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Horses

September 5, 2014

My ongoing war with technology continues...and, as a result, the blog is suffering. It isn't just my lack of expertise -- I feel a very deep conflict between wanting to share my stories, and stay connected to friends new and old, and also wanting to keep the waste I create and the devices I am dependent at a minimum as well. It's a conflict I know a lot of us modern humans are grappling with these days...Anyway. My current computer is quickly becoming obsolete. I can no longer update the website using it. For now the solution is to go to the public library to use the computer, and I am fine with that. So, for those of you who read this, I apologize for the laps and hopefully I'll be able to get back more regularly now! As summer passes into autumn, I hope to make at least a weekly trip to town (on my bike) to keep this up. Added benefit -- exercise :)

Meanwhile...this is another essay I wrote for my column Little Pasture on the Prairie. A lot of folks got in touch with me to tell me this really spoke to them, so I wanted to share it here as well. I've also added a little update to the bottom with some recent developments...

 

I am trying to learn to ride horse and, boy, it is slow going. Now let me preface this by saying, I have been riding on horses since I was a kid. Turns out though, riding on a horse, and riding horse are two very different things.

 

A quick, but relevant sidenote: there is a certain quirk of the dialect here that as an English major I find interesting and useful. When describing certain activities, most folks drop the plural. So instead of saying, “I love riding horses!” they say, “I love riding horse!” At first I was confused by this difference, as if there were only one horse in all of South Dakota. Now I realize it is a declarative statement that simply describes this activity, in general -- local language has evolved its own shorthand to encompass a common events. Now that I am learning to “ride horse,” this difference has taken on a greater importance for me, as it represents a new way of looking at the whole endeavor. “Riding horse” is what cowgirls do, as opposed to “riding on a horse” which, for better or for worse, is what I did as a child.

 

It all started when I was about 9 or so. I was a daydreamy kind of kid who spent a lot of time doodling in notebooks, and at a certain point, all those doodles started to be drawings of horses. Soon, I started cutting out pictures of swiftly moving ponies with wind blown manes to tape beside my bed, so they would be the first thing I saw in the morning, and the last thing I saw at night. I don’t remember how I found out about it, but into the little circle of my suburban youth there entered the concept of “horse camp.” It turned out just half an hour away from my house existed a stable, and at that stable kids from all over came to learn to ride horses in the summer. I couldn’t believe it -- it was too good to be true. There were two barriers, however: half an hour away was really far away, and also it was expensive. The first problem was solved when it turned out the camp had a rusty, old van they called a “bus” that picked kids up. The second problem was solved by using the birthday money I had been saving, well basically since birth, and not getting an allowance for the rest of the summer, or maybe forever. I can’t remember all the details, but at the time it felt as if I were signing over all the assets I owned, or would ever own, and I was okay with that because it meant that I could go to horse camp.

 

The first day of camp found me crying in the front yard, waiting for the bus, in straight-legged blue jeans and the black rubber riding boots my mom had managed to track down from somewhere. In my neighborhood, kids wore shorts and t-shirts and flimsy shoes all summer. Jeans and boots were for winter time only. I felt like I was dressed for battle and in a way I was. See, I was a shy kid. A REALLY shy kid. The tears were because I was terrified of entering a vehicle with a bunch of strangers and then having to ride with them for half an hour and then hang out with them all day and then ride home again. People I didn’t know would probably try to talk to me and I would be expected to think of things to say back. One of the many benefits of summer vacation was NOT having to do this. I had gone to school with the same neighborhood kids since kindergarten and I was still scared to death to talk to half of them. But it would be worth it, because I was going to learn to ride horses. So when that minivan pulled up, I wiped away my tears, and clutching the brown paper sack that held my lunch, I hauled myself unto the backseat’s torn upholstery.

 

And it was worth it of course. I met the first love of my life, an ancient, disheveled shetland pony named Pixie. They taught us to trot by making big circles first in one direction around the arena, then the other. Pixie, for her part, probably would have done much the same thing if I had been asleep in the saddle, but to me it feels like we are a team, horse and rider moving as one. I fall in love with it all, the subtle click of the horses’ shoes as we walked them from the barn to the corral, the damp, dusty smells of straw and manure, and of course, brushing out Pixies’ long gray mane at the end of class. On the last day I hid in Pixie’s stall and when my instructor came to find me, I was sobbing too hard to tell her why. It was because I didn’t want to leave. Pixie was my friend, and for me at age 10, those were hard to come by.

 

Fast-forward twenty-six years. I am standing on a hillside in western South Dakota crying again. Turns out learning to “ride on a horse” at horse camp in no way prepared me to “ride horse.” This horse does not want to be my friend. I can tell he finds me foolish. After scrambling off him in a panic, I am too intimidated to get back on, and it’s too far to walk all the way home leading him. It is an example of something that occurs often in the life of a naturally fearful person. Namely, being stuck with two equally terrifying options. What can I do? I get back on the horse.

 

There is a rather famous quote: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the decision that something else is more important than one’s fears.” I contemplate some variation of this quote daily. You see, there are hidden benefits to being a naturally shy, fearful person -- life is full of tiny victories and lots of opportunities to practice courage.  At 10, I braved the van full of camp-goers so I could learn to ride on a horse.  Now, at 36, it is time to learn to ride horse.

 

Just about a year ago, I was trying to decide if I was going to stay in South Dakota, or move back to Minneapolis, when I was asked to play at a funereal for an elderly woman from Bison. As I lifted my violin to my shoulder and I looked out at the church pews I was overwhelmed with gratitude. Every row was full of faces that had become dear to me. Faces of students and friends, people who’d invited me into their homes for coffee, or offered kind words of encouragement as I embarked on a new career -- some had even offered me a place to live when I wasn’t sure I had anywhere to go. I have performed on the front porches of ramshackled farmsteads, in darkened auditoriums, in radio and t.v studios, and the fear of performing never leaves me. I was terrified that day in church too, but I played even though I was scared. I played to say thank you for all the kindness I’d been shown, and to pay homage to a life that had come to a close. It is an honor and a privilege to be able to share the gift of music and I am not about to let my stage fright keep me from offering it when I can.

 

I am so lucky. My life is full of blessings. I look around at the beautiful, rich fabric of my life -- the silly antics of the lambs, the sweet fumblings of the new puppy, a quiet attic room to write in, and  a love -- the big kind -- that makes me feel like singing all the time. I don’t think that I earned this life by being brave, but I do think all these things are related. Maya Angelou wrote, “My great hope is to laugh as much as I cry; to get my work done and try to love somebody and have the courage to accept the love in return."

 

So, if you drive past the Bison Fairground in the evening and see somebody riding in slow circles around the barrels, a look of concentration mixed with terror on her face, it’s just me practicing courage, so that someday I will be able to ride across the prairie grass, fast like the wind, and just as free. I am practicing courage so I can accept all the love this life has to offer -- and just like everything else, it's a work in progress.

 

**Update** I've been riding all summer, and I am happy to report this week I went to a friend's ranch to gather cows on horseback, and though I was pretty terrified at times, but I never felt panicked. By the end I actually was enjoying myself, which, at the writing of the above essay, I wasn't sure would ever happen. As a final little feather in the cap of the experience, there were dark storm clouds approaching as we finished bringing the cattle in, so we had to run our horses home to try and beat the storm. What a rush! Once again, I am so thankful to have the opportunity to live where I do, and how I do.

 

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