Leo was supposed to be the docile one. He was supposed to be the one for beginners, the one that doesn’t step out of turn or cause any commotion. Leo was supposed to be the horse that takes the novice rider on a gentle ride and returns him unscathed, but Leo was having one of his days.
When I arrived at South Westland Horse Tracks, our guide Amber informed me that this would be a two hour intermediate ride and asked if I had ever ridden a horse before. Not wanting to be left behind, I answered, “Yea… Not a lot… But… Definitely.”
What I failed to mention was that my lone ride on a horse took place at the Kensington Stables, a deceptively lofty name for this derelict operation on the fringe of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, NY. The burnt-out-urban-horse never quite made it to a trot as we crossed the rushing traffic of Park Circle into the meticulously landscaped park, flooded with people on a sunny Saturday afternoon in August. It was one of those necessary experiences one undertakes when they haven’t left the confines of the city in months and find themselves a few blocks away from the normal route pretending as if they are running wild in the green countryside.
Finding myself in an area where it is often easier to run into another cow than another human, I thought I’d let my inner cowboy loose for another try. Two other twenty-somethings, a moderately experienced rider from Lithuania and a horse fanatic from Sweden who shared my surname and was sure we were related, joined me for the ride. Ms. Johanson’s sudden outburst of Swedish was met with my blank stare which disappointed her a little, but her biggest disappointment would come when she realized how inexperienced I was and how eager my trusty horse Leo was to obstruct her path.
Leo, the eldest of the team, was reserved for the least experienced member of each outing. His personal guest comments book at the Stables was chocked full of children’s doodles and disjointed eight-year-old handwriting. He was the easy horse, the one little kids could be trusted on. Amber, our guide, rode Burris who was the trickiest of horses, while the girls rode the younger, faster steeds Mirth and Patchy.
We set out together into the dry riverbed in a light rain away from the foothills and into the vast planes leading out towards the Tasman Sea. Already, Leo’s feisty temperament was beginning to show. Leo didn’t want to lead, but he didn’t want to be in the back either. He had a particular place in the middle that suited him just fine and God forbid Mirth or Patchy try to disrupt the order. Walking through the flat fields and winding riverbeds was fine, but soon we kicked it into second-gear.
Trotting, for the inexperienced rider, is a pain in the ass. Unsure of the procedure, I popped up and down erratically until my stomach curled and my man-parts ached. I knew that there was some sort of rhythm I was meant to achieve, but Leo and I were on different pages. Sheepishly, I asked the girls for advice. The subsequent trotting took a gradual turn for the “semi-painful” and an eventual turn for the “too numb to care.”
Galloping was out of the question for me, but that was just about the only thing on Leo’s mind other than chewing grass and pooping. When Mirth and Patchy got a chance to gallop through an open field, Leo went ballistic, sending me fumbling to catch my camera while maintaining a firm grip on the reins. Later, we passed through a field of cows uneventfully, but the pigs in the distance were another story altogether. Leo stood rigid upon hearing the squealing swines, and no amount of coaxing could put him back in motion. We walked the horses past the pigs and began the painful process of trotting again on our way back to the stable.
Dismounting my dear Leo, I just about buckled to the ground. A few karate kicks later, my legs regained their strength and I felt as though I had conquered mighty Leo and all the trickery he had put me through. When I woke up the next morning, I realized just how wrong I was. My back ached and my thighs burned. I couldn’t wear my wallet in the back pocket of my pants because it hurt too much.
I moped around the office wining when my boss Hielke asked, “How long did you ride? No one rides for two hours, you’re just asking to be hurt.” As I came to realize, Hielke is an accomplished dressage competitor in New Zealand with her name featured prominently in many equestrian magazines. I was curious what it meant to be in the sport of dressage…
“Do you jump fences?”
“Do you race, like a jockey?”
“Is it like chasing foxes or playing polo?”
“So what do you do with the horses?”
Dressage is something like competitive horse training and it is a legitimate Olympic sport. I browsed through the horse magazines with her for a good while and we chatted about the idiosyncrasies of the equine. I learned a wealth of knowledge that I wish I had known twenty-four hours earlier. Before Hielke left for the night, she turned back with a smirk, “so, you want to go for a ride tomorrow?”