We were horseback riding on a shady trail. Janet, my trainer, rode her horse and ponied Margarine, a little sorrel mare. I followed, riding Wilson, a tall bay gelding. A half-mile into the ride, Wilson and I moved up close to Marge. He tensed up and began tossing his head, then suddenly crow-hopped and reared. I leaned forward and held on. He came down, reared again, and came down again.
“Get off of him,” Janet said in a calm voice.
In the emergency dismount technique, you free your boots from the stirrups, lean forward, swing your right leg over the horse’s hindquarters, and push away to land on your feet, but I wasn’t confident my knees could withstand a hard, awkward fall. So I stayed put.
After prancing around nervously for a while, Wilson settled in one place for a split second, and I was able to dismount in the normal way. Crisis averted.
Although we didn’t know it when we left the barn, Marge was in season (at the point in her estrus cycle when she was ready to mate). Surprisingly, one-third of all fully castrated geldings can still become aroused. When Wilson came within range of Marge’s sexy vibes, we found out he was one of them.
I was fortunate to be riding Wilson when this happened. A gentle giant, he didn’t try to buck me off, and when he reared, he only went up about halfway, but it was still a dangerous situation for someone like me, a beginning rider in his seventies with titanium knees. If my knee surgeon had found out about it, he would have filed commitment proceedings.
Two years earlier he’d warned me that my decision to become a horseman posed an unreasonable risk of serious injury to a man my age in my condition. “Don’t do it,” he said. “Keep your feet on the ground.”
His advice was reasonable given my history. I’d enjoyed good health most of my life, but as I neared the end of my seventh decade, my body seemed to be wearing out. I’d come through five surgeries to repair or replace failing body parts, and arthritis had eaten away all the cartilage in my knees. Bent over and listing to one side, I could only walk fifty yards before the pain broke me down. I felt old. Really old.
At that least opportune moment in my life, when I was staring down the gun barrel of double knee replacement surgery, a sudden ambition to ride horses came to me out of nowhere and grabbed me by the throat. It made no sense to me, and I didn’t understand it.
My only experiences with horses were minimal and so far back in my past I had forgotten about them. There’s a photo of my dad steadying me in the saddle on a paint horse in 1948 when I was fifteen months old. My mother wrote on the back of it, “You fell in love with horses on this visit to Paris, Kentucky.” I don’t remember the horses or the trip.
There’s a later photo of me at a pony ride. I was four years old the day Dad pulled our Hudson off Route 60 into a dirt lot beside a field of tall grass where an old man lifted me onto the back of a tired pony and led us around a well-worn quarter-mile loop. Mom’s caption on that photo says, “You had to ride this pony every time we went near Richmond.” I rode that pony four times, all told.
In my teen years, we moved to White Hall, Virginia, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, big-time horse country, hunters and show jumpers. While we lived there, I never rode and had almost no contact with horses, but a vivid memory of a particular horse and rider from those years stayed with me.
I worked a few weekends one summer as a handyman for Pete and Phyllis Jones, who owned Smallwood Farm where Phyllis trained horses and riders. On a hot day I was standing on the roof of the main house replacing worn-out tiles when a pickup truck pulled a horse trailer into the barnyard. Pete helped an elderly man back a big, high-spirited, roan stallion out of the trailer. When the stallion cleared the ramp, he screamed, bucked, and reared.
“I know you said your wife would train him,” the old man yelled to Pete as he strained to hold on to the wild stallion’s lead rope, “but he’s too much for a woman to handle!”
“She’ll ride him,” Pete said.
“But look at him, Mister Jones! Ain’t no woman alive can ride him! He needs a man’s strong hand!”
“If he can be rode,” Pete said in a steady voice, “she’ll ride him.”
And ride him she did. The next Saturday, I looked down from the roof to see the big roan prance out of the barn with five-feet-three-inch Phyllis Jones in the saddle. She guided him on a tight rein through the yard into the pasture. He broke into a trot and then a canter. About halfway across the field, Phyllis urged the roan into a controlled gallop, moving with his action seamlessly, as if she was part of him. It was a vision of spectacular beauty, grace, and grandeur.
For a while after that I dreamed about riding, but when I went back to school in the fall, I forgot about it.
Maybe it was those three long-ago memories stepping forward out of the dark mist of the past that inspired me to turn to horses more than a half-century later. Maybe it was the little boy at the pony ride knocking on the door of my consciousness. “Hey! Remember me? Remember that time before you had to grow up when we loved horses?”
Or maybe it was the teenager on Smallwood Farm calling out to me from way back before all the years at UVA, teaching, law school, Latham and Watkins, and Safeway piled up on top of his dream and buried it.
Or maybe the past had nothing at all to do with it. Maybe it was the unhappy present, a rebellion against my advancing age and all the physical problems I’d come through. Maybe it was an attempt to reverse the clock, to rewrite the later chapters of my life to replace pain and frustration with vibrancy and vigor.
I don’t know, but whatever my motivation, I didn’t heed my doctor’s warning.
In my sixty-ninth winter, I broke ground on the construction of a horse barn. The following June, the surgeon replaced my left knee. My seventieth birthday rolled by in July. In August, I got a new right knee. For the next four months, I worked hard in rehab, focusing on leg strength, core development, and balance.
In January, on a cold crisp morning, I climbed a mounting block and threw my leg over the saddle while Janet held Marge in place. Sitting astride a thousand-pound animal, the ground looked hard, unforgiving, and a long way down. For a few disconcerting moments I thought I might be as crazy as my osteopath claimed. Light-headed and dizzy, I swallowed hard.
“You okay?” Janet said.
I touched Marge’s mane and stroked her neck. The dizziness passed. “I’m okay,” I said.
Janet ponied Marge and me away from her barn, and we rode the trails in Hidden Hills for an hour. We rode again the next day. And the next.
Gradually, my strength came back and my mood lifted. For the first time in years, I felt good. Really good.
I bought Marge from Janet. A month later, we found Lily, a speckled gray mare. Wilson, a thoroughbred now twenty years old, came next. Jackson, a pedigreed American Paint quarter horse, rounded out the herd.
I’ve been riding for four years, four to five days a week. I’m not a great rider, but I do okay. I go easy, at a walk or a trot, sometimes a canter. I play it safe, but no horse is bomb-proof. Horses think anything they don’t understand is a predator and they run from it. Largely because Janet’s priority is safety, close calls have been rare for me, the most dangerous being Wilson’s “Hi Ho Silver” imitation. So far, I’ve never been thrown or injured.
But the thrill of riding is not the main reason my mind and body healed. It’s the horses.
A poster hangs in the tack room of my barn. Beside an artistic rendering of Secretariat’s profile etched in handwritten script are the words, “God made the horse from the breath of the wind, the beauty of the earth, and the soul of an angel.”
This is true.
A horse’s heart is about twenty times the size of a human heart. Some people claim horses can feel your heartbeat when you approach them, and they synchronize the beat of their heart with yours. I’m not sure about that, but this much I know. There’s a benign symbiosis between each of my horses and me. When I’m stressed, they calm me down. When I’m troubled, they soothe my soul. Always.
I can point to a basis in logic and reason for all the big decisions I’ve made in my long life. Except for this one. This one time I closed my eyes and took a blind step forward. And to my great surprise, I stumbled upon a miraculous gift, the love of horses.