Dec 04 2009

Feel-good post of the week

The other day I rode a horse bareback for the first time in 30 years.

This horse.


It was just like riding a bike, if the bike were 6 feet tall, 1300 pounds, and would spook like a deer at the terrifying sight of a cigarette butt on the ground.

I had to get a leg up. Actually, it was more of a push-and-shove up. It turns out that I’ve completely forgotten how to mount a horse without stirrups, stairs, or a jetpack. Further complicating the situation was my choice of mounts. Rather than one of my demure little Arabian mares, the animal I was attempting scale was that Matterhorn of equines, the giant gelding Stanley.

“Don’t forget to jump!” pleaded my reluctant assistant Christina, just before she heaved me up. She was worried that I would be like unto a sack of shit and throw her back out. She is a delicate flower.

So jump I did. Even so, the situation quickly emerged as a classic confrontation between gravity and romantic delusion. As I was hanging there off the side of the horse, wondering with no small interest whether the exercise would eventually go north or south, a separate compartment of my brain was busy accessing my Idyllic Childhood Nostalgia Module.

Memories of youthful vim superseded all awareness of my present clumsiness. I recalled the agile young Twisty executing innumerable effortless vaults onto innumerable tack-free horses. And what was this? A dim recollection of my old brown mare, at whose plump rump I’d take a running jump, like a movie stunt rider, springing into place from behind. Somehow I’d always end up on the right part of the mare, and like as not go tearing off down a wooded trail somewhere.

That little brown mare was snappy as heck.

Thus it was that, at a critical point in mid-dangle, some memory-based self-preservational impulse kicked in, and I managed to scramble my skinny ass up out of half-mounted limbo.

Or maybe Christina gave the skinny ass in question another good shove; I can’t remember, it all happened so fast.

And then I tore off. On Stanley. At a lumbering walk. Around the dusty old round pen. But in my mind it was 1975 and I was galloping that little brown mare down a wooded trail with a Grape Nehi in my hand.

For about 30 seconds. Then I looked down. Christina waving at me from the rail, and she looked like an ant from way up there. I briefly considered busting out into a full-on jog, but came to my senses in time to conclude that the horse would infallibly bounce me off in two strides or less, so robust is young Stanley’s trot, and so non-existent is old Twisty’s seat.

I hope it will not be too heartwarming to note the simple pleasure I experienced when the ride was over? I slid uneventfully from Stanley to the ground, without spraining anything, exactly as I’d done a thousand times before (gravity is kinder to the spinster aunt on the dismount). But the best part was the sweaty, horsehair-encrusted britches sticking to my legs. They were like an old bud I hadn’t seen in years, who just happened to be carrying a bottle of pretty good wine. And a corkscrew.


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  1. Intransigentia

    Riding bareback is hard! I like to think I was once a pretty decent horsewoman, but even though I could jump low fences without reins or stirrups (usually accidentally, but sometimes certain sadistic riding instructors make you do it on purpose), riding bareback at anything more than a brisk walk has eluded me. And then there’s the getting onto the horse problem, which is a fine line between not getting on at all, and going right on over.

    Damn. I miss horses.

  2. Comrade PhysioProf

    w00t! That’s a huge-ass fucking horse!

  3. Jill

    It sure is! I only come up to his knee.

  4. Comrade PhysioProf

    You gotta lotta guts to get on the back of that!

  5. Laughingrat

    Your horse stories are so great. So is Twisty visiting us from Obstreperon again?

    What is it with you horse people, anyway? It is just something I have to sit back and admire, or maybe read about and envy. At any rate, it’s pretty awesome.

  6. humanbein

    This was a great thing to read. Happy Twisty!

  7. lectric lady

    Oh, you have taken me back so many years! The sweaty-horsey-smell that clings to your body is a special perfume. A Blame the Patriarchy perfume! A girl and her horse, out there alone, defy the patriarchy.

