A horse is an animal that weighs half a ton, has a brain the size of a tomato, and is instinctively alarmed at the approach of any predator, including man. Horses can be trained and they can become affectionate toward humans, but they never develop the slavish trust and devotion of dogs. Horses are prey and their trust in us is always provisional, maintained shakily on top of their fear, which can rise up as panic in an instant. We fear their size, their speed, and the strength behind their kick; they mistrust our intentions. It’s this mutual wariness that can make riding even the gentlest horse just a little tricky.
I didn’t know any of this until eight years ago. I had never been on a horse except for pony rides as a child. But my daughter turned out to have a young girl’s typical fixation on horses. Over the years of picking her up at the stables after lessons, I was drawn into the world of the horse. I had always been a sucker for the romance of horses and horsemen. Movies about cowboys and traildrivers, tales of brave cavalry officers and knights in armor on horseback, the equestrian statues of kings and heroes, and most especially, the riderless horse in President Kennedy’s funeral procession — they all made emotional sense to me without my having any actual experience with horses at all. In fact, at the stables with my daughter, I was surprised to find that I was wary at first, hesitant even to touch them. I remember asking her, “Do they like to be petted?”
My storybook notions might have vanished except for a sensuality I hadn’t expected. I liked the way horses smelled. I liked the heat from their bodies. I liked the thudding sound of hoofbeats and even liked the clanging of the blacksmith’s hammer when he was shoeing. I liked the way horses nodded their heads when they saw a carrot and I liked the velvety skin below their lower jaw. I liked putting salves on their hooves and on their scrapes and sores. All these sights and sensations turned out to have an emotional power of their own that made them compatible with my notions of the majestic aura horses possessed. They were not mundane but part of a grand endeavor.
Won over, I eventually enrolled in a beginner’s class at my daughter’s stable and found myself where I never thought I would be — sitting on a postage-stamp English saddle on a horse trotting around a ring in the company of four other neophytes, all women. A diminutive instructor, standing in the center of the ring, insisted on the basics of modern riding. We had to sit up straight, sink our weight down into the saddle, and get our heels down. She was rather formal. “You may trot now,” she would say. “Now, will you canter, please.”
This technical, formal, feminine world might have seemed a long way from my riders of legend. But the connection was definitely there and quite close at hand after all. Time changes most things; anything that doesn’t change, or doesn’t change much, is valuable. And that, without looking for it or expecting it, was what I found in horses. People have been riding horses for at least six thousand years. Horses have changed in that time and so have people, but less than you would think. I have a postcard of a classical Greek frieze with an adolescent riding bareback. His erect posture, the position of his leg on the side of the horse, his firm but gentle hold on the bridle, and his overall sense of perfect balance are exactly what my riding instructor was insisting we achieve. The way that horse felt under that boy thousands of years ago is exactly the way my horse feels under me today. There is the link between our little group of beginners trotting around a ring and the grand horsemen of the past.
In our time, when the horse has little practical value, this strong connection with eons of human experience, and often with the most heroic human experiences, makes riding more than a pleasant anachronism. So does the athleticism riding requires, something seldom understood by people who have never ridden. Any athletic feat — sinking a free throw, hitting a long drive in the fairway, throwing a left hook — looks easy enough when you see an expert do it but is maddeningly difficult when you try it yourself. Riding show hunters, the kind of riding I’ve chosen, is as difficult as any other sport. In the early lessons I found I couldn’t make the transition from a trot to a walk without losing my stirrups. And even early successes are illusory. When the class was feeling cocky one afternoon, the instructor shook her finger at us. “You’re a long way from being riders,” she said. “Right now you’re just” — she spat out the word — “passengers.”
She said it would be at least two years before we could begin to call ourselves riders. I didn’t believe her at the time. How could it take that long? Now, eight years later I guess I could call myself a rider much of the time I’m on a horse, but other times, particularly if my concentration lags, I can sink back into passengerdom without even knowing it. Every sport is fundamentally a contest of wills among opponents. But in riding there is a team of two athletes — the rider and the horse — whose wills must be focused on a single purpose. Creating that focus in the horse requires a variety of physical skills that take time and dedication and athletic ability to learn. Riders have those skills; passengers do not.
And to employ these skills well is to be subtle. Someone who knows nothing of riding can watch an expert take his horse over a course of fences and never see that there is any skill at all other than simply staying on. The horse is supposed to take each fence in its natural stride, jumping neither too close nor too far from the fence. The horse is supposed to keep his body straight along the line between fences and, around curves, to bend his body in the same arc as the curve. Also, the horse must canter with the left hooves leading when moving left around the ring and the right hooves leading when moving right and change leads midstride when changing directions during a course.
The rider, meanwhile, should show little or no effort while controlling the horse with tiny adjustments to the reins or subtle pressure from the legs or slight shifts of weight from side to side or front to back. The ideal is the “invisible ride,” in which the horse follows the course perfectly and changes leads at just the right moment with no apparent cues from the rider. There is only one way to be right and there are so many ways to be wrong. The rider can set the wrong pace so that the horse “chips in” by taking a half stride rather than a full stride before going over the fence. Or, instead of a consistent pace, the rider goes too fast here and too slow there. The horse can canter with the wrong lead. Or, instead of bending along the arc of a turn, the horse can “fall in,” turn its body away from the curve rather than into it and, in the worst cases, have to run almost sideways to stay on course.
In eight years of riding I can remember making exactly one perfect jump. It was after a difficult turn with a disturbingly short approach to the fence. Often horses more or less sail over a jump in stride, somewhat like a low hurdler does in a race. This time I must have been balanced so precisely that the horse was able to lift his front legs high and push up into the air with both back legs. I could feel his body arc even before he left the ground, as if he were transcribing a semicircle in the air. His front legs touched the ground on the opposite side without the slightest jar. His back legs came up underneath and we cantered on effortlessly. I’ve had other powerful experiences too — galloping faster and faster for miles along an empty beach, cantering through Central Park and riding back along West Eighty-ninth Street to the stables feeling like the king of New York, chasing a stag through a French forest. But the most satisfying times are those that, like my early experiences at the stables, are routine and romantic and seemingly timeless all at once.
One afternoon last December I finished a nagging project at work and rewarded myself by leaving a little early to go ride. I drove home, changed clothes, drove to the stables, and saddled up. By the time I started riding, it was dark. The night was cold but clear, and there was no wind. A spectacular yellow full moon was in the sky. The ring with the jumps was lighted, but everything else around was dark. You could see horses in the surrounding paddocks walking slowly in the moonlight. Sounds traveled well because it was so cold and still. In the ring you could hear the thudding of the horses’ hooves, hear the horses breathing and snorting, hear occasionally the creak of leather in a saddle as a rider changed position. It was cold enough that after the horses had cantered, you could feel the heat coming off their bodies. A teacher, one who insisted on precise fundamentals and hated sloppiness, stood by the jumps calling out instructions. One woman rode a white horse that looked pale, almost like a mist, under the moon. I sat on my horse watching her jump. I had just cantered over jumps myself, and my horse was excited and ready to go, shaking her head and prancing in place. I watched the ghostly white horse and listened to its hoofbeats and heard the riding master shouting instructions and felt the heat from my horse and patted her neck to try to calm her down and I thought, This is why I do this.
D. J. Stout, our art director, is leaving to join the international design partnership Pentagram. During his thirteen years here, D.J., in addition to his brilliant design, has brought no end of energy, ideas, and good judgment to every aspect of making a magazine. And he’s been a good friend. We will all miss him and wish him all good things in the future.