Part VI of My Odyssey to Become a Horseback Rider
Life was full of change and excitement for me. I had officially been hired by the Polo School at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center and I still had my other part-time job, plus band rehearsals and concerts for our progressive rock band. Mornings found me up by 5:30am, downing a glass of milk and a banana or apple before driving two hours to my first job in Camarillo, where I input data into the company’s computer until 1pm. I then jumped into my car, peeling oranges (bought on the side of the road for $3 a half-bushel) for the two-hour drive to the Polo School in Burbank. After drinking from the hoses there, I worked with the horses from 3pm-8pm, with barely a break to microwave some soup and dream of drinking a Coke (But, I couldn’t afford it; my daily food budget after staples was $0.50, so it was Coke or soup. Soup won). I then slogged through rush-hour traffic (bumper to bumper going 75 miles an hour—what an experience!) for two hours to get home to Marina del Rey. Two nights a week we had late-night band practice in a rented studio in West Hollywood, and weekend nights we were usually playing in venues around town after which we’d run into celebs like Katey Sagal, John Cusack, and Anthony Edwards at our manager’s nightclub until the wee hours.
My two jobs pretty much left me just enough money to cover car rental, gas, rent of half a “den” area of our band’s apartment, a weekly jug of milk, and a daily diet of oranges, 2 Campbell Chicken and Rice soups, and 1 pack of Saltines. [Ask me if I was tired. The answer is: not really! I was hungry, though, and once a month my engineer friend David (we grew up together in Singapore) would take me out to dinner and I had to work real hard to not wolf down the food that was in front of me AND him!]
Between Alfred (my Polo School co-worker) and I, there was plenty to be done every day at the barns. We were
responsible for the grooming and tacking up of more than 15 school horses and making sure the polo students got the right mount, the correct size mallet, and adjusted stirrups for their lessons or chukkers. We then had to clean and maintain all the tack, leg wraps, and halters, and wash the horses after they became particularly sweaty. Horses that needed special help or medication were also under our purview, and there were always a handful of those. It was muddy, dusty, cold, hot, backbreaking, foot-burning work. And I loved every second of it.
Within one month, my word processing/data input job was finishing up (I shouldn’t have been so efficient!). With that salary out of the picture, money was not going to stretch far enough with only the polo job. Once again, life was threatening to take me away from horses, right when I’d found them! I mentioned my distress to Vincenzo, the school’s director, and he immediately upped my hourly wage and increased my hours so that I could stay on. But, now I could only afford, after fixed expenses and staples like crackers and oranges, one can of soup a day (even the weekly milk jug had to go). What could I do? Pilfered carrots from the huge bags left outside the barns for the private and professional ponies became my go-to for the times my stomach ached with hunger.
Already people at the equestrian center had noticed me because I was the only one that didn’t ride much, and, when washing or walking a horse, I tended to stand as far away as the lead rope would let me. My terror was ever-present, but so was the joy I felt from being in such close proximity to them. I think my enthusiasm was contagious, and soon I felt a wonderful sense of camaraderie amongst the grooms, our bosses, the clients, and the boarders, even if I was the odd one out who was terrified of horses. Blair and Lori, two experienced riders my age became my buddies, too, and gave me encouragement and even goodies; my first polo helmet was a gift from Blair who decided dressage was more his thing! My first boots? Hand-me-downs from Lori! Our little polo family made Los Angeles not seem so cold, heartless, and intimidating. But, the horses? As much as I loved them, they still intimidated me.
I think what helped me over the initial hump(s) was that I knew that it was my job to take care of them, tack them up, bathe them, walk them out. No one else would watch out for them if I did not do my job. It was my RESPONSIBILITY. Thankfully, all my life it has been the case that, when I was given a task or a responsibility, the strong, courageous, get-things-done kinda gal has always risen up and taken over. And this is the gal I depended on those first few weeks. And, as I worked, watched, and observed horses and the humans that groomed them and rode them, some of horse behavior and horseback riding became demystified for me, and less alien and terrifying. I also met wonderful mentors along the way that pushed me further along my journey of equine enlightenment.
Pamela Storey was a 76-year old Argentine woman who had grown up in the African continent right after the turn of the century, then moved to Argentina when racial tensions and violence exploded. In her 30s she was the first woman to receive a polo handicap in Argentina (1937) and was famous then for being so strong she could bend a horseshoe with her hands. I believe it. I met her when she was frail, a widower, alone, and barely subsisting on welfare, but she still stood proud, strong, and fiery. Most people were terrified of her as she was not warm and fuzzy upon first inspection. But, I watched how she talked to her horses, (she had two “rescues” under her care), cared for them, and the way these horses responded to her. For me, Pamela hung the moon.