  8. Elizabeth

    What a beautiful picture of Stanley. I’m a city girl who always wanted to be a horsewoman. Thanks for the vicarious experience.

  9. ElizaN

    Stanley is so cool. I bet when he says something, you can tell if it’s a joke.

  10. rootlesscosmo

    at whose plump rump I’d take a running jump

    Aww. That was fun.

  11. Shopstewardess

    It’s a bit late for me to feel sorry for that little brown mare who got snappy when jumped on from behind, isn’t it? Stanley looks to be a happy creature and in excellent condition, so I dare say atonement has been made for any early horsekeeping sins.

    I remember riding bareback at more than a walk in my young day, too. Fortunately the hospital stay did not need to be a long one.

  12. Adoogs

    Geldings make the best Nigels.

  13. Helen

    Yay, a Stanley post! What a nice boy he is.

  14. Kookaburra

    Thanks for calling up those happy memories, Twisty. I distinctly remember tearing all over the hills behind the stable when I was younger, with just a halter on my trusty steed.

    Hera knows how I managed to survive into fully-grown blamerhood; I can’t imagine doing something like that now.

  15. Val

    Unfortunately that ol’ ground gets harder as one gets older. And my only cushy-sofa-comfortable type of bareback mare is laid off indefinitely w/ringbone (those bad boys of mine w/their high withers!). I do have a fond memory of riding her bareback – walk, trot, & lope, mind ya! – out & back for about 5 mi on our well-worn LBJ Grasslands trails, but that was 12 yrs ago.
    I came across a terrific post by another middle-aged equestrienne about the quest for a “good seat”; I’ll have to unearth it & post a link – it made me laugh anyway!

  16. Liza

    Thanks for that. I’ve never ridden bareback. I love to think of you up there, and sliding back down, too. And smiling.

  17. SkippityDoDah

    How big is Stanley? He is one handsome dude, that’s for sure.

    Ah, I miss those horse-hair-butt jeans and britches. Exams are looming and all I can think about is how I’d rather be riding (haven’t ridden in 10 years, far too long).

  18. The Subversive Librarian

    I love this post! I rode for the first time in many years (okay, decades) this past summer and discovered the need for a jet pack as well.

  19. Squiggy

    In thirty seconds, thirty years vanish into fragrant, perfect, bliss.

  20. Carolyn

    A surprisingly high number of transport historians have never actually been on a horse. I was at a conference recently where someone was talking about the surprisingly rapid change from horse riding to coach travel among the Italian Renaissance aristocracy–up until then only women or sick people ever went anywhere except on horseback, and that was still true in some European cultures up to the end of the 18th century (where it becomes relevant to my own historical work). We were talking about what might have prompted this change and I said ‘you know, when you ride a horse you smell like a horse. Maybe the Medicis just got tired of that.’

  21. Jill

    “We were talking about what might have prompted this change and I said ‘you know, when you ride a horse you smell like a horse. Maybe the Medicis just got tired of that.’”

    It’s the work! Unless you ride like a sack of dead mackerels, it’s a pretty athletic undertaking just staying alive up there. Since I started riding hunt seat I’ve got thighs of iron. After a couple of turns around the arena and hopping a couple of teeny jumps, I’m ready for a margarita and a massage. Although I only rarely get the marg, and it’s Stanley who gets the massage.

    Also it’s a way-bigger display of ostentation to tool around in carriages. They’re expensive to buy and maintain, and require more and bigger horses, which translates into more feed, more grooms, more farrier bills, and more real estate in terms of both stabling and pasture. It’s like the difference between a Vespa and a Bentley.

    Horses don’t smell bad, though. It’s badly-managed stables that smell bad. Which, sadly, is most of them. As physically demanding as riding is, it’s even more work to muck out stalls. Horses shit 50 pounds a day.

