We all know them, maybe we once were them: the girls in love with horses. That passion usually strikes when its victim is eleven or twelve, just before first menstruation and first boys, during the last years of a girl’s freedom.
Like other passions, it devours lesser interests. If the parents can afford it, the girl is given weeks, months even years of lessons and competitions in local and then regional horse shows—cross country, dressage, jumping.
Sooner rather than later, the stable’s schooling horse proves inadequate and then the search begins for a better mount, a more suitable object of passion. For a while that first owned horse answers dream and hopes and then it, too, proves inadequate to the higher jumps, the competitions further afield. And the search begins for the replacement.
How wise to exercise this escalation on horses rather than lovers!
The Olympics beckon, the high seriousness of the great training stables, the noble solemnity of formal riding attire with its well-cut black jackets, white shirts and gleaming stock ties, boots shined to a fare-thee-well, untidy hair corralled by a hair net and a black hard hat. Truly the girl is transformed, as we are all transformed by passion, laying aside trivial pursuits, limiting the time given to relationships, other sports, travel, even study.
Always, there is the interesting question of what it means, for a girl and then a woman, to ride astride; how different was the passion when a hundred and more years ago, women rode side-saddle, in flowing habits that covered their legs, one hidden knee clamped firmly over the saddle’s pommel?
Maybe the feeling was the same, as it certainly was for my great-grandmother, Sallie, who in the last stages pregnancy still jumped her beloved Jenny, riding side-saddle. But I think the feeling of power that comes from clamping both knees on either side of a saddle can’t be dismissed. In charge, charging, a girl and then a woman escapes for a while the inevitable limitations of her power. The horse obeys—at least most of the time. Reality doesn’t obey. Nor do other people.
I felt this passion as a teenager, riding an old backyard horse through wild woods in Kentucky, but I never wanted to compete, and the hazards of higher-level riding were not, it turned out, for me. Rather, it was the escape my horse provided, getting me beyond houses and subdivisions and roads, into the remnants of wilderness that still existed then on the outskirts of Louisville.
Now, I hike in protected wilderness that extends for miles and miles and may never be invaded, if we here in the West can fight off the Bureau of Land Management’s drive to sell our precious public land to these impoverished states. They would be almost sure to sell a deal of it to developers or to tycoons who create vast fiefdoms like one owned in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado—hundreds of thousands of acres—by Louis Bacon.
There are wolves, still, in our patches of national and state forests, although only a few pairs, protected against ranchers and traps by our conservation groups. My own metal wolves are beginning to emerge from this winter’s deep snows.
Wilderness can be healing. So, too, can the company of horses, which may be the best long-term use for these creatures. Big, tame and calm, they give a woman perched bareback sustenance, reassurance, even love.
This is priceless.