English Riding, Western Style

In my dream life in those days I was in Vienna, Va., or Surrey, England, about to introduce elegantly groomed and bred horses and their equally elegantly groomed and bred riders to the high arts of dressage and stadium jumping. But my eyes, once open, found it impossible to evade the hard, hot, high-desert light of Twentynine Palms and what it revealed--40 mongrel versions of dusty Western tack on 40 mongrel versions of horse and puzzled Western riders.

While I was desperately trying to close the vast imaginative gap between the scenery of Twentynine Palms and the white-fenced and well-ordered Arcadia of my dreams, a large, red-shirted man ambled over.

“Reason I came here,” he was saying, as if to himself, “we got this mare won’t do nothing but jump out of her corral. But my little girl, that’s Mary Pat, says she can ride Peggy, that’s short for Pegasus. Anyway, we heard maybe you could do something about her.”

Escaping from her corral was Peggy’s only distinction. Her mother was a $100 Indian pony from the Morongo Reservation, and her father was uncertain. But I agreed to look at her, and the man signaled toward the group of horses, from which emerged an undersized mare with a more or less black, mottled coat. She was almost entirely hidden under 60-plus pounds of roping saddle. On her back was Mary Pat, 13, anxiously clutching the reins and saddle horn. There was nothing for it but to try her out, but my ignorant heart sank as I went to get my jumping saddle from the trunk of my car. I thought wistfully of the horses I could have in training if only I had a bit more money. If only I lived in Virginia. Or England, or on the Continent, and so on.


I headed Peggy toward an improvised jump made of stacks of old tires. She had never been asked to jump. Indeed, she didn’t know the basic gaits--walk, trot and canter--and she weaved and “squirreled,” as horsemen say, seeking any avenue of escape, until she found that I was stoic and that there was no escape.

So she jumped the tires. Simply folded up her knee like she was praying and jumped, demonstrating textbook form.

There I was, with a mare I knew I could do anything with--but the owners! Mary Pat had never even seen a jumping saddle. Her father had no conception of what goes into the making of a show jumper.

But then Mary Pat started surprising me. She was the first student I ever had who actually did what I told her to do. Watching her and Peggy, alone with me in the California desert, I thought of the diary of one 19th-Century traveler, who said of Southern California: “The mountains cut the land off from sympathy with the East.” I sometimes felt that God was whispering things into the landscape, in the breathing of that child and that horse, of which the East knew nothing.


Then there was the day, very early in Peggy’s career, when a Santa Ana was blowing. While she and Mary Pat were already on a competitive course of jumps, the wind blew over the second fence of one combination just enough so that there was no room for a horse to manage a proper landing and takeoff. Any rider would have been forgiven for pulling up, but Mary Pat just got this look on her face and headed her little mare into that jump. Peggy took both fences at once, as one fence.

After that, when we went to horse shows, instead of hearing snotty remarks about Peggy such as, “I think a hunter should look like a hunter, don’t you?” we heard a new sort of remark. Things like, “Watch out for that little girl in the blue coat on that Appy. She can jump that horse out of a box!”

One day, at the L.A. County Fairgrounds, Mary Pat and Pegasus came in first in a huge open jumper class against seasoned professionals. But Mary Pat was unhappy because even though they had won, her mare wasn’t going right. I said, “Don’t be silly, Mary Pat, there are at least 50 professionals here who would be delighted to be going home with the purse you won today!”

Mary Pat set her chin, gave me that look , glared through angry tears and said, “My mare isn’t happy. You always told me that what mattered was my mare. " Pegasus seemed to agree. She nodded her head vigorously and stuck her eye next to my eye, regarding me meaningfully.


I remember Gervase Markham, a 16th-Century thinker, who began a treatise on riding with: “Of all creatures, the horse is the noblest.”