There are lots of different types of horse girls. Some grew up riding their first pony or friend's horse, some were born into a farm setting where learning to ride was like learning to walk, some rode lesson ponies with supervised instruction like dance lessons or piano lessons, and others only dreamed about ponies by reading books, watching movies, or drawing horses of every shape and size. I was a combination of the last two.
I was fortunate enough to have riding lessons funded by my parents beginning at age seven. I only rode during the nice parts of the year, like spring and fall, unless I begged for the occasional ride during the off-season. I once made my Mom drive me to a scheduled off-season private lesson in a blizzard. Since we lived in a valley, this required that we drive up and down a very steep mountain. I am sure that it was not a full-blown blizzard or the rode would simply not have been passable, but it was definitely snowing and there was a good accumulation on the ground. I was determined not to miss the lesson, because it was scheduled with an instructor who was usually overbooked and unattainable for me. There was a reason she was overbooked. She was very, very good at teaching horses and riders. I felt my riding improve in one lesson as she schooled me on a snow-white horse named Cloudy, whose soft, white mane stood up from his neck before toppling over to one side like a short, fluffy cloud. I remember learning how to perform a decent canter depart and his big, bounding strides. I thanked my Mom profusely for driving me to that lesson and did not beg for another. That ride carried me through to the springtime.
I appreciated my lessons, but even at a tender age, I wanted more. More horse time. More saddle time. More experience with these creatures that captivated and inspired me. I was opportunistic and not shy when it came to horses. A couple Arabian ponies lived near my Oma's house on a former breeding farm in the middle of the suburbs. My Dad had taken me and my sister to see them before, but now I had a plan. Armed with my grooming kit and some nerve, I asked the owner if I could brush her ponies. She did not hesitate in saying "yes". I probably resembled my aunts who many years before me had asked her the same question. Of course back then, there had been an entire herd complete with a stallion and brood mares. By the time I came along, the farm was reduced to a small lot in their backyard. The rest of the acreage had been subdivided and developed into housing with multilevel homes and manicured lawns. Only two ponies remained, a pair of chestnut Arabs with white blazes and socks. They looked similar enough to be twins and were most definitely siblings, probably full. The mare, who was the first horse that I ever sat upon, was named "Littlebit" and the gelding was named "King". Littlebit was very gentle and sweet, so I assigned my little sister to groom her. I decided to take on the responsibility of grooming King, as he was less tolerant and not affectionate or enthusiastic about our visitation. Both horses were most likely in their twenties.
Grooming and visiting Littlebit and King became a regular routine when we visited my Oma. My sister and I were each armed with a grooming kit with all the essentials and we brought carrots. The horses were well-fed, but looked like they had not received regular grooming in quite some time. When they realized that our visits included a thorough currying, brushing, and carrots, they began to meet us at the gate. Even King started to enjoy our company, although I thought that he always tried to hide his pleasure. I would catch him letting his chin hang while I brushed him, and he starting letting me hold his feet for cleaning without trying to wrench them out of my hands. True to my lesson barn instruction, I always finished the grooming session with the soft brush, which made King's red coat gleam in the sun. He was a backyard horse, literally, but the years had been good to him and he was still spirited and handsome. I always felt like his somewhat distant personality was really an indicator of his protective attitude toward Littlebit, as those two horses spent their entire lives together, side-by-side. I felt an understanding between us. Not exactly a mutual adoration, although I really liked him, but there was something there.
Before long, I was no longer satisfied with just grooming King. I had been daydreaming about riding him and I had a plan. My Dad trusted us to visit the horses on our own, so I felt confident to make my own decisions about the Arab ponies. I would like to think that I planned ahead and brought my helmet, but I cannot remember. Hopefully I did, but I was probably also worried that it would be a dead giveaway to bring a helmet to groom the horses.
My plan was simple. I didn't have any tack, but I had a lead line and King had a halter. I fashioned reins and a headstall from the lead line and halter and found some high ground to help me leap onto King's back. I made him stand on the down slope so that it would be easier for me to spring onto his back. This took a couple attempts, but from what I remember, King was mostly cooperative as I jumped and scrambled and used his long mane to help pull me up. Once aboard, I felt elated. It was the first time that I had ever been on a horse outside of a lesson or guided trail ride. Feeling like a renegade, I imagined that King was my own horse. I took it slow, only sitting on his back for a short while and then dismounting. Mounting from the ground became easier with practice and King did not seem too bothered by me sitting on his back. The next step was moving forward.
I knew how to ride, but my early riding lessons were pretty raw. I knew how to use my heels to make the horse go and the reins to make him stop and turn. I did not know anything about the coordination of the aids, using legs for steering, and the seat. Since I took lessons at a hunter/jumper stable, I spent most my time out of the saddle, except when walking. From watching other riders, I actually thought that your seat was supposed to pop out of the saddle at the end of a canter stride. Riding bareback and without a bridle was completely foreign, but I was on a horse and that was all that mattered.
I nudged King with my heels, but he didn't move. I tried again and clucked, but King just kept his ears back to me and didn't budge. I told him to walk, clucked, kicked with my heels and probably also pushed with my seat for good measure. King took a few steps forward and then put his head down and started to buck. My smile quickly changed to gritting my teeth. My legs instantly clamped around his barrel with my feet reaching under his ribcage. I had a deathgrip on the reins and his mane. With no instructions to follow and no tack to cling to, I found myself acting on instinct. I pulled up on the reins which planted my seat firmly on his back. The more he bucked, the harder I pulled myself onto his back. King had a funny way of just bucking in place. He didn't run or twist or spin. He just bucked in place with his head down until he realized that I was not going to fall off. He did this quite often when I rode him. It was something of a ritual. Usually he only bucked the first time that I got on, but sometimes he had an encore performance in mind. King kept me on my toes. When I realized that I could stay on a bucking pony bareback, my confidence soared. As soon as King stopped bucking, he gave in and started walking forward. I clucked and kicked him to speed up and he responded by trotting and then cantering up the hill to the gate of his paddock. Then I walked him back down the slope and we did the same thing again. There were no circles or jumps. There was no flat ground, let along an arena! Basically the only thing that there was to do was ride back and forth, up and down the hill. I never worried about posting diagonals, leads, or my riding position. I rode forward against his neck as he leaped up the hill. Sometimes he made it up the hill so quickly that it made me laugh out loud. Although it did subside, he never completely gave up on the bucking thing. However, I still believe that he enjoyed running up the hill. For a few fleeting moments, we were on the same page and of the same mind.
I may not have learned any of the finer points of riding from King, but his lessons definitely gave me something that I could not get in structured lessons. King taught me to just go with the horse. He taught me to rely on myself and trust my instincts. He also satisfied a very real need to be one with an otherwise unreachable being. He was not always fun and definitely not easy to work with, but he built my confidence as a young rider and gave me an immense sense of accomplishment in the process. Every horse girl needs a horse like King.