My parents sent me to overnight summer camp and never once did I get to ride a horse, something I naively assumed you got to do at camp. This displeased me because at that time in my 9-year-old life, I wanted to be Sarah Brown, the character Tatum O'Neal played in International Velvet, the 1978 sequel to National Velvet. At camp I thought I'd get to live out my dream of riding across an open meadow on my trusty horse, Arizona Pie. Instead I got to play kick ball, which, I'm sorry, hardly compares.
Knowing dreams are achievable not only by wishing them, but by doing something about them, I decided it was time I crossed off this item on my mental wish list.
Having been to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York, and seen people riding horses, I presumed there must be some place near the park that housed horses and offered horseback riding lessons. I googled horse, riding, lesson, and found Kensington Stablesonly a few subway stops from me! I got right on the phone.
"I'm interested in taking a riding lesson."
"Have you ever ridden before?"
"What day is good for you?"
"Um, next Tuesday?"
"Um, 11 o'clock?"
"OK. See you next week."
I repeated that I had never ridden a horse before in case the guy hadn't heard me the first time and wanted to give me some introductory spiel about what happens at a first riding lesson. "No problem," he said. Still no spiel? I asked what I should wear. "Long pants and boots or sneakers. See you next week." OK.
As I approached the residential neighborhood where the stables are located, I saw a couple women on horseback. They smiled at me as they sauntered by. Seeing their happy faces gave me courage. I walked up to what looked like stables. Two men were hanging out by the entrance.
"Can I help you?" one said.
"I'm here for a riding lesson."
"What's your name?"
"Jessie! Your lesson's here."
I looked inside, and there was Jessie, a redheaded teenager wearing wire-rimmed glasses, a blue T-shirt and jeans. She was brushing a brown horse that turned out to be my horse for the hour-long lesson. Jessie shook my hand, told me to go get myself a helmet, and then went about her business. For some reason the relaxed atmosphere of this place was turning my courage into nervous jitters.
After fumbling around with the helmets, I found one that fit me properly. Walker, the guy who had been by the entrance earlier, came over with a release form for me to sign. Basically, it said the Stables are not responsible for anything that happens to me. OK.
Once the financial stuff was taken care of, Jessie introduced me to the horse, Spice. I had heard horses are very attuned to human beings' emotions so I lightly petted Spice's forehead and looked into her doleful eyes, trying to show I wasn't at all freaked out during this initial contact with her. But instead of cordial thoughts, what flashed through my mind was the movie Equus and the horrific scene where the emotionally troubled lad pokes out the horses' eyes. I shook off that thought immediately and asked Jessie her age.
"Fifteen," Jessie said. For a moment I thought Jessie may have thought I was asking her what her age was. I cautiously replied, "Is that middle-aged for a horse?" She nodded. Good. We're on the same wavelength.
Jessie took me and Spice further into the stables, past other horses, and into the ring. "We'll start you off in here since it's your first time. Then your next lesson, we can maybe try you out in the park."
First thing she taught me was how to check that the saddle is on tight. "If you can stick two fingers in between the strap and the horse, the saddle needs to be tighter." She quickly showed me how to tighten the saddle and before I could say, "Hi-Yo, Silver, away!" she had me up on the horse.
From the ground, Jessie demonstrated how to hold the reins properly, making sure I wasn't letting any slack touch the horse by keeping my elbows away from my sides. She explained to me that directing a horse is like directing a bicycle in that when I want to turn, I'm to pull on the rein that will pull the horse the direction I want her to go. And she explained how horses can be so sensitive, sometimes just looking in a direction will make the horse go that way.
We went through the kicking motion to get Spice moving. I didn't want to piss off Spice by kicking her too hard. Jessie, sensing my timidity, grabbed my leg and forced it into Spice, who started a slow trot.
After a few attempts to circle around the ring and get used to the arm-leg maneuver (pull with inside hand, kick with outside leg), it became obvious I wasn't very coordinated. I wasn't getting any respect from Spice either, who kept ignoring my efforts and stopping dead center in the ring. Jessie informed me Spice likes to test her riders. It was at this juncture I learned "Whoa!" when Spice unexpectantly picked up her pace. It was also at this point when Jessie told me a very important rule, "The worse thing you can do is get angry with a horse. Once you get angry and the horse senses it, you've lost."
Next Jessie had me trying to make circles around orange cones. As my lack of coordination worsened, Spice grew more insubordinate. I kept apologizing to Jessie, whose patience with me reached a stoicism beyond her teenage years, and Spice, whose rebel without a cause attitude clearly had a cause in that my lack of coordination was apparently coming across to her as indecisiveness.Which way do you want me to go, lady? Right or left? Jesus, first-timers suck!
Finally, when Jessie had me give up on using my legs to guide and instead go with only my arms, Spice calmed down. At one point, when Spice decided the wall was more interesting than circling the ring, I was able to get her back into circle mode without any guidance from Jessie. That was my proudest moment.
I was doing pretty well when Spice went back into the middle of the ring. I gasped, "Come on! I didn't do anything wrong! We were doing so well, Spice!" Jessie laughed, "She knows when her hour is up." And it was.
No longer feeling like I missed out on something that I thought was an essential camp activity and a part of growing up as common to young girls as their first period, I'm happy I finally can say I've been on horseback. And I knew the only way I'd do it was by acting as my own camp counselor, encouraging myself to try this new activity. Though I will never be able to join England's Olympic equestrian team like Sarah Brown in the movie, my dream of riding in a meadow is now closer than ever.
For more information: www.kensingtonstables.com
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