Purchasing her first horse is choice for 50 adventure

Passages: A baby boomer reaches a half-century, a good reason for doing what she really wants to do.

January 09, 2000|By Karen Hosler

A YEAR AGO on New Year's Eve, a friend younger than I by a few months threw herself a birthday party and asked each guest to write a few lines in a memory book about what it means to turn 50. I never made the entry, but the answer came to me quickly.

Being 50 in my generation means no more excuses for doing whatever it is you want to do.

Our kids are mostly grown, our careers established, our finances probably in as good shape as they are going to be. We baby boomers suddenly have more freedom at an age when we tend to be healthier, fitter and more adventurous than our parents were.

If not now, when?

All this is by way of explaining that at 50, I bought my first horse.

Some of my contemporaries have responded to the same urge with sailboats, sports cars and Piper cubs. They've gone sky diving, body-rafting, hiking up Kilimanjaro. Spouses are shed, lovers are taken, unusual parts of the body are pierced.

I'm not immune to these and other diversions. But I've learned to set priorities.

An essay I read several years ago advocated making a list of the 50 things you want to do before you die. Not estate planning; fun planning. Big ambitions such as a three-month tour of the Far East usually can't be fulfilled without advance preparation. Like saving money, arranging for the time off, shopping for an all-purpose wardrobe that fits in a backpack.

I never wrote down my list of 50 things. But I identified my top goals and set about pursuing them. Among the first was taking part in a journalism fellowship. Eight months off in academia. Tried it, loved it. My boss advised, "Savor, savor, savor." I did.

On a much smaller scale, I had always wanted to take a pottery course. Looked like fun, and you could produce pretty stuff. Tried it, hated it. Was so utterly bereft of talent I dropped out after the first class.

Learning how to ride a horse was an ambition left over from childhood. Like many little girls, I was attracted to the romance of horses and collected plastic ones. But I had little contact with real equine animals, and those were rental nags that only moved purposefully in the direction of the barn.

About seven years ago, my friend Mary came up with a plan to spend six days pack-riding in the Colorado Rockies. Mostly, our horses just walked up and down switchback trails, following each other nose-to-tail with no skill required from us. But we got enough of a taste to want more.

Mary's horse tossed her once on that trip, so for a long time she was less eager than me to take the chance again. Then, she discovered Icelandic ponies, and her attitude changed. Those animals are smaller, cuter, sturdier and safer than horses she'd ridden before. They have a distinctive gait, called a "tolt," that is like a smooth trot. You lean back, pull the reins taut, and it feels like driving Santa's sleigh.

Within months, Mary bought her first pony and hooked into a whole network of Icelandic enthusiasts. She now owns four, including a foal born in the paddock at her New Mexico home.

Meanwhile, I was here in the East starting lessons in formal, English dressage pretty much from scratch. While my buddy was trotting and cantering and tolting along in the bosque next to the Rio Grande, taking to it naturally, I was laboring through lessons on a school horse. Twice a week, sometimes more, I'd go at it. Usually early in the morning before work.

There'd be days when I couldn't do anything right. Then, a breakthrough of sorts, followed by what seemed like a return to square one. But I always loved it -- the pastoral scenery; the thrill of working up a little speed as my teacher and I would trot through the woods, jumping fallen trees in our path. I also enjoyed just spending time with the horse, a great, old girl named Ghost, who is spirited and a bit bossy but extremely patient. I didn't start looking for my own horse until someone found one for me: a 14-year-old palomino quarter horse conveniently stabled a half-mile down a gravel road from my teacher's training barn. I spent 10 days fretting, taking test rides, getting my teacher's appraisal, trying to determine if I could afford to support the horse and have money left over. Finally, I had tested the owner's patience long enough. I called up him, swallowed hard and told him that if the horse passed a veterinary examination, we had a deal.

Once the decision was made, my panic subsided. I started showing pictures of the horse. I solicited suggestions for a new name to replace the series of unmemorable ones she had been called. We were beginning to bond, when she flunked her physical.

She grimaced when her right front leg was folded up under her -- a standard test for soundness -- and trotted off lamely. The ailment might have been temporary, but I couldn't take the chance.

I was heartbroken, and relieved. Responsibility for another life -- even if it's a horse -- is huge. There's food and board and shoes and medical care --when all is going well. You can't wake up one day and say, "Never mind."

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