I wanted to mention one thing that happened during those horse-riding lessons before we draw back the curtain on them for a while, and that is the value of being flexible about your plans.
It came to pass, near the end of the lessons, that it was a very hot day. I’d arrived for my Wednesday lesson with the lady who owned the ranch, who we’ll call Sherry because I can’t remember her name anymore. She’d asked the previous week if I minded having another rider along, since I’d gotten the hang of things pretty well by then, and I’d said that was fine with me.
At this point Mr. Chill and I were almost friends–almost, because I’m not sure anybody was this cantankerous old beast’s friend. Nor would I say he respected me, because I’m not sure he ever cared enough to show respect to anybody. But he tolerated me and we got along all right; I could catch him much more easily from his paddock now, and he didn’t blow out his sides quite as much as he’d used to when I saddled him. It was almost as if he was putting up resistance just for form’s sake, just to fulfill his own internal requirements before moving on with his work. Now that I’d figured out that I wasn’t going to hurt him with the cinch, I wasn’t as nervous for him–and let me inform you that putting a bit into a horse’s mouth feels like you’re ripping out the animal’s teeth one by one until you realize that the horse is just acting that way to maybe make you not want to put the bit in its mouth. I wouldn’t want one in my mouth either, so I couldn’t blame Mr. Chill for acting put-upon and whiny about getting one put in his own mouth.
Far from resenting this pre-ride work, I’d come to love this stable over the last few months; it smelled of horses and hay and was always fairly clean considering what happened inside it. The dirt floor had straw scattered across it and halogen lamps hanging from the rafters. Though the doors were usually flung open to the air on both sides of the building, the stable had a couple of little rooms that contained a rudimentary office and a tack room with strangely-oily-feeling thickly-woven horse blankets and saddles. A cheap little radio of the “do X and get a free AM/FM radio!” variety was set on an upper ledge, perpetually tuned to tinny country music. Saddling the horse was part of the riding experience, and I didn’t mind at all. I’d come here to learn how to handle horses in toto, not just to mount up and ride.
So today I’d gotten Mr. Chill all set up before I noticed the young girl coming into the stable.
She was about ten years old, maybe twelve–I’m not that great of a judge of children’s ages. She was still a child, not a prepubescent tween. She was skinny, blonde, freckled, and dressed like a Gap Kids advertisement; she wore a bicycle helmet, thick new-looking clothing that covered her from neck to wrists to feet, and safety pads. She moved in a self-conscious way that told me immediately that the helmet and garb was more her mother’s idea than her own.
Sherry led her along with reassuring chatter; I could tell Sherry was a parent because she knew exactly how to handle this little girl, who relaxed until she saw the horses in the stable. But Sherry had already gotten a horse ready and saddled for the girl, and showed her how to feed the other horse treats on her open palm (the girl’s eyes got huge and she let out this excited but soft squeal of delight in a way that I imagine every little girl in the history of forever would find familiar) and how to pet the horse’s neck and shoulder. Once the preliminaries of introduction were done, Sherry showed the girl the saddle and all the straps and stuff, explaining their function, and then moved on to how to speak Horse. The horse, for her part, was a sweet-natured, silver-dappled older mare who was a bit on the small side, or else I’m sure I’d have gotten her instead of Mr. Chill at the outset. The girl listened to these instructions with the same rapt expression I’m sure I’d have worn at her age had I been treated to a similar experience as she was now.
Sherry asked her if she wanted to take off the helmet, since it was so hot outside today, but the girl shook her head adamantly and said she’d promised her mother she’d wear it. All right then. We mounted up, the girl with assistance, and began to move out.
Oh, it was hot all right. Hotter than it had any right to be. I’d moved here from the Deep South and let me inform you that one reason I’d moved here was because it was supposed to be less extreme in weather, but this was just as hot as any Southern summer I could remember. I was miserable in my long jeans; even the straw hat I wore couldn’t do more than shield me slightly from the brutally punishing sun blazing overhead. And if I wilted immediately, imagine what that little girl–dressed head to foot in heavy clothes and wearing a helmet–was going through.
We approached the riverside, the one I’d forded, but at this spot it was considerably narrower and a little bit deeper. Sherry paused at the fork leading toward it, glancing down the familiar pathways toward the roses (now out of bloom, their hips bulging for harvest though) and brown foxes and doves, and then back up toward the creek, and I could tell she was making a snap decision. She looked back at the two of us and said, “Do y’all mind getting a little wet?”
I didn’t know what she had in mind, but I immediately said, “I won’t get my phone wet, will I?” and patted my upper thigh where the phone bulged a bit against my jeans. The still-new cell phone was my treasured gadget; it was the very first camera-phone ever made for consumers, and I was very happy with it. I still have it, by the way, and it still works, though I’m astonished that I ever was happy with such shockingly-blurry tiny little bitty photos.
Sherry considered and shook her head. “You shouldn’t, not on Mr. Chill.” Then: “You up for it?” she asked the girl, with a grin. The girl looked at me, and down the trail, and then at the creek, and I could tell she was just dying of heat; no doubt Sherry would make a command decision and take that damn helmet off the kid, like it or not, before too long if something wasn’t done. To both our reliefs, the girl nodded and said, “Okay, if you think it’s safe.” She was hugely worried about betraying some promise she’d made, I think.
Having gotten our assent, Sherry began to pick her way on horseback toward the creek. The older horses followed along without resistance; I think they knew what was coming.
Instead of going across the creek, though, Sherry hung a hard right and began wading right into the creek, against the current.
