Skip to content

THE STONE HOUSE DIARY: Horseback Riding Lessons

By River Stillwood

At a few days shy of 51, I am amazed to be learning new things about my body. Or, perhaps, relearning them.

The other day, for example, I saddled and bridled Sundance and rode him around the farm. It was the first time I’d ridden him since buying him a month or so ago. At first, the weather was uncooperative, at first too cold, then too wet, then too cold again. About the time it really warmed up, Mom was here for a three-week Christmas visit. Actually, she would have loved it if I’d ridden while she was here, but we were so busy playing Scrabble, visiting with friends, and celebrating the holidays that I never got around to saddling up Sundance and taking him for a spin. Then, just before Mom returned to San Diego, I brought Sundance to the vet to get his annual vaccinations and have his teeth floated. It seemed wrong to throw a bit into his mouth immediately after that, so I waited a week. Which brings me up to the other day.

It was a lovely afternoon, one better meant for mid-March rather than early January. The air was calm. The thermometer tap-danced between 59 and 60. A few hardy brown moths tested their wings above the north pasture’s reddish greasy grass. Sharply spoken blue jays called out to each other from the leafless limbs of sleeping trees. Overhead the sky was pristine blue, slowly turning milky white toward the horizon. As winter afternoons go, it was more than perfect. It was a gift.

Sundance was in fine spirits, nibbling apple treats while I cleaned his feet and brushed his back. He patiently waited while I saddled him, then saddled him again because the blanket had slipped the first time. He didn’t much care for the bit in his mouth when I put on the bridle, but it wasn’t from having had his teeth floated. According to online information, unlike humans, the nerves in horses’ teeth don’t grow much beyond the gumline, so horses don’t feel pain after having the sharp points of their teeth filed down. Sundance didn’t like the bit in his mouth because, well, he didn’t like the bit in his mouth. Who would?

Once Sundance tacked up, I walked him from the barn into the north pasture and mounted him there. We walked around the pasture several times, then wove our way through the woods in the back twenty.  As we did, several things became clear. First, Sundance is a gated horse and has the smoothest ambling stride I’ve ever experienced. Second, he’s barn sour. When moving away from the barn, his steps slow, become reluctant. When moving towards it, they quicken, become energetic and spritely. And third, he is stubborn! If Sundance decides he doesn’t want to move, he’s not going to move and no amount of encouragement, leg pressure, heel kicks, or head turns are going to urge him onward. Still, with the exception of a few unrequested stops that threatened to last into eternity, and a few unrequested lopes in the direction of the barn, two hours riding Sundance proved him to be a fine, gentle horse with a few habits that needed improvement.

I should have stopped there, brought him back to the barn, unsaddled him and called it a good day. We were both tired. A couple of times while loping, the muscles in my thighs had given out and my legs had started flopping around in the stirrups and I’d had to clutch the horn to stay in the saddle. A couple of times, Sundance had shown his weariness by stumbling. But, as in many stories in which unexpected things are learned, I did not abide by the whisperings of my inner voice. Instead, I decided that we should take one more pass around the north pasture before heading to the barn. And so, instead of turning right toward the barn, I turned left. And Sundance stopped. Dead. In his tracks. And refused to move forward.

As before, I urged him onward with my voice. Then I squeezed my legs and tapped his sides with my heels. Next, I smacked him lightly on the rump with my hand. Then I did all three together. Nothing happened. I gritted my teeth, amped up a notch and tried everything again, harder. Nothing. I used the reins to pull his head around to the side hoping he would walk in a circle. Instead he bent his head around, turned his “watch eye” on me and causally licked my shoe.

From behind me I heard a voice call out, “Don’t let him get away with that. If you do, he’ll not move for you again.”

I spun around in the saddle. Just across the fence in my front yard stood two friends. (I won’t mention them by name lest members of PETA target them). The friend continued, “Get a switch and whack him with it. He’ll go then.”

The other friend chimed in, “You’ll only need to use it once. He’ll mind from then on.”

These folks are not even remotely cruel. In fact, they’re horse people. They know how to raise horses, how to “break” them humanely, how to ride them for work and pleasure, how to show them, and how to win in the ring.

My friends’ unexpected presence was enough to spur Sundance forward. We walked around to the fence. I dismounted and tied him for a few minutes.

Turns out, my friends were on their way home from town and after a few minutes standing, chatting and agreeing to get together soon, they continued on their way. As they drove off, I looked at Sundance, thought about what they had said. I was tired. The afternoon was waning. Clouds were moving in. The temperature was dropping.

