On June 26, 1826, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Roger Weightman, Mayor of Washington, D.C., graciously declining an invitation to attend a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. In the letter, Jefferson wrote: “…the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them...”
Eight days later, on July 4, 1826, Jefferson died. Up in Massachusetts, former friend turned foe turned friend again John Adams murmured, “Thomas Jefferson survives,” a few hours after the Virginian’s death, and then he too passed to the next life.
This past winter wasn’t a good time for riding lessons in New Hampshire. Snowstorms, wind, ice, and bitter cold are good for neither horse nor rider.
In late November 2017, before the serious weather settled in, Dorothy Crosby, my instructor, took me on a trail ride. She’d attached a kind of leading rein to Julio, the roan which I ride, and we went off into the woods along a trail. I felt a few stones rolling beneath his hooves.
Then she asked me to take him to the trot. I don't mind falling from a horse. I've done that. But I thought for a moment about the horse slipping on the stones, losing his balance, and falling on me. Half a ton of horse is something to think about. But I trust Dorothy, who has done what she can to keep me from killing myself on horseback. So I drew my breath, twice squeezed my legs together and hit Julio in the sides with my heels, gave him three taps with the riding crop on the shoulder to remind Julio of what he needed to do, and took him to the trot for about 100 yards before he slowed to a walk. We did this three times.
Winter ended by the calendar in March. April marked what New Hampshire calls mud season. Perhaps the season's progress was best measured by my riding boots. In the second week of April, I sank into four inches of mud while going to the paddock to catch Julio. In the third week, five inches. In the last week, six inches. I thought the mud might suck the boots from my feet. Shades of the Western Front, 1916. The mud? It’s a function of rain, snow, and four horses wandering about the paddock and congregating around the stable door. From their point of view, food and friends may be in the stable. That's about two and a half tons of horse churning the ground. New Hampshire's mud season probably increases the profits of the companies that manufacture saddle soap, mink oil, and boot polish.
Anyway, after stepping from the stable into the mud (so much for the shine I’d put on the boots two days before), I saw and strode toward Julio. He gazed at me. He didn’t walk away as usual. He approached and nuzzled the right side pocket on my denim jacket: the one in which I keep the carrots. And, indeed, they were there. I opened the bag and let him lip one from my hand. Then I slipped the bridle and lead rope over his head. I gave him another carrot as a reward and then turned toward the barn. He didn’t follow me. He gazed at me and looked down at the right side pocket. This went on for some time. Somehow, Julio recalled to mind the old description of an honest politician as one who, once bought, stays bought.
Finally, Dorothy, who’d been cleaning the manure from the paddock, strode over and belted him on the hindquarters with the manure rake, which is pretty lightweight. I’d left the riding crop in the barn, if only because I don’t have three hands, or I’d have tapped him myself. Since then, I’ve learned to tuck the crop inside my right boot.
He began moving and so we eventually got to the grooming. I closed the stable door to about six inches. Toby, another of Dorothy's horses, has a small head and shoved it through the gap. He grasps that the tall man in the denim jacket and riding boots usually has carrots in his pocket. Of course, I gave him some.
An interesting moment during that grooming session. My wife Mimi had bought me a copy of Horse Speak, a book about communicating with horses by adopting some of their means of conversation. One thing I grasped from it was the importance of sniffing.
Julio dislikes having his nose groomed. Nonetheless, it has to be done. I was gently pulling a wire comb through his forelock when he raised his muzzle into my face and gently shoved my head back. That seemed to express an objection. With his distended nostrils within an inch of my eyes, he began sniffing and exhaling heavily. So I raised my head and sniffed and exhaled back. Imitating adults, after all, is how children learn to speak. After our third exchange of breath, he lowered his muzzle and allowed me to finish the work.
The lesson was exhausting. I'm not yet sufficiently fit to keep Julio at the trot, though I can turn him within his own radius. Exercise, exercise, exercise. Dorothy said that if I would be a rider, I must be an athlete. If one desires the end, as the Jesuits say, one must desire the means. Well, having gotten myself in this deep, I obtained a referral from my physician and began attending the Wellness Center at a local hospital three to four times weekly. It’s an extraordinarily useful, beautifully maintained gym with patient, knowledgeable instructors.
One riding lesson became an exercise session as the weather was too cold and windy to take Julio to the ring. So I groomed him, put his covering on, and led him to his stall. I then spent about an hour using exercise balls to simulate riding and to overcome some of my physical faults as a rider. They involved much stretching of muscles necessary to a rider, which I found mildly uncomfortable. On the ball, my legs have to hold me up while stretched; on the horse, he holds me up.
I returned home in time to shower and change and then went to Antrim Town Hall for my first session of the Planning Board, to which I’d been elected in March 2018. While folks are fairly broad-minded in the state of "Live Free or Die," I try to avoid stalking into Town Hall "booted and spurred and ready to ride."
When the Antrim library trustees were hiring a new library director, two meetings were called at the last minute on my riding days. I had no time to change. I left the riding crop in the car. The boots and breeches were probably dramatic enough. The chairwoman gleefully murmured, “Oooh. Kinky!”
On April 11, we had a good time. The weather was overcast, but the rain didn’t come down seriously until the lesson had ended and I was riding Julio back to the stable. I believe that I’ve unconsciously grasped some of Dorothy’s teachings about steering the horse. Julio was much more cooperative with me than he’d been before. I spent more time looking down the road than at my horse’s neck.
Since then, the lessons have involved re-enforcing what I’ve learned from previous lessons. I primarily direct Julio through my legs, although minor shifts in weight and manipulation of the reins also come into play. It requires developing muscle memory: knowing what to do by force of habit rather than reasoning. I recall an old soldier’s definition of a cavalryman: “A valiant fellow with intelligence slightly greater than that of his horse.” Perhaps the truth in that quip lies in Nietzsche’s observation that one must know these things in the blood.
I rode Julio bareback for the first time some two weeks ago. I felt the movements of his muscles and skeleton beneath me as one does not in the saddle. I enjoyed it. I felt a bit wobbly without the saddle and stirrups but I stayed on the horse.
Of course, progress with Julio is a matter of two steps forward, one step back. In a recent lesson, he suddenly stopped. Squeeze, boot, tap-tap-tap: all instructions to go forward. Nothing. Then he began, quite gracefully, to walk backwards. An aspiring horseman never gives up. I kept on squeezing, booting, and tapping. Dorothy gave me an instruction. I took the reins into my left hand, shifted my hold on the crop with my right, and belted him hard twice on the rump.
Perhaps this was akin to the old story about the Missouri mule. You had to hit him in the head with a two-by-four to get his attention.
Julio began walking forward again, and then I took him to the trot.