Part V of My Odyssey to Become a Horseback Rider
The fall off of Vincenzo’s horse had happened over a month ago and my back and spirit were still smarting from the impact. How was I to even hope to be around horses if I couldn’t stand near them, walk next to them, or stay on their backs? Truly, it seemed hopeless.
Yet, Vincenzo’s kindness and the beauty of the horses kept me coming to the L.A. Equestrian Center on the afternoons I didn’t have band practice or a show. And, the more I went, the more I didn’t want to leave.
The sounds, the smells, the engaged atmosphere of the polo barns had me hooked. I loved being outside, rain or shine, and around these majestic animals that were so deeply rooted in my heart. Time stood still when I was at the polo barns. I was smack dab in the middle of a new world that seemed fantastical to me; and, although it was right at my fingertips, it was not accessible to my touch.
Vincenzo always greeted me with a warm hug and a smile, making me feel so welcome. He offered me his horse, but my back (and my courage) were not up to riding just yet. Vincenzo would then run off to attend to his appointments, one after another: celebrity lessons (Jim Belushi, Vanna White’s hubby, the band INXS), horse
training, coordinating the polo leagues, and negotiating with pros across America to come and play in the weekly professional games held in the indoor polo arena.
Being a broke musician, I was able to watch these exciting matches by sneaking in with the grooms, most of whom I had met while walking around the barns daydreaming of a time when all this would no longer seem so foreign. The games themselves seemed like modern-day jousting—so fast, almost violent, definitely fearsome to behold. But something in me thrilled at the sight, and I felt very alive and fortunate to even be so close to something so fabulous.
Whenever I’d be at the polo barns, I would talk to anyone who would give me the time of day. Most of the private grooms were busy with the professional string of ponies and, at first, looked down their nose at someone like me who couldn't even attempt what they did; they’d sit on their horses and gallop full speed around the outdoor ring with four horses on each side of them, row after row of grooms with their 9 ponies each kicking up dust like whirling dervishes. I didn’t mind their snobbery; I knew I deserved it! I felt no sting, only humility (and admiration for them).
Still, I found a friendlier reception over at the polo school barn where the two grooms were overworked and underpaid and the horses were much less high strung. About 15 horses were part of the school, most of them retired polo ponies, truly deserving of a retirement they would never have. At least 3 or 4 of them were always out with an injury, mostly saddle sores from much used and ill-fitting tack along with the aggressive, bad riders who flopped around on their backs while they battled it out against other “students” in school scrimmages.
The school was officially directed by Vincenzo, but he mostly had his right-hand man Dana take care of the day to day with two grooms, Ben and Alfred, to do the grunt work. From what I could tell, there was a bit of a management void going on, with Vincenzo busy with the leagues, the pros, and celebrity clients, Dana off being Dana (more on that below), and Ben becoming very disgruntled at being overworked with the grooming and tacking up of the horses since he was not a rider and Alfred was; Alfred would either disappear or be riding private horses for extra cash.
Ben would brighten up when he’d see me, happy for the company and the helpfulness he knew I came with. I may not have known much, but I never said no to anything he asked me to do, as long as it didn’t require standing behind a horse or near a horse’s rear end, or going into a horse stall. In return, he willingly and kindly filled in the seemingly endless gaps in my knowledge of horses. Ben taught me the names of all the school horses, told me of all their quirks (Wilson rears up if you pull up on the reins, Herman is a Houdini who can let himself out of his stall), gossiped about the celebrities who had horses in the stalls a few rows over, and taught me tack terminology and basic horse anatomy. He taught me how to put together and pull apart the complicated headstalls with double reins, tie-downs, and the different bits (pelhams, gags), and together we catalogued the tack and organized it with little tags for the horses that each headstall fit.
Ben hated his job, but he couldn’t have trained me better for it had he been paid to do so. His complaints rolled off me, but his knowledge stuck. And his guidance and presence got me more and more comfortable around the tired, old school ponies who were all very sweet.
