Growing up, I owned at least 20 three inch thick books on horses, and spent hours upon hours absorbing everything I could about them. They were beautiful, graceful, wild creatures that you could ride and run and fly away on, and for a young girl, that was everything I could ever want. My first horseback riding lessons began on November 10, 2008 as a birthday present.
I am sure my parents thought it was just a phase, so when they set me up for lessons they must have been expecting me to tire of it after a year or so. Quite the opposite happened.
November 10 was a rather dismal day. The sky was cloudy, threatening to pour down rain at any moment, and the ground was a thick, oozing sea of mud. But I was ecstatic.
That first day was mainly spent in the barn, where my instructor, Heather, showed me how to tie a horse, how to properly groom them, and how to saddle them up. In the future this would all become a remedial, thoughtless task, but that first day she may as well have been showing me the road to El Dorado. I couldn’t get enough. By the time I had successfully accomplished the tasks to her liking, my lesson was almost up and thunder was rumbling in the sky above us. Bob, the fat grey horse that had patiently stood while I fumbled with the saddle ties and hoof picks, was dozing off, and I was resigned to the fact that I would have to wait a whole week to ride again. Until Heather emerged from the tack room, helmet in hand, and plopped it down on my head.
That first ride was otherworldly. It lasted all of five minutes, Heather was leading me around kiddie-style with a halter up and down the gravel driveway, and Bob was moving at a pace so slow that wet paint could dry faster. But it is something that will stay with me until my dying breath.
Months passed and my lessons advanced, and soon I was competing and winning ribbons. With the ever faithful Bob, my confidence grew and I began to think of myself as quite the rider. Looking back I can only laugh at myself. Bob was the perfect beginner’s horse. He was slow, fat, gentle, and too sweet. He would rather go take a nap than cause trouble. Any beginner would feel like a master riding him, because he was simply too lazy to ever do anything but what you wanted. And he was the only horse I had ever ridden, so it obviously went to my head.
Until another new girl came to the barn and needed Bob’s gentle touch. And suddenly, I got thrown headfirst into the big leagues.
Heather always told me that even despite Bob’s easiness, I was a good rider. I had a natural seat and a stubborn drive. So when she set me up with Hunni, I can only imagine she knew what she was doing.
Hunni was sort’ve a mystery. Her mother, Emma, was nothing more than evil personified. She was troublesome whether you were on or off her, and had a stubborn ferocity that would make Chuck Norris quiver in fear. Her one goal in life was to make sure you knew that she could pommel you into a pulp within seconds. And Hunni was her one and only offspring. A complete wild card.
From what I had gathered from other riders, Hunni was a much more toned down version of Emma. She didn’t approach you with a fight from head on. She waited. She was just as stubborn and just as deadly clever, but she liked to bide her time and test you first. She was a loose cannon, who only gave you respect when she decided you earned it. But I was young and foolish and I thought I was the best rider this side of Dallas… I was doomed.
On the day that I was to begin riding with Hunni, Heather had gone out to get her from the pasture because I was running late. When I entered the barn, Hunni was already tied up and was dozing off, ignoring the world. Until I bounced up to her, clutching a saddle.
The stocky mare woke up, and eyed me for a second, taking in the saddle in my thin arms and that eager light in my eyes. She stood up straight, narrowed her big brown eyes and gave me a look that clearly stated how absolutely unimpressed she was with me and my pathetic existence. I think I gulped.
Throughout the tacking up process she was quiet and still, watching me move around her until I fell into a blissful ease, deciding that this mare wasn’t scary at all. She lifted her hooves when I asked, and didn’t twitch a muscle as I ran the brush over her coat. It was like I was nothing more than a bird twittering around her as I secured the saddle and bridle. Once everything was properly set, I grabbed the reins and began to lead her out of the barn with the other riders…
But she didn’t budge.
“Come on, let’s go, lazy butt!” I said, tugging a little on the reins to get her moving. She simply stood, head held high, looking down on me with a ‘Go Ahead And Make Me’ look on her face.
I struggled for a few seconds, yanking on her bridle and even poking her tummy to get her to lift her feet. She leaned back, resting on one back leg and flicking her ears, turning her head to look down the barn and out the window. I may as well have not been there.
Heather finally came back and asked me what on earth I was doing, and only laughed when I explained rather angrily that Hunni wasn’t moving. Heather took my place, and Hunni pranced forward, flicking her tail and acting like her one goal in life was to parade after the rest of my lesson group. I was speechless.
After scrambling onto her back and catching up with the rest of them, we all entered the lesson arena. Hunni plodded along, as quiet and easy as ever. We all walked in a circle, stretching out our horses legs and warming up before the real lesson began. Finally, Heather instructed us to do a nice, slow dog trot for a couple minutes. In the past, Bob had had the slowest trot (at times it was slower than his walk), so I was fully unprepared when Hunni took off like she had been stung by a bee.
I bounced in my seat and could scarcely keep my feet in the stirrups. I remember that those three minutes were the most nerve wracking of my entire life, as Hunni thundered around the arena, jackknifing me up and down in the saddle until I was sure my dinner would make a reappearance. Mercifully, Heather had us slow back down to a walk and I slumped in my seat, holding my sides together and scowling down at the devil mare beneath me. She snorted and I swear I saw a smirk.
Next came the simple task of walking over ground poles. (It’s literally as easy as it sounds.) One by one we each took turns walking our horses over the three inch thick poles. The object of the lesson was to try and lengthen our horses strides so they wouldn’t clip them with their hooves. Finally, it was my turn, and I eagerly forced Hunni into position and prepared to make her do as I asked (for once).
Hunni sidled up to the first pole and stepped over as easy as you please. I should have known something was wrong the moment I felt her hesitate and stiffen up right before the second, but as I said before, I was a complete idiot back then.
The horse seemed to turn into a helicopter and leaped straight up into the air, flying over the second pole and then bounding with similar height over the last pole, stopping on a dime as soon as she cleared it. I landed hard in the seat, all air knocked out of me as I floundered like a fish to get back into the stirrups and gulp down air. My friends were all snickering and Hunni was eyeing me out of the corner of her eyes with that same bemused smirk.
The rest of the lesson went about as smoothly as sandpaper. Hunni had this cute habit of stopping and not budging, and then ‘tripping’ so I would lurch forward and end up somewhere on her neck. When we all lined up to canter around the arena one at a time, Hunni pulled this rather ingenious trick of biting down on the bit and taking off while I could only hold on for dear life. By the time the lesson was over, I could not get away from that horse fast enough. As I unsaddled her and led her to her stall, I was muttering all sorts of threats and curses under my breath, hoping the new girl would back out of lessons so I could have a sensible horse like Bob back and not this devilish calamity called Hunni.
As I checked her water and hay and moved around her stall, Hunni watched me with an unreadable face, eyes narrowed and ears twitching, as if she couldn’t decide whether to bite me or stomp on me. I locked the door shut behind me, and turned to leave. As I walked away, I heard a loud, braying neigh come from her stall, and glanced back to see her head sticking out, watching my retreat.
Like I said, I was doomed.