  22. Carolyn

    Yes, definitely more opportunities to show off, and definitely upping the ante enormously on conspicuous consumption (the person who brought up the issue pointed out that the change in elite preference for coaching vs riding was so rapid that by the time the new Medici palace, built in town, was completed it had no room for the now-de-rigueur coach set, which had to be kept in stables out of town). Other possibilities people have suggested were the decline in the status of military power compared to economic power (it was no longer the highest status to show off your riding e.g. martial skills–though obviously people still did, and do–but rather your financial wherewithal), questions of separation and privacy (you no longer want or need to be visible to hoi polloi to maintain your status–the same change was happening in living arrangements, with central great halls giving way to (with)drawing rooms and salons) and my point about hygiene and clothing–I didn’t really mean ‘smell like a horse’ (it’s just that your post and the comments prompted me to say it that way) but more that it’s not that good for your silks and satins and laces and brocades and cloths of gold to be going from A to B on horseback–as you said, it’s real physical work, and you do end up sweaty and covered in horsehair (some sidesaddle riders told me a few months ago that they chose the colour of their habits based on what shows horsehair least–they also told me that the fashion is to wear so much mascara that your eyelashes stick to your veil, but that’s another story altogether). Anyway, further research is definitely warranted, and it’s an issue that interests me as a tangent to my own historical work, so who knows what archives I may end up in trying to get to the bottom of this.

  23. Carolyn

    Oh, and re smelling like a horse…I prefer to tell people that I stink after a ride because of the horse, not because I’ve been sweating buckets. Which is a lie I suppose.

  24. Shopstewardess

    Carriages also need a lot better roads (and bridges) than horses do – wider, flatter and better surfaced. In the days when everything was done by hand, from quarrying the stone from the nearest source onwards, building roads fit for carriages was a resource-intensive investment.

    Plus more horses to feed means less land available to feed people. (A lot of the increase in agricultural production in the west in the 20th century was down to mechanisation on the farm – typically a farm run on horses uses between 10% and 20% of its productive land on feeding the horses used to farm it.) So horses could only start be used profligately in Europe after the population crash caused by the Black Death.

    But I can see the point about the Medici not wanting to smell of horse or get horsehair all over themselves – just look at the gorgeous costumes they wore in their portraits.

  25. Carolyn

    Shopstewardess–both good points, but there wasn’t any change in either of these parameters in mid-16th century Italy, where the coaching thing apparently suddenly took off. I don’t know if Jill really wants to do Renaissance history on her blog…but feel free to write to me if you’re interested in the subject, since I certainly am.

  26. yttik

    We don’t get to ride as often as we like, but not long ago we rode so long we couldn’t walk and we smelled like a horse. People pointed out we smelled horsey and the kids said, “yes I know, isn’t it wonderful?” Ah, there’s just nothing as fabulous as smelling like a horse. For a while anyway.

    I used to ride a pony bareback. He learned how to cock his leg and drop his hip just right when we were standing in a creek or near a puddle. Sure enough, if I wasn’t paying attention, I would slide off and land right on his target. He would then turn and look at me and I swear he would laugh. His eyes would twinkle and he would let out a few gufaws and snorts.

  27. Jill

    Sidesaddle! Oy vey. I don’t know about other breeds, but inexplicably they still have this class in Arabian breed shows, and it boggles my mind. Only the ladies compete, of course, and they wear these goofy Merchant-Ivory-looking outfits. The misogyny inherent in a riding style that forces you to perch precariously on one side of the horse and wear a repressive Victorian maiden-aunt dress — it’s nuts.

    A somewhat more entertaining spectacle is the so-called Native Costume class. The “native” implied in the title is some fictional Arabia. In this competition, you dress yourself in a kind of midriff-baring Salome-suit, hang 3 times as many gaudy tassels as will fit from every possible point on your horse, and everybody goes tearing around the arena at breakneck speed. Dudes can go in this one, too. They wear vests over bare chests. People spend thousands on these costumes. It’s ridick!

