Monday, October 19, 2009

Don't spare the horses

I try to answer every email, although there are many. One has been sitting around here for nearly three months and been alternately scrap paper, a paper airplane (originally a feeble attempt at a pterodactyl), and confetti (it was Tuesday!). When I am hanging upside down from my chair with not a hope in sight of coming up with anything to write about and in truth more focused on the smear of peanut butter on the screen, I return to one email. It is not deep - not obviously so - it just represents most of my life, surely all the most peaceful and solitary. It felt, almost, like an intrusion; this medium is always on that precipice.

Dear Blushing, If you won't show us your feet, let's see those thighs! Horse pictures, please. I understand from other sources you had a distinguished history. Old Salem, let us read it. Marc

Old Salem is the farm at which I rode. It was a hot bed of Olympians and champions of all manner of athlete, both horse and rider. I was there for fifteen years, off and on and showed under the navy and burgundy colors of that venerable old stable. I am proud to say I was exposed to the remarkable show jumping talent that thrived there. And that I jumped with them. But, that was then. Most of the photos and videos as well as nearly all the ribbons went up in the fire; recreating this for you has been challenging in a number of ways.

I know that time at Old Salem, and the old trophies they are holding for us up there on the hill are what people remember and are probably asking about now; the twinkle on highly polished silver in the front hall, the satin of the long tri-color ribbons, the excitement of the jumper rings, and the adrenaline of the high-jump ride on hot-headed maniac horses; the powerful fast guns of the game, the great equalizers, the steel between your knees.

I concede, I liked the jumpers best for a lot of reasons for most of my career, although I started in an open field in Purchase, New York. A jumper's win is unequivocal: Huge terrifying fences, tight turns, shallow jump cup holders, ninety seconds, no judges. The slalom of horse events. A rider must go clear, no rails down or refusals. Hot heads, are, in my book the best for the job; young studs. There is nothing worse than an animal without fierce will and determination. Jumpers need good legs because the courses are brutal, but moreover, they must be bull-headed, slightly addled, lunatics.

Would you jump around courses like those on a Sunday afternoon when there is hay in your stall? It helps to have a loose cannon between your legs, as we say.

You must rein them in or lengthen them, but get them to a spot at the base of that fence and over it; pick them up between two legs and leave them no choice, throw them over the fence with your thighs if you have to, but be authoritative and clear with your body: One way or another we are going over that thing. I preferred to wrestle to hold them in, struggle to push their rein strength into my leg, and be reaching, stretching, hurting desperately over the top of the high spreads rather than loping around some gentle course in a hay field somewhere. That is the nature of adrenaline addiction.

The last time I wrote a post on horses, there was mail about safety and all sorts of other nonsense but, look here: I made the choice to ride jumpers at an age when I was fearless and paid my dues to keep from being injured (badly), but lumps and scars are part of life. The scar tissue on the inside of my calves from the stirrup leathers is not something I would trade. In the worst of these injuries, I hit my head on a stone field jump so hard that I did not know my family for two days and had virtually no mental comprehension whatsoever. As soon as the amnesia cleared, I was back on course. Because that level of risk was the only level at which I wanted to exist.

It was better to take the chance I would get killed on course than to die of a long, painful disease; there is not a better way to go out.

The agony of the sport for riders is not dying from being landed upon or trampled, it is the threat of paralysis. Living with a limited or non-existent range of motion is the worst danger: The devil in the tack closet. The fear is a demon that can take your mind at night and cause you to wreck from dire anxiety. It was that bell ringing right behind my ear at the timer: I was sure it was there to remind me not to cut the turns too deep or ask for too much stride.

Because those accidents happened, they happened everyday. Once you become a show jumper, you have already punched your card in many ways, it is only a matter of when, not how.

When my children arrived, I had to put the jumper rings away in my soul as many Mother's do. Frequent deployments on my Husband's part caused me to realize that if something were to happen to me... these little girls were, as athlete's say, the tap on the shoulder. Time to go. Watching that video full of friends and competitors is no simple task now.

I miss the big ride. Yes, I miss my heart pounding through my field coat, diving out of the leather and throwing the reins away with the fastest prayer I have ever said scorching my thoughts; hitting the spot and knowing we're too deep to turn back now, while those last words past my lips you better get the hell up, Reg! And smiling on the other side of the triple as I patted his neck that thing was huge, buddy, way bigger than it walked. And I miss that he would turn and bite the tip of my boot, I assume, for having dug him him too tight. See, I am trying not to truly think about it even now as I finally write this post, but I am. I'm not even with you now, some place else, some place better - for me. This thing is in my blood and it binds to memories, photos, the smell of saddle leather and the sound of hooves, and the morning sun in Ocala.

