When Your Horse Doesn't Like You

Optional Pre-Reads
For anyone confused by the whimsy and glitter and puppetry of it all.

Part 1

What I Learned Growing Up with a Mom Who Did Singing Telegrams

Part 3

When Your Horse Doesn’t Like You

To my imaginative, creative mother, horses meant prosperity and dignity. She sketched them in whimsical shades of pink and blue with curly manes and purple stripes. Sometimes they had wings. Usually glitter.

In an effort to share the inspiration, my parents once scavenged a carousel horse for me. Mom painted it white with rainbow zebra stripes. Dad hung it on a trellis in the back yard. I must’ve been four or five.

I'd happily swing back and forth until I got too high. The chains would catch. I'd fly through the air, land in the grass, cry for a few minutes, go inside, have a popsicle, then come back out and repeat the whole routine. Knowing the horse could throw me, at any moment, offered a strange bonus thrill. An adrenaline rush.

History, it turns out, would repeat itself. And you know what they say about history, those who don't learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them. In fact, history has a lot of helpful advice for avoiding calamity. But hindsight is always twenty-twenty...there's a lesson in here somewhere amidst this Mike Brady paroxysm.

I promise I'll get to it at the end.

One of Mom's many, genuinely beautiful
horse-centric artworks.

In the summer of 1994, Mom suddenly talked about owning a horse as though it were real and not a “someday" thing. Dad looked worried about the cost. Then, we had a real-live horse boarded on a farm at the edge of our tiny Indiana town. Just like that. Like we were the Clampetts.

I had the tendency to cheer Mom on when it came to her dreams, no matter how big or small. I backed her play when she wanted to bring a stray dog home from the Grand Canyon. (Dad said no.) I delighted every time she introduced me to a new puppet she made or new jokes she wrote for one of her singing telegrams. Mom always returned the favor.

When I decided to improvise a last-minute dance routine set to a song from the Xanadu soundtrack for my first-grade talent show, she reported for duty. She made me a set of metallic wings in the eleventh hour and taught me how to do winged eyeliner.

That's how it worked in our house. You followed your imagination first and figured it out later. You watched Labyrinth or Aladdin or Airplane 100 times in a row if you felt the need. You stayed up all night if you felt inspired.

But back to the horse. I don’t remember how we afforded it exactly. It might've involved inheritance money from my grandfather. I was still in the protective bubble wrap of childhood, where I didn't need to think about estates, gas money, or taxes. I didn't understand the cost of my Real Ghostbusters coloring book, let alone the responsibility of owning a horse.

Prince and Mom

The only problem with owning a horse was that we knew nothing about owning a horse. And horses, like dogs and children, 
know when you know nothing about them. The one we purchased was the first and only animal we visited. He was a tall, beautiful Arabian. 

His name was Prince and he didn’t suffer fools.

He was trained in the art of dressage, which is sort of like fancy horse dancing. Horses who can do dressage follow specific commands to perform intricate movements. Like stepping sideways by crossing their legs back and forth. (Also known as "grapevine" in the jazz dance world.)
This is from 30 ROCK so NBC owns it, but also I'm 99% sure Liz Lemon stole my entire childhood as source material, so I lay claim. I. Lay. Claim.

Dressage-trained horses can also kneel, rear, and trot with great grace to specific rhythms. It's beautiful to watch. It's also dangerous. Horses, like greyhounds, are strong but delicate. A leg injury could end their lives. This is why only an expert should ever attempt dressage.

Even then, the horse and rider must trust each other. They must demonstrate respect and genuine care for their partner's welfare. It's really best if the duo has lived a buddy comedy's worth of bonding.

Or, you could just buy one and try it. Like we did. What could possibly go wrong?

Prince’s former owner showed us how easy it was to command him. But he knew we were amateurs. All he would do for us was run, walk, and try to scrape us off on low hanging tree branches.

Mom and I walked down to the farm on his first night. She wore a bright muumuu with a tropical floral motif. She saddled him up and walked him behind the barn for a ride in the fenceless pasture. It was a grassy field bordered by trees and thick vegetation. I watched her ride off into the distance, all the way across the pasture.

It was dusk on a summer country night and the fireflies were already blinking. She began to trot the horse and then took him to a gentle gallop. She looked like Lady Godiva in clothes. Like an expert. All her life she read about horses. Sketched and painted them. She interacted with them at campgrounds and friends' farms. But to ride her very-own, real-life horse into the sunset? It was a dream-come-true.