Before meeting her, I had begun asking questions to anyone I could find, “How do you get your horse to stand still?” “How do you make such a quick turn without falling off?” “How do I get my horse to slow down?” Basically, dumb questions for experienced riders, and, believe me, the people I asked tended to make me feel dumb and then dumber when they had no real answers to give me other than “Sit deep in the saddle and pull on the reins” for pretty much everything! Most polo players’ attitudes there were: “Just hop, on, and go!” I would sit up in the stands of the indoor polo arena and watch the polo league chukkers underway, horses tearing around at lightning speeds, players smacking the polo ball up and down the arena while pirouetting their horse and charging in a new direction. Tears would stream down my face (that’s why I would sit high up where no one could see this) as I felt an inexplicable desolation and desperation that I could never ever do what I was watching. To me, what I witnessed was magic on horseback. I couldn’t stand near a horse without fear or sit on one without falling—how could I possibly imagine playing polo?
When my tears dried, however, my curiosity sprang back to life. There was so much for me to learn, regardless of my fear-, lack-of-ability-, and ignorance-induced limitations! My mind was brimming with questions and this was, remember, before the internet age. There were no sites or videos or tweets to help me along. So, one day, Pamela must have overheard me speaking Spanish, and she started a conversation with me. As the days passed, I began to seek her out any time I had free, and she would always explain things to me. She is the first person that ever talked about techniques that nowadays we know as desensitizing. And, unlike the majority of riders and trainers at the barns there, I didn’t snigger or think she was crazy when she explained her methodology--I thought she was a horse-training goddess!! One of her rescue horses had been beaten mercilessly. To heal its trauma, Pamela would take plastic grocery bags and practice crinkling them around the horse until the horse learned to relax and trust Pamela regardless of that extra stimulus. When Pamela and I would take small trail rides together, I listened to her stories, thirsty for any drop of knowledge she would be willing to share with me. I grew to love Pamela, and I hope she felt it, because she was too proud to take any recompense (financial/food/or even hugs) for her friendship and mentorship. I did get to offer my services gratis to her as a groom once, though, when she played in a Senior Polo Tournament in Palm Springs. She could hit that ball and ride people off with gusto, even in her 8th decade. What a woman. What a privilege to have known her.
Other mentors came along as well, and they were usually the ones that the hard-core polo players scoffed at as “foo-foo” because of their seemingly “soft” (i.e., non-aggressive) approaches to riding and training. One of these mentors was Alex Cord. Alex Cord was a famous
actor at the time, ruggedly handsome, charming, and charismatic. He was also an amazing horseman. Like with Pamela, I didn’t want to invade his privacy or be troublesome, but Alex was so kind and generous, he invited you in to talk with him. He would come and ride his horse almost daily, and soon I found myself admiring the way he and his horse moved together. It was not like the two kinds of riders that populated the equestrian center: those who got up on a horse and then dominated it into doing what they asked or those who giggled while their under-exercised, over-indulged horse had rearing and bucking fits. When Alex rode his horse, to the naked eye it didn’t seem that he was asking anything, but there he and his horse were, executing detailed maneuvers smooth as silk.
One day I was trying to exercise a young horse for a private client and I could not get the gelding to trot slowly. He would jump into a fast canter, frazzling me and himself. Alex happened to be nearby and I asked for help. Alex’s response was: “Just talk to the horse, without words. Tell him how fast you want to go, visualize and feel the rhythm you want to go at, and he will listen.” Up until then, as a kid in Singapore or a groom in L.A., anyone else’s answer would have been “kick for faster and pull back on the reins for slower”, so Alex’s words seemed to come from some alien language I did not speak. When the words soaked in, I still balked! I needed technical advice! Not philosophical/pie-in-the-sky advice! I needed help, now! But, considering how much I respected Alex, I decided to put his words into practice. Within minutes, that gelding was trotting as slow and fast as I wanted and I wasn’t using hands or legs. My face beamed. Alex’s face beamed. This was a turning point for me and my future with horses. Those few moments of connection turned on the “a-ha!” light inside of me!
Two other famous actors who boarded in our barns and played polo helped me along, too, with their kind support, role modeling, and advice, for which I was grateful: Jameson Parker (from the TV Show Simon and Simon)
and Richard Farnsworth (who, like me, paid his dues early on as a polo groom).
These mentors helped me feel more confident in my abilities and my instincts, all which were telling me that I was right to seek connection with horses, that this connection would make them safer for me and others, and turn them into actual partners, even as most of the other grooms and polo players laughed at my sentimental, timid approach.
Unfortunately, none of my newfound understanding of horses and horse behavior translated to my staying on their backs much better!
Around the barns I had already ignited curiosity and derision by being such a scaredy-cat, mostly because I could never walk into a stall alone or stand right up next to a horse. But, soon a new nickname ran its course through our barns and even over to the Arabian barns nearby: I was “the girl who fell off”. What can I say? I deserved it. Either riding in a ring, trying to swing a polo mallet, or just trotting up the barn aisle, I inevitably ended up on the ground. And most of my falls were silly or uneventful, caused because I had no balance, was stiff in the saddle (because I was terrified), and I had no understanding of what a horse feels like to be able to read when it was going to do something unasked for.
The fall I became most famous for came on the Saturday night I was first hired to groom for the pre-professional match. I was so excited; not only did it make me feel “I arrived”, but it was going to earn me some pocket money which I could then blow on hot dogs and Coca-Colas for all my friends. My job was to groom, tack up, and wrap each horse’s legs and tail prior to the game. A few minutes before game time, each horse had to be trotted and cantered to warm them up.
When warmup time came (I had made it up to that point with gracious help from my friend, Lori), I hopped on the horse and joined the other grooms and their horses in a makeshift ring outside the arena. We trotted, my heart racing as I could feel the energy of the horse under me; this was definitely NOT a school horse. Before I’d trotted halfway round the ring, I was no longer on my horse’s back but in the middle of the warm up arena, sitting on my butt, grooms and horses laughing at me as they rode circles around me. Thankfully, one of them had grabbed my horse, and he offered to warm him up for me. To this day I don’t remember how the horse just popped me off his back, but he did. I was ashamed, embarrassed, and, of course, humiliated. But, what could I do? I smiled, got back up, shaking and holding back tears. The rest of the game passed in a blur of fear and embarrassment and, later, as I treated the other grooms to hot dogs for the pro match, even the sight of Sylvester Stallone in a fur coat, model on each arm, didn’t cheer me up. Little did I know that further humiliations were coming my way.
One day the cast and crew of Falcon Crest rented the covered arena and required several school and pro ponies to be made available to film a polo scene. We were all excited with the hubbub and the chance to see the big celebrities of the day, especially the sexy hunk, Lorenzo Lamas. Alfred and I had to get a lot of the horses ready, but had a few hours to kill until we were needed again. So, I grabbed Phil, an old polo pony who was in the “sick lot” because he had a back sore. Phil was one of the two (Herman was the other) horses that I trusted the most. He was gentle, though tall, and generally did as you asked without any surprises. I had begun to develop some balance thanks to him, as he had to be ridden bareback because of his saddle sore, which tended to perennially pop up because of his high withers, the ill-fitting school saddles, and the inexperienced riders that flopped around on his back. I would throw a halter on him and just walk around, trying to gain some confidence and balance. That day, I had ridden Phil over closer to the arena and was walking around in a small ring just outside of it. I could hear the audience of extras cheering for some imaginary goal being scored. I was feeling quite proud of myself, almost to the point of arrogance. “Hey, look at me, how cool I am; I’m riding bareback and my horse only has a halter.”
“Hey, that’s pretty cool. You’re riding bareback and your horse only has a halter,” said a male voice. I turned, and the only person in my vicinity was none other than Lorenzo Lamas!
“Oh, hi,” I replied, most definitely blushing. Where had he come from? Wasn’t he filming inside? “H-h-how’s everything going in there?”
He smiled the stomach-melting, bleached-tooth smile that made me feel I would liquefy and drip off Phil any second now. “Oh, it’s good. Just taking a break. You look like you’re having fun. That’s pretty impressive. Well, I gotta get back. Bye.”
Lorenzo turned away and I stared at his perfect form as it receded. I swelled at his compliment and felt my ego inflate. I thought I’d show off and trot Phil in case Lorenzo was going to look back. Phil started off as he always does, obligingly, but something in my energy had changed and he knew it. Phil decided to remind me that everything that had transpired until that moment was because he had allowed it to and not because I had made it happen.
Phil took off and began cantering wildly around the ring. The surrounding arena, Hollywood Hills, and parking lot swam into a blur as I concentrated on staying on. But, I knew I was doomed. It was time to bail before worse could happen; I dove left into the middle of the ring. The thick footing braced my fall quite well, but my ego, boy was it bruised! Immediately, Phil came to a complete stop and, I swear, smiled at me. I jumped up, dusted myself off, and looked for Lorenzo or any other witnesses for that matter. Thank God, he and all traces of humankind were nowhere to be found. To this day, I believe he saw me, but, being so gracious and kind, pretended that he didn’t by hiding until I, pride in shreds, walked away with Phil, who pranced proudly next to me telling me all along “That’s what you get for being cocky…”
Thank you, Phil. Lesson learned. One of dozens more to come that horses were to teach me during my odyssey to become a horseback rider…