At the same time, though, I didn’t want to end the afternoon with Sundance at a stalemate, me urging him onward and him unwilling to go. So, I took out my pocketknife and cut off a small switch from a nearby hickory. Then I untied Sundance, remounted him, and steered him away from the barn. Sure enough, as soon as he realized we weren’t heading home, he hit the brakes.

“Come on, Sundance,” I said firmly, tightening my weary thigh muscles while tapping him gently on the sides with my heels.

Sundance did not move.

I repeated the procedures, only this time adding a smart but not hard whack of the switch on his rump.

That got his attention! Sundance moved forward with an enthusiasm I’d not seen during our two hours riding. We went around the pasture once. Twice. Three times. Just as I was about to turn him and bring him to the gate, he suddenly stopped again.

“Come on, Sundance,” I repeated wearily, almost too tired to care. Nothing happened, so I adjusted the switch in my hand.  Sundance must have thought I was going to use it again, because before I could say anything, he suddenly leapt forward.

I was utterly unprepared for such a dramatic movement. Before I could react, I was airborne, flying end over teakettle. Time all but stopped and suddenly I was watching myself lurching forward and to the left. Detaching from the saddle, my feet catching, then slipping from the stirrups. The reins slipping from my hands. Sundance was turning his head, eyes wide open, watching me. Falling, somehow, under him. Feeling the CRACK of my body striking hard ground. My limbs helter-skelter. Seeing Sundance try to jump over me while feeling his shod back hoof land on my foot. Then silence. Complete silence. That breadth of time when you realize pain is coming but has not yet arrived. And then time returned. And pain. Radiating pain. From my toes to my back to my shoulders to my scalp to my toes again.

The wind knocked out of me, I collapsed on the grass, tried to breathe, tried to assess my injuries, then rolled onto my side, then on all fours, saw my glasses about a yard to my right, my camo cap a few feet further away, Sundance’s legs coming tentatively closer, then the soft feel of his lips playing with my hair. Unsteadily, I gathered my things and stood up. My back and bottom hurt, my left foot burned like I’d been in a fire, the right one smarted. I turned my head back and forth, moved my shoulders, hands. One of the reins had taken some skin off a finger on my left hand. My glasses were bent but not broken. My hat was clumped with grass. I was hurt, but not seriously.

“Well,” I said aloud as I staggered over to Sundance.

“Well.” The Ozarker expression used when more precise words might worsen a situation.

“Well.” I stroked his face, looked at the ground, and wondered if anyone had seen me fly though the air.

I pictured my dear friend Bert Scherer standing in the field watching me. Bert knows me. She knows horses. She knows how to keep going no matter what. I nodded at her reflection in my mind, staggered over to Sundance, straightened his bridal, tenderly laid the reins across the saddle horn. Then slowly, achingly, I lifted my left leg, put my throbbing foot in the stirrup and, in two tries, hoisted myself back into the saddle.

“Come on, Sundance,” I mumbled. “Let’s go.” I turned him away from the barn. Away from the house. Pointed him toward the back twenty. We walked slowly. Calmly. Paying attention to nothing but our breaths and the late afternoon woods. We walked and walked. This way and that. After an hour, we headed for the barn with all the trust and nonchalance of two old friends winding down a long day together.

The following morning, I learned these things about my body:

1. At almost 51-years old, it feels as rickety as an old barn hit by a storm. Suddenly, joints that never before made a sound are filled with cracks and pops and snaps.

2. I have a tailbone! And it is attached to some very curious muscles! (I actually learned this when I was ten or twelve and was thrown by an angry horse, but in the intervening 40 or so years, I’d completely forgotten. Now, every time I bend over or try to sit down, I remember).

3. I’ve apparently gained some ribs over the years. Or suddenly become aware of them the way one becomes aware of a bunion on the foot when suddenly donning stiff shoes. Fortunately, the ribs only hurt when I use them. Unfortunately, I use them every time I breathe.

3. The big toe on my left foot is very likely broken. However, it is now so swollen that it is completely numb. Though it has taken on a dreadfully plum-color dotted with blues and greens, it is asking for nothing more than warmth, an extra-large shoe, and tender use for the next few days.

4. Riding horses is thrilling, even when it results in minor calamity, and getting older is dreadful, even when it enables one to do the things she enjoys.    Like riding horses.