You're still hung up on the muumuu, aren't you? Here's an important, relevant fact about my mother. To this day, she walks wherever she pleases in her fancy pajamas and flowing robes and doesn’t think twice about it. As if she is perpetually on the set of The Golden Girls and it's perfectly normal to walk to the post office in a negligee and froo-froo slippers.

“Well, it’s not like I’m just walking around in my pajamas alone,” she’ll say, emphasizing the word alone to defend herself. “I wear a robe for Pete’s sake.”

My sisters and I frequently took turns trying to explain to her that robes were pajamas, but she didn’t listen. Oddly enough, tonight I was glad. There was something about the robe-horse-twilight combination. Something about seeing her command Prince in an orange, flowery, satin muumuu that just seemed inexplicably right. Like she was the general of a very fancy army.

Sometimes the wackier elements of Mom came together at just the right moment and you could see their intended effect. This was just such a moment. Where what might’ve been silly was impressive and majestic.

Then Prince bucked her off.

I noticed him start to jostle and kick. The whites of Mom’s eyes grew larger as she lost control. Because she was far away, she looked like a kid flying through the air. Like bad CGI. She seemed to linger in the ether for a moment, like Wyle E. Coyote. Then she plummeted to the ground where she landed so hard she bounced. Her robes fluttered down gently around her like a parachute.

I ran all the way across the pasture. She held her ribs and made a pained face. “I’m okay, ooooh,” she said through a wince, “He just knocked the wind out of me.” Prince was at a full gallop along the perimeter of the field. I extended a hand to help her, but she waved me off.

“Do you want me to run home and get Dad? Should he bring the car? Are we going to go to the hospital?” I asked. My nerdlinger panic had set in. Hard. 

“No no, we can’t tell your father. He thought getting the horse might not be such a good idea. This will just let him know he was right.”

I plopped down in the grass and waited for her to recover while Prince trotted victory laps. Eventually, she stood and we led him by the bridle back to the barn. We walked home slowly and carefully. Mom wrapped a giant ace bandage around her midriff in the bathroom and put her robe back on. Dad was in the bedroom reading a book.

Mom came outside to sit on the porch swing with me. “It’s no big deal, I probably just cracked a couple of ribs. Just remember, we can’t tell your dad, okay?”

“Are you sure you aren’t really hurt? Maybe he won’t be mad. Maybe he’ll just want to make sure you’re okay?”

She looked at me with a sheepish grin. The next morning, Dad knew everything. Mom's no good at keeping secrets. Whatever interaction they had over the matter had been pleasant. Nobody was red in the face. Dad wasn’t talking about money or doctor’s appointments as he poured himself a bowl of cereal and took it back into the bedroom to read.

Dad had a funny way of surprising you like that. Most fathers do. Just when you think they’ll blow their stack, they chuckle instead. I pictured him giggling as Mom told him what happened. Her face frozen in a soap opera expression as she shared the big reveal. I could see her getting mad at him for not getting mad at her. I knew their arguments really well. Everyone in my house is a creature of habit.

Speaking of which, I was now determined to ride the horse myself. The problem was, outside of pony rides at the state fair and one or two supervised rides with Prince, I didn’t know how to ride a horse. But I wanted to, now more than ever.

I walked down to the farm alone in the yellow morning sunlight. When I arrived, luck was on my side. The son of the people who owned the place was out around the barn with his hippie looking girlfriend. The son was…interesting. He was clearly in his mid-thirties with John Lennon glasses and a spindly frame. He had a mop of brown hair and an uncharacteristic enthusiasm for someone that age who still lived with his parents. He seemed like a nice enough guy. They waved hello. I made my case.

“Oh,” said the son, “well that's not gonna be a problem at all.”

“It’s not?” I asked, feeling very surprised. I was accustomed to arguing with grownups. I was not used to winning.

“No, riding a horse is easy.” He said the word “easy” with a long drawn out e sound and a cocked eyebrow as if I had just told him I didn’t know how to cross the street. Like he was Mathew McConaughey.

“Well, my mom had some trouble with him. We think maybe he’s got some anger problems or something.”

The son was already moving toward the stable, motioning for me to follow. “Oh, I bet he’s fine. It just takes a while for them to get used to you. The trick is not to be afraid.”

