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This story is about how I learned to ford a river and finally came to some truths about my old religious indoctrination–and finally figured out that horses are bastards.

This was oh, about twelve years ago. I’d just moved to this mountainous state full of ranches and by wild serendipity happened to run across a ranch that offered riding lessons. Once a week I’d trek out there in my gleaming Miata, ride for a couple hours, and then go wash the now-dusty car and get some beef barbecue and a beer.

English: Wild Rose by old Deeside Railway
English: Wild Rose by old Deeside Railway (Photo credit: Wikipedia). They looked just like these roses; “hips” grew under the blooms and yes, they were for tea.

I wish I could tell you how amazing it was, those rides, for a city gal like me. The trails went for miles behind this ranch through a riverside forest. Almost every plant I saw was edible either by me or the horse I rode; I learned to identify quite a few of them by sight or smell. Wild Sitka roses–pink, staggeringly fragrant, delicately-thorned–grew everywhere and a few times I’d see brownish foxes (not bright red; these were brown) or coyotes or rabbits or herons dart or fly past. Once a fox sat with her tail wrapped around her four feet like a housecat and watched us approach until we were close enough to touch her, then darted away into the underbrush. And there were doves everywhere, cooing and watching us.

A creek ran through and past the trails, widening into a river further on. Dave, who was the cowboy teaching me to ride, said one morning as I was trying to saddle Mr. Chill that we would be going past the river. We’d always stopped short of the river, but not today.

First, a quick word about horses.

They are bastards. They are self-centered, egomaniacal, utterly insouciant bastards.

And that’s okay.

I grew up on books like Black Beauty, The Black Stallion, and The Summer Pony. If it had a horse prominently involved, I was right there, which meant that of course my favorite Narnia book was (and remains) The Horse and His Boy. I knew nothing about them really, but I loved what I conceived as “horses.” I even had an American Quarter Horse Association bumper sticker applied to my dresser, to my mother’s horror at my defacement of an expensive piece of furniture.

I really had no idea what horses were really like. That changed very abruptly when I took riding lessons.

A bay horse has a reddish-brown body coat with...
A bay horse has a reddish-brown body coat with black mane, tail, lower legs, and ear edges (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dave took a bottoms-up approach to riding, which meant that my lessons always began with currying and brushing Mr. Chill and saddling him. Mr. Chill was a beautiful older bay gelding, large and placid, but he clearly thought that his years of service should have ended some time ago and he really wasn’t interested in anything to do with me. Dave presented him to me with an explanation that this horse would be very easy for me to learn on; very quickly I had to wonder what a difficult horse would look like if this was “easy mode.”

Did you know that horses can puff out their sides so that an inexperienced rider doesn’t cinch the saddle’s under-straps tightly enough? Well, I learned that lesson very quickly. If you don’t cinch the straps tightly enough, then you might well find yourself lurching to starboard when you try to ride the horse–and the horse will probably think your misfortune is the funniest thing it has seen all day. Mr. Chill realized very quickly that the problem was that I didn’t actually know how to communicate with him, and he took ruthless advantage of my ignorance to show me in a thousand different ways that he thought I was a complete and total idiot.

Some of the ways he showed me his contempt were subtle, but many were not. One day shortly after signing up for lessons, Dave and I were navigating through thick-clustered trees. I found myself getting a bit close to a low-hanging thick branch right in our path. I’d been able to brush aside the other branches that Mr. Chill “accidentally” walked us through, but this one was almost a log in and of itself. I wouldn’t be able to move it. And it was directly across the path that my horse was taking, at about stomach-level to me on the saddle.

I couldn’t tug Mr. Chill away from that path; that’s where he wanted to go, so he went right under it. He cleared it easily with a duck of his head, but it was getting closer and closer as he calmly, slowly walked onward. I began to yell, and the horse just looked back at me like “What, is there something wrong?” as the branch touched my stomach. I tried to do the limbo but I couldn’t even get off the horse at that point. Dave rushed back and grabbed Mr. Chill’s bridle, which halted him with the branch painfully pushing against my body, and walked him away from it until I was safe again. I was terrified, but the horse just flicked his ears at me as if nothing had happened.

At times I felt like I was a small child trying to walk a particularly large dog. Mr. Chill regarded the whole outdoors as his own personal lunch buffet, which he’d stop and sample any time he pleased, thankyewverymuch, and when we reached the end of our journey every time and turned back, he was quick to go “barn-starved”–he’d rush back as quickly as he could, and deeply resented any effort I made to hold him to a walk. Experienced riders who are reading my words already know what the problem was, but I didn’t at the time.

A couple weeks after starting these lessons, Dave said he wanted to go across the river; he was breaking a fairly new horse of his own, a young, blotchy brown-and-white horse that he’d bought for some professional purpose. The beast was still a bit jumpy and nervous about new things. You may stop and wonder here why Dave chose to ride this horse with a very inexperienced rider he was ostensibly teaching, but at the time I didn’t know better. The painted horse he rode clearly thought that rivers might eat horses, so Mr. Chill would go first to show him it was okay.