I returned to the part of the sport at which I began: The open field. This is my sanctuary. Every person needs that place in their consciousness: Mine is an open gallop in the hunt fields where I was raised; on horseback as long as I have walked.

This is my home. Otherwise, I just hang around in houses feeling pent up and frustrated. I can sense this same desperation in others whether they make their homes on rock faces, oceans, or ski slopes when they are tied to small lots in well-intentioned suburban subdivisions and tiny city apartments. I feel about them as I do myself: A pacing caged spirit meant, most of the time, to be without fences or ceilings.

It is not just a sport, in fact it did not start as one and from this vantage point, I know it will not end as one. It is where I need to go, and where I will be, when they take me off this earth: On the undulating fields, in the deep hollows, beyond the stone walls, and generally - out there.

I learned this from my Mother. It was the single greatest thing she gave me, and believe me when I tell you, some very tense negotiation went on with my Dad to keep me in the ring and fields. But she prevailed, gratefully. She and my gentleman-Brit Granddaddy (that is him in the first shot) stood at ringside every single day, in any weather and at -5 degrees next to smudge pots; I've known deep love in this life and been gifted with it equally. The first time I went over a four-foot spread I looked over my shoulder at my Mom standing by the in-gate, she had covered her face with her hands and turned away: That stuff can really scare your Mama.

Maybe you are thinking my education should be ahead of this in things to thank her for? None of this ever would have happened if there were not a church of vast openness with the footfalls of a great field hunter underneath me in a never-ending territory to help keep everything in perspective.

Yes, I competed. But not for the reasons one might assume. The pictures I choose for you are not those you will see in the case at the farm. Mine are more intimate, because it is the only relationship with the sport I have. I never saw the ride from the perspective of the course photographers; I don't recognize those moments.

When you are in the fight of your life, all you see is the hulking pile of rails and brush ahead of you and all you hear is the heavy thud of hooves while your arms are being yanked from their sockets and your legs are on fire. Pretty pictures: I don't know anything about those.

Adrenaline and balance, those are the reasons I stayed. It was not about the trophies (although competition is the ex-boyfriend who will not leave me alone). I keep three ribbons in the garage on a hook, if there is a physical form to the culmination of thirty years in the tack, they are it. Just reminders out there, every time I step out of the car, of a moon I brought down. I am proud of them, but not living-room proud; kind of quiet, between myself and my history pride. When my baby girl wanted to play with them, I handed them to her and forced myself not to hesitate. They are only slips of satin, after all.

Then one day recently, I saw her look up at them while she was walking through the garage and heard her say, "Mama was a big horse rider." It wasn't the clarity of her voice that stopped me, it was her use of the past tense. In the closet this morning, I put hand on those white britches it took me ten years to finally earn; as I always do. And I tried not to think about tense. I do that everyday. There is a good chance I always will.

So, Marc, it wasn't ribbons and sterling: I could not have done anything else any differently or any less. I loved every painful second of it. And it is all I know of a home.

M & S Championship, Ocala, Florida


little augury said...

Tour de force. G

preppyplayer said...

Old Salem horse show is next weekend, I was thinking of vending there...
Love your blog :)

DD said...

That is one of the most fascinating stories I have read in a long time. I never knew what jumping was like but from the footage I'd seen on television. I certainly never understood what the experience was like from the rider's viewpoint. From your story, I could almost smell the air. You're quite a gal.

ELS said...

I have just been so moved by this post I sent it to my oldest pal, who, with me, went through the never-matched adrenalin rush of jumping that you capture so perfectly. Motherhood has curbed my bravery; too many house moves my opportunity to connect so fully with the strength and beauty of a horse.
Thanks for a lovely shot of nostalgia to this wet and windy corner of the UK

JBM said...

Triumphant. Tour de force. I printed it out. You probably get this a lot but is marriage out of the question? You are a remarkable make of girl.

JBM said...

This is like a painter's memory of a beloved and studied subject. Thank you for sharing this it only helps to endear you to your well deserved following. You are a remarkable girl of a rare combination; Talent. Beauty. Fearlessness. Long may you reign as goddess of this precipce.