I was twenty-five and living in Manhattan the first time I rode. I’d never even been close to a horse. With nothing more than “wear boots,” a blind date took me to the Claremont Stables then located on the Upper West Side. He rode his horse, Kojak, and rented something for me. Why I would agree to sit on a half-ton animal to walk up Columbus Avenue and over Ninety-seventh Street to wait at the light on Central Park West to enter the park, I have no idea. I remember little about that day except being unable to steer.
The relationship soon ended for reasons having nothing to do with horses, but I rode every weekend after that. I would take Kojak or rent one of Claremont’s horses, and, not knowing anyone else who was interested, often set off alone. Children set firecrackers off under hooves. Occasionally a rider-less horse would skid and clatter across the asphalt on its frantic way back to the stable, having left its rider somewhere in the park. But I kept at it.
As an engagement gift, I acquired a chestnut mare instead of a diamond ring. Through the years, I owned a series of horses and rode as much as five times a week, even when I had small children, and was in graduate school, and volunteering, and teaching. I didn’t see how I would ever do without. I didn’t travel, buy clothes, get my nails done, or eat out. I rode. Giving up everything else was the only way I could afford it.
They say that if you haven’t fallen, you haven’t ridden. I fell. A mare collapsed under me. A Claremont horse named Orfeo rolled us both in deep mud. I wasn’t hurt, but one whole side of my body was thickly mud-caked. No one came near me on the bus ride home. When Kojak decided to go left while I went right, I slammed my hip against the edge of a tree stump so hard it left a dent I still have. Later, I broke a finger and still later a collarbone after badly calculated jumps. A mare named Lady Espalier bucked me into a wall, breaking my coccyx.
But I also raced through the woods on hunter paces, toured the Loire Valley on horseback, learned to jump, and took more delicate classes in dressage.
Twelve or so years ago, divorced with kids in college, owning was no longer an option, so I borrowed horses from friends. One stable’s riding ring was at the top of a steep, rocky hill overlooking the barn. One day, after exercising a large black mare, I walked out of the gate and loosened the reins so she could pick her own way down – something I’d done hundreds of times. But something happened. I’ll never know what. She spooked and took off and careened down the hill at a speed I hadn’t thought possible. The reins flew out of my hands. I couldn’t catch them, so I couldn’t stop her. I watched the reins flip and flap around her head and ears, spurring her on faster. My fingers dug into her mane. Her neck. I stayed in the saddle, but was way off balance. The trees raced by in a keen green white blur. I screamed and screamed. She galloped faster.
Through instinct and habit, horses will return to their stalls. At the bottom of the hill, while still at full speed, she took the sharp turn towards hers. I didn’t. I fell, hitting the back of my head on a rock with such force my helmet split.
The severe concussion left me dizzy and disoriented for weeks. In the aftermath, I felt vulnerable, not just around horses, but driving, walking, going down stairs. I tried to ride after I’d recovered, but I wasn’t the same. After all those falls and broken bones, it was the spooking that undid me. The suddenness. The unpredictability.
Not knowing what had gone wrong, what had spooked her, or even if she had spooked, made me feel I was always at risk. I hand-walked horses down that hill. I never again rode on the trails. I stopped jumping. I’d approach the time to ride with a nervous stomach. My knees sometimes went to jelly. What was the point? After a few months, I gave up. I couldn’t really afford it. I certainly couldn’t afford to get hurt again. I needed to work. After more than thirty years, it was time.
But I missed it. I missed it so much I often dreamed I was riding. I had long known that simply being near the horses was how I’d tamed parenthood, an impossible marriage, and a difficult job situation. But, riding was behind me, nothing would replace it, and there was nothing to be done.
Then, a chance encounter here in Coimbra led me to Melanie, a woman who owns a horse. She needed help taking care of him. I wouldn’t ride, I was clear about that, but I’d be happy brushing him, standing next to him, taking him to graze, feeding him and his companions carrots. It was wonderful. Eventually, with great hesitation, I rode a little, very little, but even with that, some strange inner tension fell away.
Since Melanie moved to the Algarve last year, I’ve being travelling down to visit. Little by little I’ve ridden more, with glee, but all the while imagining all the worst things that could happen and all the bad things that had. My body would be on a horse in the ring practicing maneuvers or on the beach at sunset while my mind raced down that steep, rocky hill. I worried when a bike or car or motorcycle or someone’s stray dogs came by us, or when we had to walk through a herd of cows with their bells clanging. On the beach, there were flapping umbrellas, bathers shaking out towels, the rush of incoming waves, all sorts of things that could spook a horse. I imagined myself on a runaway on a beach that stretches to Spain. But, too, there were moments of magic. Last week, there was only magic.
Coimbra is enchanting. I have many friends, there’s always something to do, and I’m not planning to leave. But I’ve been restless for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on. I now understand.
Here in Coimbra, even when outside, I feel I’m inside. I can’t seem to get outside, not even when in the Botanical Gardens, or Choupal park. These places are contained, bordered. From my apartment I can see distant hills, the river, sunrises and sunsets, but I also face unrelenting stones and walls and windows looking inward.
Last week, as we trotted freely along the nature trails and through a herd of sheep and swerved around corners and up dunes, I was fully outside, and free from all that otherwise keeps me earthbound.