Mr. Chill and the mare began following, with the mare between Sherry and me. I felt my horse’s muscles surging beneath me as he began to push against the soft current. Every step communicating itself up to me, he made his way in the wake provided by the front horses. And the shockingly cold water, which I am still convinced was probably in a glacier just a few hours earlier (even in July the wild water around here is icy), got deeper and deeper, up to his belly, past it, up my legs, soaking my black leather boots, my jeans, my knees, but that was as deep as it got. If I was careful, there was no reason I should see any harm come to the phone in my pocket.
Suddenly the overhanging trees’ branches shaded us, and I was engulfed in blessed coolness. A sudden breeze shot and rocketed through me and past me.
Sherry paused there, letting the cool air and shade and water work their ancient and arcane magic. The water flowed across my legs; I dipped my hands one at a time into the flow, held them there, and felt the shock of cold run up my arms. The riverbank grew thick with slender trees whose branches hung down like hands, like a secret being told, like the greenest of all green whispers. All I wanted right then was to live right there forever. An Elfquest quote ran through my mind, a murmur half-forgotten–Our kind has always yearned for the cool, dark beauty of the forest.
We all shivered, horses and riders alike, though the horses skittered a bit in the water, impatient to be moving, unhappy about being half-submerged without a clear idea of what the riders wanted. When I ran my hand along my horse’s neck, I felt it slathered in sweat and cold water.
“I thought we could use a bit of this right now,” Sherry said with a laugh. The girl let out this happy noise as she looked around in the same wonder I’m sure I was showing.
We pushed further on in the river till the water frothed a bit white along the banks, and then Sherry pulled us out onto the bank; as I had during the fording, I felt Mr. Chill’s sheer power and strength as he leaned into the bank as he climbed the slight hill of it. I leaned forward with him, not wanting to be a burden; it was a bit like being a rider on a motorcycle. He needed to not worry about me right then. I don’t think we could have done this a few months previously. I’d have fallen off. As it was, I heard a soft cackling noise and realized it was coming from my own throat.
Now suddenly the hot day wasn’t as treacherous or savage; we were all soaking wet to the knees. The horses were happier, we were happier, and Sherry laughed along with me. She looked across at the girl. “You okay?”
The girl nodded, her eyes like those of an owl, wide and unblinking. “That was great!” she finally managed to squeak.
We continued on our way, with Sherry pointing out to the girl all the things she’d shown me long ago: the toxic-designated purple loosestrife eating at the riverbeds and taking over the area, the pinwheels of little edible morning-glory-like flowers, the wild cabbage and the chicory and the wild herbs with their pastel blue and yellow flowers. It wasn’t just a buffet for the horses; as Sherry explained, she’d foraged out here many a day as a child during her long travels while riding. There were other, less edible plants–the place was thick with poison ivy, which I’d managed to come into contact with shortly before moving to that state, so I knew better, but the girl had never seen any that she knew of. Sherry showed her the rose-hips under the blown roses and explained how to tell where birds’ nests were.
It was a longer-than-usual ride, but a much more pleasant one after our refreshing dip together. We made our way back eventually, unsaddled and cleaned off the horses before putting them up, and all progressed out to the gravel parking lot.
A middle-aged woman was out there with an SUV; she opened her arms to the girl, who laughed and ran up to her full of words and memories, and in the midst of hearing it all she smiled at me. “I wish I could have a car like that,” she said. (“Her yellow SUV/ is now the enemy,” as the song goes, and I know how true that attitude is.) I just smiled and said I liked the car and sure appreciated the kind words. I’d heard variants of that statement many times since buying my Miata. Later I’d wonder how her daughter might feel hearing her mom say something like that right then, but done is done, I guess. As I got into my own car, I heard her asking the girl how she’d managed to get so wet; the girl was already sounding a bit defensive in response as the doors closed.
Alas, she never returned, and when the summer ended, so did my lessons; the ranch needed the horses for some other purpose, and Mr. Chill was being retired and sold to a family who wouldn’t ask much out of him. I hope he managed to charm them before they figured out what a total bastard he really was and rethought that decision.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that day we swam in the river was something of a last hurrah for all of us. Not long afterward, the housing boom happened and Sherry made the wise decision to sell her land for what I am sure was an absolute killing. Now those old trails and creekbeds are a plowed-under series of half-finished, still-overpriced-like-whoa condominiums, vintage shops, and boutique-style cupcake bakeries. If I’d waited much longer to take those lessons, they never would have happened at all.
Nothing ever stays the same. Everything changes.
And we need to learn that this changeability is actually a good thing. We never like the good things to change, but that’s the fixed price we must pay for the bad things to change too. And when our plans look like they’ll make us miserable, we need to alter the plans further: we need to take the time to plunge into the cold river and swim a little while before we proceed. If you see something you want, you need to pursue it before it’s gone because it might not be there later on.
Our plans should serve us, not the other way around.
Now imagine me learning this as a rigid-minded, black-or-white-thinking fundamentalist. Ha! I don’t think I ever could have understood the language of the idea, much less accepted it. It wasn’t till way after I left the religion that I began to understand how important it is to be flexible about plans. Believe me, I totally understand what that rigid mindset is like. Really, the hard part’s been not being too precipitous in reaction to that old stone-set thinking, of being random just for randomness’ sake like I see tweens doing sometimes. I think most of us ex-Christians go through a phase where we go kinda wild like that, and most of us settle in eventually to a comfortably loose relationship with plans.
As Ferris Bueller (the Hierophant of Awesomeness and King of Flexibility) said so wisely: