If I were the type to write happy endings, I’d end with the four-foot, six-inch fence. It stood in the center of the brightly lit indoor ring of Cedar Lodge Farm, a show barn in Stamford, Connecticut. It was a November evening in 1982 and my hour was just about up. My mother would arrive any minute to fetch me for dinner and homework. I was 14, as young and strong as I’d ever be.
My legs were cemented to Rocky’s sides, more so because I had no stirrups. His hooves left the ground and I moved with him, up and over that jump.
That four-foot, six-inch fence was a triumph, after some recent falls. I’d fallen onto an icy path, shoulder-first. I’d fallen headlong into a jump painted like a brick wall. Rocky had started refusing. Suddenly he didn’t like jumps with flowers or water, or too-solid jumps, or jumps with too much empty space. A stride before takeoff, his front legs went stiff. My fault.
John said my nerves were ruining Rocky, the beautiful, expensive Bay thoroughbred my parents bought for me. My adolescence brought a sudden growth spurt and grave self-doubt. I’d infected my horse. Like a virus, my anguish settled into his bones.
John had a reputation for a sharp tongue verging on meanness. His high expectations got results. Junior riders whose parents bought them horses like Rocky wanted a trainer like John. There were many of us, competing in hunter classes at shows around the tri-state area. Maybe some of them, like me, still dreamed of competing at the National Horse Show. Back then it was held at Madison Square Garden, New York City. I thought I had a shot. Some parents, like mine, were as generous with optimism as they were with wealth. I had an excellent horse, a top-notch trainer.
But I fell. Too much. My x-rays are my souvenirs: the frozen neck, crooked in two places. The tilted hip. When thunderclouds roll in, I feel my falls.
* * *
“Drop your stirrups,” John said, and I knew by his tone he’d lost patience. I crossed them over my saddle. A group of younger kids from his next class started trickling in. They warmed up and watched. In the center of the ring, John set a single pole between posts.
He set it at a height of three feet. With my heel, I nudged Rocky towards the jump. We’d be showing again that weekend. Already I dreaded the moment we’d enter the ring, my name announced and everyone silent. The fences had to be jumped in a particular sequence and sometimes it was hard to remember. If I was anxious, Rocky refused. At the shows, a professional photographer took pictures of us mid-jump. In every one, I’m biting my lip.
In truth I was happiest out in the woods, Rocky’s mane loose, no braids, hopping over the occasional log or puddle. No course to remember, no refusals to send me tumbling. No falls. Out on trails, Rocky wasn’t so spooky. He didn’t mind the flutter and scramble of woodland creatures. I relaxed into his stride. There was no performance. No competition.
But there wasn’t time for trail rides, once I got serious about showing. My focus was winning. I pinned the ribbons I won along the top edge of my bedroom wall. I displayed engraved silver trophies on my dresser.
A three-foot fence was nothing, of course. Rocky barely exerted himself. John wrestled out the pegs, raised the cups another notch: three-foot, three-inches. I tried to forget fear, or ignore it, knowing Rocky would feel it in my hands, my seat, my legs.
When I started riding, the friction of my knees on the saddle caused the skin to rub right off. The insides of my knees were a mess of overlapped, wet, red circles. I rode with those raw knees, teeth gritted, tears on the brink, ’til I toughened up. By this evening in 1982, my knees were long healed. Rocky was gathered from behind, round. I had him on the bit. He felt like power. As if he’d never started spooking and refusing. As if I hadn’t ruined him.
John raised the pole to three-foot-six, the height of the jumps we faced every weekend. Then three-foot-nine. John didn’t let me catch my breath. Frosty nighttime air pushed into the ring, but sweat broke through my turtleneck, my Fair Isle sweater. In my ears, my pulse thumped.
I kept my heels down, even without stirrups for resistance. For years I’d worked at lengthening my calf muscles. At home I stood backwards on the staircase, my heels hanging over so gravity could do its work. Now I wanted John to see I’d put in the time, I was trying.
My mother and grandfather were equestrians. My mother brought her love of horses from her childhood to mine. It felt part of my DNA, my response to horse sounds, to their musculature, their grassy smells. I always knew I’d be a rider. I knew I’d enjoy the silent companionship of horses, and the thrill of moving with another species, galloping, soaring over fences. But with each fall, I fell farther from this legacy. I fell from confidence, from the joy of riding, from joy at all.
I started to resent my sweet Rocky. The same horse who nuzzled his chin into my shoulder when he stood on crossties. The horse that nickered when I approached, and shifted his weight helpfully when I picked his hooves. The horse that never kicked when someone passed behind, so long as I kept my palm on his rump. Horses are so big, but they depend on our kindness.
John had me circle right back around: four feet. He said, “Get your fat ass up out of that saddle.”
I’d always been long-legged and skinny, a perfect riding body. “You got big,” John complained when I returned from camp that summer. I was still long and lean, but, it was true, I’d grown: up (closer to my eventual height of five-foot-ten) and out, into curves of leg and arm muscle and swells of breast and hip. I’d spent a month at Colvig Silver Camps in Durango, Colorado. I’d hiked and canoed through forests and canyons. I’d climbed my first fourteener. I’d managed a solo overnight, alone beneath a sky heavy with stars. I learned to carry my world on my back. Yes, when I returned I was bigger.
Now the fence was four-foot-three. Higher than we’d ever jumped. The other kids brought their horses to a halt. The ring was silent except for the clop of Rocky’s hooves, the click of his joints, his snorts and blows. I didn’t know if my mother had arrived and stood watching from the doorway. I hoped.
Finally: four-foot, six-inches. A foot higher than I’d ever faced, even with stirrups. “Shut up and do it,” John said.
I moved Rocky to a canter and counted strides: one, two, three. With my legs, I told him it was time. I lifted myself from the saddle and inched my hands up his neck. Rocky tucked his forelegs and we left the ground. We flew. The landing took my breath, so steep, but the ring’s footing absorbed the shock. We took a lap around the ring, past the other kids, then broke into a trot that felt like relief. The night blew in gusty cold, delicious.
As John intended, these higher and higher fences, jumped without pause, distracted me from doubt. I didn’t have time to worry about falling, or anything else. Finally, without stirrups for balance or security, and over five feet in the air, I was confident. Like I did in the Colorado wilderness, I believed I could do anything.
* * *
If I was the type to write happy endings, I’d stop right there. I’d end with triumph. But in real life, perfect moments don’t last. Lessons are forgotten. Regret bleeds into the future.
The following summer I took my worst fall yet: on my hip, in a field adjacent to the outdoor ring. For a few moments my legs were paralyzed. John yelled to stay put, but I dragged myself by my elbows through tall grass. Terrified, going nowhere. I knew my riding life was ending. In failure. John was so disappointed. I was relieved, not glad.
When I started driving and planning college, when I understood that I’d never had a shot at the Garden, I stopped. Suddenly, completely. No more lessons, no more shows. My parents sold Rocky. I was too ashamed to be much concerned with his sale. But I hoped his next rider was long-legged and skinny. I hoped she had steadier nerves, and Rocky trusted her.
In odd moments of nostalgia, I think of Rocky the way one recalls a childhood friend, long out of touch. I hope he was beloved to the end.
I haven’t been on a horse in decades. Regret bleeds into the future. With every low pressure system, I feel my falls.
If I could, I’d tell my fourteen-year-old self: Susan, stop. No more shows—You’re terrible at them. You’re not that competitive. You get nervous. Go tack up Rocky and take a walk in the woods. Jump a log or a puddle. When you’re where you should be, you won’t fall.