  28. Jill

    Renaissance history? Bring it.

  29. Carolyn

    Sidesaddle is still pretty big here in the UK–I’ve seen competitions in regular county fair shows as well as historical reenactment things. The outfits are dorky looking in my opinion (and apparently there’s a lot of insider/outsider business going on on what it’s OK/not OK to wear) but the couple of times I’ve ridden sidesaddle I’ve actually found it pretty comfortable. But then again I wasn’t doing this:


    Oh and you’re totally making up the Native Costume thing. No way.

  30. Carolyn

    Wow…you weren’t making that shit up.


  31. Val

    No fabricated shit round here! In a moment of impulse-shopping weakness, I bought a native costume off eBay a few yrs ago – I’ve never worn it bcz it’s too damn HOT for the 4th of July parade, and I don’t want to risk the ribbons & tassels in the mud & brambles of our E TX Halloween ride. [I ought to suit up now that it’s nice & cold just to take some pix for posterity… I always intended to dress Quig up for Halloween: “The QH disguised as an Arab”, heh heh!]

  32. blondie

    I think horses smell good. But I’m used to horses who are pastured, not stabled.
    I also applaud the fortitude of anyone who is able to ride a non-fat horse bareback. The last horse I rode bareback was a sweetly plump pony. The quarterhorses I’ve been around have backbones like knives’ edges, and I’m not perching atop them.

  33. Carolyn

    I should clarify to say that the modern competition-style sidesaddle outfits women seem to be forced to wear are pretty dorky looking; the Victorian riding habits on which they are presumably based, however, can be quite elegant if a little awkward. In my perusal of the toobz I haven’t yet found any bare midriff/bare chest Native Costume photos–if anyone knows a URL can they send or post it? Until then I’ll continue to reassuringly believe Jill’s making that part up.

  34. Shopstewardess

    Ok, Carolyn, you got me on the Black Death, and on economics and infrastructure I’ll write to you – thanks.

  35. Linda Atkins

    This is charming, and very funny. Thanks.

  36. Barn Owl

    Stanley is such a beautiful horse!

    Equestrians who learned to ride as children almost always have a better seat, especially riding bareback, than do those who learned to ride as adults. This is one of the great disappointments of my life, as I didn’t learn to ride until I was in my late 20s. Suburban childhood, no money for horses or riding lessons. Trying to make up for it somewhat now by taking the advice of all the horse trainers and lifelong equestrians I know: “Spend more time in the saddle.” Goofy Thoroughbreds and cold weather just make it more challenging and heuristic, right?

    I tell myself that throughout the bucking, spinning, and crow-hopping.

  37. Kookaburra

    What is even more hilarious about modern huntseat sidesaddle competition, is that the riders are judged on what sort of refreshments they carry in their regulation saddlebags. When I was last part of the show scene (by “part of the show scene” I mean, “groomed and braided and mucked in exchange for lesson credit”) the acceptable fare was a crustless cucumber sandwich and cold mint tea or brandy.

  38. Antoinette Niebieszczanski

    Jet pack, phooey. A friggin’ crane would be required to loft my keister onto a horse’s back, whether I was wearing britches or a maiden-aunt Victorian dress with all the accompanying undergarments.

    But Stanley’s definitely a handsome hunk. And I’m askeert of horses.

  39. The Voracious Vegan

    Ahhh jodhpurs filled with the itchy perfection of horse hair. There is nothing like a good bareback ride!

    I used to be a bare back riding maniac as a kid but now at the ripe old age of 27 and the proud guardian of a 17hh 5 year old thoroughbred I don’t get around to it as much as I’d like. That’s not to say I haven’t hopped up (clawed/scrambled desperately) on Ender a time or two, it’s just that sitting bareback on a gigantic pile of dynamite isn’t always the most comforting feeling. I think I’ll stick to the saddle a bit longer!

    Stanley is a handsome one!

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