2018 Equestrian Voices Distinguished Entry
BY JOAN AGUADO
There are five of us in the Thursday night jumping class, armored up in helmets and air vests, bracing ourselves to fly over jumps the size of our ponies. Finley, the ten-year-old, forty-nine pound girl wonder, and her pony, Dew Drop, are super stars. Next are the ten and a half year-old identical twins from Shanghai, Kelly on Super Mario and Allison on Allegro. It’s nearly impossible to tell them apart until they’re on their respective ponies, a bay and a flea-bitten gray. There’s the nine-year-old Sophia, the youngest, who has a two Instagram accounts—one for her and one for her pony who she inexplicably refers to as “Hash Brown.”
And then there is me, in my 50s, surprised but thrilled to rediscover my love for jumping horses. Who knew my barn BFFs would be a group of audacious 5th graders I have come to call the Pony Posse? It’s enough to make a gal feel 10 again!
I had raised two boys with my husband, Alan, but suddenly the nest was empty and unnervingly quiet. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I loved my job as a film commissioner, but with my new leisure time afterwards, I’d be damned if I was going to become a couch potato watching reruns of Hollywood Squares. I was a sprightly 5 feet tall and 95 pounds with the energy of a hummingbird. I required action.
I tried everything — yoga, boxing, book clubs. Nothing stuck. I picked up my city’s recreation brochure and spotted a class in beginner horsemanship in the early evenings at the barn nearby. I had ridden as a kid and was quite serious until a horse reared and fell backwards on me when I was fourteen. I broke ribs, my femur, cracked my skull and landed in traction with a full body cast for almost a year. By the time I healed, the thought of riding was terrifying and I found a new hobby – boys.
Yet now, 40 years later, the fear long gone, I found myself smiling at the brochure. Like I had serendipitously wandered into an old friend from long ago, and had no idea how much I’d missed them.
The following Tuesday after work, I made my way down to San Pascual Stables exactly a mile from work and a mile from home. Here I was—10 minutes from Los Angeles and it might as well have been blue grass Kentucky with its white rail fences and vintage red barns. Jette, the no-nonsense Danish barn manager, filled me in on the barn. Caroline and David, a Belgian brother-sister training team who grew up showing jumpers on a farm outside of Brussels, ran the program. While they were duly impressive and even trained the top pony jumpers at Pony Finals several years in a row, they were also completely down-to-earth. There was no tolerance for mean girls or privileged behavior ever. Their barn wasn’t filled with crystal chandeliers, but it was clean and safe and quite clearly a very happy place.
The majority of riders were girls between seven and sixteen. Even my new instructor was a kid. Barely 26, Sarah was a sweet girl and a badass rider. Freckled and leggy with auburn hair dyed shades of pink this week, she was responsible beyond her years and could also ride anything, the designated “fixer.” If a horse misbehaved in her class, she would throw on a helmet, grab a crop, and climb aboard. Sarah was an old soul and did not differentiate between the ages of her students. I immediately lost all self-consciousness about my age even though I was decades older than the oldest riders.
I started with one lesson a week, and went through every old school horse in the old barn: Griffin, Riley, Vern, and Flash. Who named these poor souls? I was surprised how little English equitation had changed in 40 years. Heels down! Eyes Up! Sit back! Even riding attire hadn’t changed much. By my second lesson I had made a trip to the nearest tack shop and bought a helmet, paddock boots and half chaps and a pair of tan breeches. I felt like my husband when I take him shopping every ten years, and he gasps at the price of jeans. My trip to the saddlery cost me a small fortune but I was sure I would amortize the cost if I just rode one season.
One season become two, and one night a week soon became three. I was in deep. Sarah eventually suggested leasing, since it guaranteed a higher quality horse. She didn’t have to sell me—I rode the pretty chestnut mare Bella once and was in the office, signing papers.
With my new pony came more advanced classes, and I was now riding exclusively with a younger crowd—the 7 to 10-year-olds who I referred to as the “big girls” since they rode so well. They were fearless! They were also sweet and super supportive. You look great on Bella! That was an amazing line! I kept thinking, when will they realize I could be their mother – or grandmother?
After class we’d walk our ponies out and talk about our ride that day, chatting about how cute, funny and naughty they were. We’d brush their manes and tails lovingly and reward them with watermelon rind once they were back in their stalls. I was officially sucked into the equestrian vortex, and had found my people. The girls seemed to accept me as though I was one of them. I could escape with them to this magical world of these beautiful, exciting creatures. When we were with our ponies and friends, there was no sense of time or schedules. It is always horse-time down at the barn.
It’s been three years, and all of the girls in the pony posse have gotten fancy jumping ponies from Belgium for Christmas or their birthday, complete with big bows on the stall doors. They are getting medals at local shows, and jumping over a meter. They are working towards Pony Finals, the Holy Grail of national pony jumping events, and they will get there.
I now lease Jackie O, a refined and well-mannered 18-year-old black Appaloosa pony with a simple white constellation of dots on her hind quarters, crazy eyes and a neck she carries so high, she looks part giraffe. She has the smoothest, rocking canter and she’s steady, doesn’t spook or take off, doesn’t speed up between fences, and yet, forward. She is always game! When I start to panic when the jumps go up, my trainer tells me, “Oh, come on Joan, it’s Jackie O!” And she’s right—this pony is the closest thing to bombproof. I’m too old to be fearless, and Jackie O is just my speed.
It is 5:30 in the evening on a Tuesday when I arrive in the usual protective gear and proper attire, but this time it’s not for a lesson. I am here to ride tandem with Finley, bareback. Fin and I have been excited about this day for weeks. Tandem riding is not usually allowed, but we have made a great case. Red the chestnut rescue Quarter Horse is really old, super lazy, has the sweetest temperament and is comfy like a couch. We weigh 150lbs together—the size one adult rider and we won’t have the weight of the saddle. We promise to only walk and trot in the ring.
I can tell by Finley’s skip towards me that Sarah has given the green light. I glance at the crossties and Red is standing, brushed and ready for action. “Joan, can I please ride in front and steer?”
“Yes, of course you can Fin,” I say without missing a beat.
The sky is dusky gray blue and like magic, the floodlights in the two arenas pop on simultaneously. Fin climbs the mounting block and then turns back to me. I climb up the stairs, swing my leg over, wrap my arms around her waist and hold on tight.
The inaugural $2500 Equestrian Voices Creative Writing Contest celebrated stories written by and for horse lovers from all over the world. We were inundated with amazing narratives about triumph, loss and the deep emotional experience that is being with an amazing horse. To learn more about the 2019 contest, visit theplaidhorse.com/write.