I stepped up onto the bleachers and within the dust clouds arose a beautiful sight: a proud, fiery black horse was being galloped, then stopped, whirled around, and galloped some more by what looked like the better-looking, more manly, strong version of Ralph Lauren. (Yes, the Ralph Lauren, founder of the design house Polo).
Vincenzo, eh? I loosened my hair from its pony tail, took a deep breath, and shouted, “Vincenzo, come vai?”
Vincenzo galloped over and stopped on a dime, all without moving a millimeter of his body. “Italiana?” he asked.
“Non, sono Greca,” I smiled. “I am Greek.”
“Greek? Una faccia una razza!” he replied and his broad, white-toothed smile almost blinded me. There was something about him so familiar and warm; I wanted to hug him already. “What is a
Greek doing here?” he asked, congenially.
“We-e-ll,” I demurred. How to break it to him? “I’m in L.A. with a rock band, but what I really want to do is be around horses. I’m willing to do any job around here and I will work for free.”
He jumped off his horse. The horse seemed to be snorting fire at this point (at least from my perspective). “What you waitin’ for, girl?
Come in here and show me what you got!”
I thought I might faint, but I couldn’t show Vincenzo any hesitation. if I didn’t go for it now, my chance to be around horses would be over. I could hear the Universe calling out to me: “Kater-iii-na. The door ohhhh-pened. Time to jump through it!”
My legs were trembling so hard I could barely step down from the bleachers without tripping. I jogged around to the arena entrance, hoping to disperse some of the adrenaline coursing madly through my veins. The horse was stomping around impatiently, but Vincenzo didn’t seem to notice. He gave me his thigh to step on and I got up on the horse, feeling its pent up energy surge through me. What was I doing? And how the heck was I supposed to ride this equine rocket ship?
“Okay,” Vincenzo said, “just take him slowly around the ring, get a feel for him. Don’t hold onto his mouth so tight.”
I managed somehow to keep my feet in the stirrups and my rear end in the saddle as the horse took me around the ring (yes, you read that correctly; I most definitely did not take the horse anywhere. I was a passenger and nothing more).
Fortunately, with one and a half circles around the ring, Vincenzo was satisfied.
“Can you be here at 5am?” he asked.
“See you then. Ciao bella!”
The next day I rose while my bandmates snored and stole away with our truck (I’d be back before anyone was up, anyway). At the polo barns, all was still and dark, but, Vincenzo, true to his word, was, there, waiting. The horses, the freeway, and I were still half-asleep, but not Vincenzo; he was a live wire.
“Okay,” he said in a rush, “you’ll ride this guy again.” He gestured towards the angry black gelding he had ridden the day before. “I want you to walk twice, trot each direction five times, and canter twice in each direction. His tack is in that room over there. Got it? Bye.”
Before I could even say a word, Vincenzo evaporated—poof! And I was left standing there with my abject terror and a stomping, fire-breathing dragon-horse staring me down. My fear and frustration with my helplessness melted into hot tears that poured down my face. I heard footsteps echo nearby, and thought it might be Vincenzo coming back—God forbid he see me like this! The game would be over!
I wiped my face clean. Oh sweet relief! It wasn’t Vincenzo to tell scaredy-cat me to get lost, but a Mexican groom. I could tell an ally when I saw one!
“Hola,” I greeted him, “me puedes ayudar un momentito? Can you please help me?”
“Orale,” he replied good naturedly.
“Could you please take this horse out of its stall? I am scared to go in there to get him and groom him.”
To his credit, the groom didn’t laugh at me, but just did as he was asked, and then helped me find the gear and get it on right. Somehow I rode that horse that day, and the next, and the next. But, each time, José (that was the groom’s name after all) magically appeared at 5am to help me, otherwise there is no way I would have been able to even get close to the horse. José patiently got him out every time, helped me to brush and clean his feet (no way was I going to lift those hooves), and cinch up the girth.
This black gelding was the exact opposite of José: he was angry, mean, and impatient. He hated being handled or tacked up and looked for ways to step on you or kick. Fortunately, he was not malicious once you were on him. Still, with my terror and inexperience, the combination of the two of us was not destined to be a good one.
About a week in, I was cantering the gelding in a circle to the right and must have looked left and shifted my lower body balance in that direction unknowingly; the horse, sensitive polo pony that he was, immediately switched directions based on my cue and executed a 90o turn to the left. My upper body, still leaning to the right, brought the rest of me slamming to the ground. Visions of Lulu (see Part II of this blog series) came to mind. My arm was not broken this time, but it felt like my back was. I had strained my back running “suicides” in tennis practice at Ohio State two years before, and it had been my weak spot ever since. Once it was out of whack, I would be partially immobilized by pain and stiffness for days, sometimes weeks. This one felt like it was going be weeks.
I tried to breathe and not panic; dawn had filled the sky with light, but I was still the only rider around. The freeway had buzzed into life and around the stalls lots of horse and human noises abounded as the Mexican grooms fed the horses by shoveling hay pellets off the back of a pickup truck into the stall feeders. A call for help might attract too much attention anyway; I preferred to allow my disgrace to remain private.
The gelding took pity on me and walked over to where I knelt on hands and knees. He surprised me by standing still as I used the stirrup to pull myself to a half-standing position. The pain was almost overwhelming. I held on to him as he gingerly led me back to his stall. Thankfully, José saw me limp there, and he jumped off the truck to help me untack the horse and put him away. I thanked him profusely and he made his way back to his friends. When I got to my car, I had to sit for a while before I could even think of driving; every move was agony.
My back was throbbing, my heart was breaking, and the humiliation of my lack of skills was like a black cloak over my spirits.
The door, it seemed, had slammed closed.
I looked wistfully at the polo barns and said a wordless goodbye. For the next couple of weeks, I went through the motions of my new Californian life. I commuted two hours each way to my part-time job as a word processor in Ventura, and every evening I practiced with the band or performed in it as co-vocalist.
I had always loved being on stage, but my heart wasn’t in it like before. Something had shifted. It took me a while before I realized that I had left a hefty chunk of my heart at the sandy floor of the polo arena at the L.A. Equestrian Center. I needed it back to feel whole. Yes, I had to get back. But first I had to heal my back. And then? Under what guise could I pretend to be useful to Vincenzo? Exercise rider definitely was out.
Little did I know what would be in...and how quickly everything would change.