“Go slowly,” Dave told me. He pointed to a spot across the river. “Always look ahead at the other bank and where you want to end up. Don’t look down at the water.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because you’ll lose your way and end up way downstream–or worse, you’ll lose your balance and fall off your horse. You need to be looking ahead to tell the horse which way to go. He’ll worry about what’s in the water. You worry about getting the two of you to the spot on the bank you want to reach.”

That made sense, so we proceeded. The river was very shallow at this spot and only about twenty feet across, barely more than a brook or creek really; I don’t think the water ever hit higher than a few inches below the horse’s belly. I did my best to direct Mr. Chill, whose ears lay back but who did what I asked until we emerged on the other side of the creek more or less where I’d wanted to be. I turned back to look at Dave and his new horse, who was clearly not as easy-going or as confident, as they slowly made their way to join us. He really did have a good hand with horses; I enjoyed watching. I’d never seen anything like it, like how he coaxed that animal inch by inch, back a foot, forward a few feet, until they emerged onto the bank.

We continued on our way, but the lesson learned here never left me. If you think about it, it makes sense; most of us just keep our heads down and are too busy concentrating on how to get across the river to even think about where we’ll pop out on the other side. We need to keep perspective so we don’t end up getting ourselves lost or washed downstream. We need a clear view of the riverbank.

When we don’t have a clear view of the riverbank, when the goals are shifting or impossible to hit, when we’re unable even to define our terms or figure out exactly what we mean by this or that word, then we’re at risk of being victimized by someone who claims that he or she has that clear view that we lack. When it comes to religion, especially, anybody who tells you that he or she has a clear view of the other bank is lying to you. Nobody can actually see the other bank. We have to work out what that means for ourselves, each and every one of us, work out our own river’s meaning and where the opposite bank lies, and get to it our own way.

We need to be the rider with the perspective, not the horse being told where to go.

I did look down once on the way back just to see if what Dave had said was true, and I can inform you right now that he was totally correct; the river’s flow was mesmerizing and it was all too easy for me to imagine getting caught up in the current and not noticing that I was drifting further and further off-course. I looked back up in a hurry and got back across much more easily this time.

As to my further adventures on horseback, I didn’t speak “Horse,” but Dave didn’t even notice; to him, everybody knew how to do this stuff, and I don’t think it ever occurred to him that most of my problems were due to this simple inability to communicate. When he moved on to other employment after a month and the lady who owned the ranch took over my lessons, she noticed the problem immediately and began showing me how to talk to Mr. Chill–how to direct him by just facing the direction I wanted to go, or with subtle cues from the knees if he didn’t notice the first one. Hell, it was this lady who taught me to ride with my pelvis rocked forward a bit, “like you’re putting in a tampon.” I’m sure she wasn’t upset at all that her “riding instructor” had left if I was any example of what he was teaching people. She had to get me to un-learn a lot of the bad ideas I’d gotten and get me back on track, which she did with an ease that astonished me.

The effects of my newfound expertise on the horse were dramatic. Now that I knew how to direct him with my body, I don’t remember ever needing my knees to tell him where to go; the horse was experienced enough that all I had to do was shift myself a little, just face the right place, and he would head that way. Fording that river was much easier knowing these tricks; I’d felt like I was dragging my horse across on my back those other times, but knowing how to direct him made things so much better for us both.

And by the way, once Mr. Chill figured out that I’d learned a bit more about how to communicate with him, he quit being such an asshole. He’d been able to get away with it because he knew I would have no idea how to deal with his shenanigans, but once I demonstrated that I knew better, he fell right into line and became a wonderful horse to ride. He hadn’t trusted me to direct him before, clearly; he’d had to be both horse and rider for us both, and that had obviously been stressful and irritating for him. A lot of his acting-out had been an expression of that stress and annoyance. Now that he trusted that I could be the rider, he could relax and just be the horse. He was a bastard, yes, but he was just being a horse–and my problem had been blaming him rather than fixing my own self by learning how to work with him rather than against him.

I’m glad I took those lessons–all of them, even the earlier ones with Dave. I’d needed them; they got me out of the house, out of my own headspace, out of my comfort zone, and into a new way of looking at the world. I felt connected with it all in a way I can’t describe. Grief and sorrow can make us self-centered, which is not a bad thing in and of itself; we need time to process terrible losses, and that’s just how our minds give us that space. I was finally ready to move forward a bit, and Mr. Chill was a big part of that healing process.

It’s worth mentioning that I still love horses, maybe even more than when I was younger now that I know more about them and can talk to them a bit better. They’re not as mysterious to me anymore. I have a more realistic appreciation for them now than I did years ago. They’re not up on a pedestal, up in that lofty land where horses are always noble, brave, gallant, and wise. Some of them certainly are. Some of them definitely aren’t. They’re kind of like people in that way. Instead of getting mad at them for not living up to my high expectations, I learned to treat them like living creatures and respect the reality of them.

We’re going to talk next time about one way that modern Christians have managed to cloud our perspective of the opposite bank and put women up on a pedestal: “modesty.” I hope you’ll join me.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...