On my bookshelf are treasured relics of childhood: The Black Stallion, by Walter Farley; Misty of Chincoteague and King of the Wind, by Marguerite Henry; Read-Aloud Horse Stories, by an author deservedly unknown.
They are the earliest evidence of a horse crush that has lasted half a century. The quarters I used to stash under my mattress in an ill-advised horse fund are long gone, as is the once-vast collection of Breyer horse statues. But I saved all the horse books for my future daughters, girls who I just knew would be as horse crazy as their mom.
Sure enough, I had the daughters—two of them, spaced seven years apart —and I waited eagerly for their little legs to grow long enough to reach the stirrups. But alarmingly, it seems they didn’t get the memo, the one about how horses and girls go together like bran and mash.
“Do I have to?” my eldest daughter asked when I wanted to enroll her for a second year of rid- ing lessons.
She’d toddled off willingly at first, and I bought the helmet, the boots, the breeches and was so proud when she got a blue ribbon at her first horse show. (Well, yes, everybody got a blue ribbon. They were second- graders. Nobody needs to know.)
She learned how to groom, and to mount, and how to hold the reins just so; how to post, how to nudge a trotting school horse over a cavalletti. But that was it.
She never got to the thrill. The part where you’re so scared going around the turn, and everyone is watching you. You’re terrified you’re going to fall off, but then you’re cantering, and your horse approaches the jump calmly and lands on the right lead, and it is all so lovely and natural, it’s as if you were born fused to his withers.
That was my experience with horses. That, and long, lazy trail rides over paths spongy with pine straw, and long, lazy afternoons just hanging out at the barn—soaping the saddles, smelling the leather, scrubbing buckets that were already clean, performing any kind of work that would allow me to be near my love, to be near horses, even though none were my own.
I so much wanted that for my daughters, but I also didn’t want to be one of “those” moms, the kind who push and hover, parenting not for the child, but for themselves.
“No, honey, you don’t have to. How about piano instead?”
I let go, because I’m laid back like that. And also because I had another daughter waiting in the wings. When it was her time, we went shopping again: more boots, more breeches, another ASTM/SEI-certified hat. And she, unlike her sister, was so excited. We had two donkeys in a little backyard paddock, and she’d ridden bareback on their backs, which wasn’t real riding but gave her a taste. And she had friends who had horses and lived at their barns, as I had.
Finally, I was going to get my rider. She was the one.
Until she fell off.
Two days into a weeklong horse camp, she was asked (too soon) to go into a trot and, in her enthusiasm, kicked the horse energetically. A rough canter ensued, then a hard fall.
When the call came, I could hear her in the background, crying so hard she could barely breathe. I recognized the sound. It was the howling of yet another daughter who would not be a rider.
I myself am a modestly experienced horsewoman and know well the adage: You have to get right back on again.
But when your arm is broken, and your back is scraped raw, and they put you in a neck brace in the ER for two hours, you can’t get right back on. Especially not when you’re 11. By the time the cast came off, any enthusiasm she had for riding had vanished, blown away like the brown foam on the shore of Assateague Island, where Misty’s dam lived.
“Mom, I don’t think I want to do it again,” Katherine said the evening the cast was removed. She said this cautiously, having grasped that riding —that her riding—was something important to me.
I studied her face.
Should I make her? Should I insist? Should horses be like religion and music, something that everyone should have a baseline knowledge of, whether they want it or not?
Did she need to do this, to conquer a fear, even though many people live upstanding, meaningful lives without ever coming within 10 miles of a horse?
Or was it that I needed her to do this, because I am a horseperson, and I want to live among my tribe?
These are existential questions for which there is no right answer. Only the right answer for me.
I took a deep breath. “OK,” I said bravely. “You don’t have to. How do you feel about Rollerblades?”
There are horsepeople, and there are no-horse people. And I’m pretty sure that you’re born one way or the other. If you’re a horseperson, there’s nothing that can keep you off a horse. If you’re not, there’s no- body who can put you on one. Not even your mother.
“Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.” Strains of Willie Nelson floated mournfully through my head. But then came a new thought. My mother didn’t ride. She dislikes horses. Maybe horse love is like a genetic trait and skips a generation, like blue eyes or red hair.
I’m keeping the boots and the helmets. With luck—and I have plenty of horseshoes around —granddaughters are only a couple of fur-longs away.