I am not a city slicker.
I wasn’t born in a barn, either, but raised near one on a small farm in Kansas. Despite growing up surrounded by dogs, cats, rabbits, chickens, goats and other animals, I am a dude (or dud) when it comes to horses.
That’s why I’m sitting about six feet off the ground straddling a giant, chocolate-brown thoroughbred named Humphrey Bogart (Bogie for short), attempting to conquer a lifelong fear of this species.
When I was very young, we had a Shetland pony aptly named Rascal, who delighted in bucking my small frame off him like an annoying fly, which I suspect led to his sudden disappearance.
In grade school, I went riding with a classmate on her horse. As we galloped across the pasture, we discovered that the saddle was not secured, and we flew to the ground. I still recall the cartoon stars that circled my head as I lay in the dirt, stunned.
I was 12, I think, when I was shamed one year at summer camp. I was the only camper who could not get her horse out of its stall and was unable to control it on the trail ride. I was completely frustrated by trail’s end, as our counselor kept barking at me and the horse to keep us in line. I decided barrel-racing was not in my future and haven’t climbed on a horse since. That was 15 years ago.
There’s even a bit of horsemanship in my blood. My mother likes to tell me how she broke a wild horse when she was 13, herded cattle on horseback and rode with her brother to school on a horse with barely a mishap.
So I’m determined to overcome my fear and even gain a little equestrian skill, for $30 an hour, as I wear my rider’s helmet--not looking or feeling like a super jockey--atop Bogie, who lives in a pleasant stable in pastoral Placerita Canyon in Santa Clarita.
Bogie has the demeanor of his namesake--crusty, charismatic, tough and sarcastic. He’s been around the ring a few times and pretty much knows the routine. “I stick my neck out for nobody,” I imagine him sardonically lisping through his large yellow teeth.
Karen, my instructor, is funny, warm, energetic and not afraid to kiss horses. She plants a long, loud smooch on Bogie’s face and declares, “Yes, I DO kiss horses! I am 32 years old, and I haven’t gotten any diseases from it yet! Besides, I think they like it.”
Karen begins my education by familiarizing me with the horse. I learn his likes and dislikes, how to brush him free of dust and debris, and how to outfit him for a ride. Grunting, I lift Bogie’s leg to clean his foot with a small metal instrument. His leg probably weighs as much as I do, and I imagine it crushing me like an ant.
Most confusing is the “leather spaghetti” that must be buckled and fastened around Bogie’s hugeness before the ride. Because I’m learning English riding, we use the English saddle, which looks perilously small compared to a traditional Western saddle. “It allows you to feel the horse more,” Karen says enthusiastically.
For my first lesson, I lead the bored yet tolerant Bogie into a fenced area wondering how in the world I’m going to get aboard him, considering the English saddle doesn’t have a ladder and Bogie appears to me to be larger than some elephants. A small red step assists me, but it is still a long way up. Karen steadies my left leg, which I manage to stretch up to the stirrup, as I hoist myself up and over to the right side. I look down at Karen, who now appears ant-like herself.
I am mostly afraid of falling off, as Karen serves as my mirror, directing me on my form and how to stop, start and steer Bogie, who seems so programmed that he sometimes stops when Karen says, “OK.” Still, my “ho” (as instructed, not “whoa”) and a pull on the reins does offer control.
In my second lesson, I learn the “two-point” form of riding: My legs serve as the two points, and my seat stays off the saddle as I balance myself, jockey-like, aboard the walking Bogie.
The big test comes in getting slow-moving Bogie to trot. By my third lesson, I am confident enough that I am not going to get thrown or fall, but I am frustrated as I kick Bogie’s sides, and he barely moves faster than his usual slow walk.
“Kick him harder,” Karen commands from the fence. “You won’t hurt him.” I kick Bogie harder and harder, telling him to trot. I feel like I must be bruising his sides when suddenly he bursts into a trot, and I bounce along with him.
Karen tells me to go into two-point. I grab Bogie’s mane, balance myself with my legs, keep my heels down and my back straight. I have no idea what I must look like, or really what I’m doing, but Karen praises me.
I am out of breath by the end of this lesson, proving that horseback riding is an aerobic sport. Or perhaps I’d just been holding my breath. Anyway, the real meaning of “two-point” comes to me each time I sit the day after instruction.
I am not yet kissing him by my third lesson, but I pat his warm muscles, and he even nuzzles me or, at least, I think it is affection until I see the green smear on my sleeve and realize that Bogie has used me as a giant hankie. Still, I imagine him saying in a gravelly voice, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Karen tells me the confidence gained in riding will carry over into other areas of my life. Just conquering this fear is good enough therapy, and I know that no matter what happens, Bogie and I will always have Placerita. . . .
Rebecca Howard is a regular contributor to The Times.