Our Scribe Gets Some Horse Sense


March 27, 1994|By BRIAN SULLAM

About nine months ago, a new girl entered my life.

Her name is Judy, and she appears to come from good stock.

Judy is quite attractive. She is surprisingly muscular and her hair is dark and thick. She has gentle facial features, a big smile and large eyes.

Over the past few months, I have learned a great deal about her psychology.

Judy is not easy-going. She has very strong dislikes. She doesn't like loud noises. The sound of rain hitting a roof makes her extremely nervous and agitated. This past winter, the sound of snow sliding down the roof and pieces of ice falling from trees seemed to spook her.

Sometimes, a strong gust of wind will startle Judy. She will shake her head and look around with panic in her eyes. A reassuring word will usually calm her, but on occasion she is beyond calming and must be taken home. As a result of her nervousness, she has gotten a reputation as a "head case" among others who don't know her as well as I have come to know her.

Every Wednesday evening, Judy and I have a date. We go out for about an hour, and we have a good time riding around.

Judy is a 12-year-old mare.

When my children started riding lessons two years ago, I used to stay as far as possible from the horses. I had ridden a few ponies when I was just out of diapers, but by the time I began to develop my critical faculties, I decided these animals were too big and too dangerous. If I wanted danger when I was a kid in Hawaii, I preferred to take my chances surfing big waves rather than riding on the back of a half a ton of sinew, muscle and bone.

Horses never really entered my consciousness until about four years ago, when my older daughter rode ponies at her summer camp. She got the horse-riding bug, and we investigated giving her lessons.

Pretty soon her younger sister wanted to ride as well. Both of them have become fairly accomplished and confident riders. They have mastered a number of skills from cantering through obstacles to jumping over boxes and poles.

They each have ridden a number of different horses of various temperments and strange names. The first horse my older daughter rode was named Killer. With a name like that, I feared the worst.

As she mounted the white gelding and gave him a kick, I thought that this was the last time I would see this child in one piece. The horse didn't budge. She gave that horse another kick in the ribs and it lifted its head. A whack on its rump finally got the beast to move, albeit very slowly.

Then there was Roo, the asthmatic horse that sneezed, hacked and wheezed as it trotted around the ring. This horse had huge hoofs that produced thunderclaps each time they hit the ground. Just as my daughter was developing a relation with him, he was sold. The family joke is that poor Roo was sent to the glue factory.

My younger daughter, who likes to speed everywhere, really took to riding. The faster the horse goes, the happier she is. One day she was taking a make-up class with some more experienced riders. They were all going over a three-foot jump, but my daughter was supposed to go around it. Knowing that my daughter would take the jump, Pat Lookingland, the instructor from Carroll County, blocked it by standing in front of it. "She is fearless," Pat would say, shaking her head.

As my daughters were gaining confidence in their riding, I was becoming more fearful of these animals because I had to get close to them. On occasion, I had to hold their reins while one of the kids tightened the girth or adjusted the saddle. Standing beside a horse brought me within kicking range of those hoofs and only heightened my anxiety. I was deathly afraid of being on the receiving end of a kick from a beast that wore iron shoes.

Last year, my wife, who was even more afraid of horses than I, and I decided to vacation in Montana at a guest ranch. Before we traveled out west, we thought it might be a good idea to get some experience in the saddle.

Pat was kind enough to form a class for beginning adults. Virtually every adult in the class was a beginner. The irony was that this was probably the only activity in which our kids could outshine us. And they would not let us forget that. On a number of occasions, they would pipe in with advice from the sidelines. "Straighten your shoulders, hold those reins tighter and keep your chin up," was some of the unsolicited advice they would holler.

However, many of us had patiently sat through hours of instruction and somehow had absorbed some of the information Pat had been telling the kids on posting, holding the reins and maintaining the correct diagonal. In the first classes, we made some remarkable progress.

Within just a few weeks, some of the class was cantering -- which means riding along at a pretty fast clip. I should confess that I was not among those.

Judy and I had our problems. I wasn't good about holding down my heels. As we cantered, they would flop all over Judy's sides. She took that to mean it was time to pour on the speed. Just as it appeared that she was about to run off at high speed, she would turn inward and come to a complete halt.

I don't think I'll ever be much more than a beginning rider, but at least now I don't mind getting close to a horse.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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