Oh sure, I thought to myself, maintaining a polite smile. The trick is to pretend I’m not afraid of this animal that towers over me and could be the Headless Horseman’s number one choice for a companion animal. As I watched him lead Prince out of the barn and back to the pasture, I realized maybe he was right.

Here's this poor horse who knows how to do all these fancy moves and he gets stuck with us like he’s some starter animal. A My Little Pony. It made sense. Prince already seemed calmer with the son than he ever did with us. The girlfriend remained mysteriously mute through all this but looked relaxed and assured. That gave me even more confidence. 

We stopped at the leafy mouth of the pasture, exactly where Mom set out on her fateful ride. It framed the open space like a scene from a Disney cartoon. It was only then that I realized the son hadn’t saddled or bridled Prince.

“How am I gonna stay on the horse or tell him where to go without any of the stuff on?” I asked, remembering how carefully Mom explained the way each piece of a saddle and bridle worked.

“Maybe that’s been your problem. You need to start from the bottom up, see what it’s like to ride the horse without any of that stuff, as you call it. Maybe he’d like that,” he said with confidence and an air of romanticism.

I made eye contact with Prince. I gazed into his dark black eye the way I might if a camera had been zooming in on it. I don't know why, but I felt like he was encouraging me to go ahead. Like we made a connection.

“You ready?” asked the son, his ever-smiling girlfriend standing behind him. She reminded me of Janice the Muppet with her perpetually calm demeanor and half-closed eyes.

“Okay,” I said. We all stood there for a long pause. “You’re gonna have to put me up there,” I pointed to the top of the horse.

The son lifted me high and placed me on Prince's back. I sat there for a minute, conjuring up images of Atreyu from The Neverending Story and Buttercup from The Princess Bride. I was ready to gallop through the pasture in slow motion with the wind flowing through my bowl cut.

The rest of what took place happened in a matter of seconds. Without asking if I was ready, the son slapped Prince’s behind. I knew, all of the sudden, what it meant when people said something “took off like a shot”.

I reached for the horse's neck and clasped my two little matchstick arms around it as quickly as I could. My hands didn’t even come close to touching each other. Without a saddle to keep me in place, I began to slide with each gallop to the left of the horse, so that eventually I was riding as though his left side was “up”.

In a few seconds, I fell to the ground. There was a dull thud and a brief blackout. When I woke, the son and his girlfriend were staring at me, the clear blue sky behind their heads. I immediately realized I couldn’t breathe. I too had the wind knocked out of me.

Going end over end off my rainbow zebra had been gentle compared to this. I slowly regained my senses and sat up. I took my first sharp inhale. In my peripheral vision, I could see Prince galloping cheerfully. Again.

The son tried to get me to stand before I was ready. With a panicked look on his face, he kept repeating, “You’re okay, you’re okay,” like it was a command. I was okay. Nothing was broken and eventually, I felt stable enough to walk home by myself.

Not long after that, we gave up on ourselves. We weren’t meant to be horse owners and Mom seemed content with the experience. When a woman came by to take Prince for a test ride, she was able to get him to do all the dressage we couldn’t. With a few simple clicks of her tongue and subtle pulls on the reigns, he bent to her will immediately.

And after all, what about the horse? What about Prince?

This beautiful, well-trained, one-of-a-kind creature. This being. This talent who knew how to do so many incredible things. This clever, funny individual who demanded an equal, or better, and wouldn’t accept anything less.

This horse with high standards.

This horse who was strong and desired freedom. This horse who had to leave home and was surrounded by strangers in a small town.

I would’ve bucked us too.

I guess this is the part where I'm supposed to tell you that sometimes life throws you, but you have to get back on the horse. That's what my editor wants. Another editor wanted me to leave you on a melancholy note, reminding you not to repeat your parents' mistakes. But that's not what I want. Not at all.

I don't feel like my mom made a mistake. I don't really think I really did either. Same goes for my pop. Were we a little foolhardy? Sure. Mom and I are lucky we walked away relatively unscathed.


She never has to wonder what it would've been like to own a horse. She knows what it feels like to live that dream. And I never have to wonder if I'm brave enough to do what scares me. And I'm still doing what scares me. All the exhausting time, you guys. Wind knocked out of me and all.

And isn't that better than a horse metaphor?