One Saturday I was helping Ben strap the polo wraps together and organize the tack room when he confided in me that he was quitting. “You should ask for the job,” he said. I was shocked. Ben? Leaving? How would I be able to keep coming around if he weren’t there? I would be lost, lonely, uninformed!
“Here,” he said, “call Dana.” Ben handed me a scrap of paper with a phone number on it.
I had met Dana, of course, as had any woman who had come to the polo barns either as a client or employee. He was boyishly charming and was second in charge of the polo school, although what he actually did other than schmooze and flirt, we didn’t really know. He could play polo, of course, and would participate in the scrimmages and teach some classes, but mostly he could be found in his trailer atop his old Dodge pickup truck parked in the back of the barns, sweet-talking one of his latest admirers.
I was pretty sure I made Dana uncomfortable because I was not someone who would melt to his charms. Being the youngest and only sister of two brothers, and a major tom-boy all my life, I understood guys and often knew where their intentions lay before they consciously did! I was not in the market for romance (or, especially, seduction) and I knew how to make that clear without using words. Dana, I knew, felt rejected even when he hadn’t made any moves on me, and so tended to avoid me.
The prospect of calling him was a bit distasteful, and should I do so, I didn’t expect his reply to be favorable. He was the kind of guy who liked to be fawned over; I was not that kind of girl. I was nervous, afraid, unsure, but, faced with not being able to come see the horses at all, asking to work with them seemed a better alternative. I picked up the phone later that Saturday evening.
“Uh, hi, Dana? This is Katerina. I heard you need help at the polo school.”
“Oh, you mean because Ben quit? Nah, I think Alfred can take care of it by himself.”
Alfred was the kid helping Ben. He was a nice kid, but there was no way he could fill Ben’s shoes. Most of the time Alfred was off somewhere, out of sight, doing whatever Alfred did. No, this kid was not the solution. And Dana was not going to fill in the gap Ben left; he had his own agenda, his own way of working (or not). That place needed order, organization, someone actually taking responsibility for the tack, the horses, the clients’ satisfaction. That place needed me. But how to make that happen? Begging?
“You sure? You guys seem to be very busy. There’s a lot to do. I’d love to help,” I said, trying to keep the desperation out of my voice.
“Thanks, but, it’s not a job for a woman,” Dana replied.
Dong! I swear I heard a bell clang. In my head. A wake up call. “Play this right,” the voice said, “don’t engage in confrontation. Just ask for what you want.”
“You know, Dana,” I said sweetly, “you are probably right. But, why don’t you try me out for free? I can come, work for you all day tomorrow. Sundays are so busy! If I can’t handle it, don’t hire me. You have nothing to lose.”
Silence on the line. Did I blow it? Who knew, with Dana.
But his voice came on again.
“Okay,” he said. I knew he hated admitting to needing me (not only a woman, but an inexperienced one), but he was too smart to turn down free help on the busiest day of his week! “Be there at 8."
Great!” I exclaimed, giddy with excitement.
“And, don’t be late.”
I wasn’t and, thanks to Ben’s previous training, my determination to prove Dana wrong, Alfred’s willingness to work with me, and my happiness at being there in the thick of horsey things, the day went off more smoothly than Dana (or Alfred—or Vincenzo) had ever expected it go.
I almost forgot to be afraid, and when I was, Alfred helped out, and, before the end of the afternoon, I was hired. Five dollars seventy-five cents an hour, part-time schedule, no promises, no contracts. Done.
Katerina. Polo School Groom!
My bandmates were not too thrilled that I now had two jobs tiring me out, for which I would leave at 5:30am and not return until 7pm, but I couldn’t be happier. Walking on air barely covers it. Polo School Groom. Oh! I loved the ring of it!
But, soon, within a matter of a few weeks, I developed a well-deserved reputation which offered much derision far and wide across the equestrian center, even beyond into the non-polo barns, and this reputation outshined my first title. It was that big.
Yes, most people forgot that I ever was the Polo School Groom. It was much easier to recognize me as “the girl who falls off.”
But that’s a story for another time.