Boots

This past Sunday, Mars and I competed at our second rated show together. The judging was harsh. This week I’m wondering when and if I’ll ever have a more independent seat, softer elbows, and a more elastic connection. The one positive comment was, “Attractive pair.” It’s not nothing.


Last summer, just before I moved out of TriBeCa, I went to visit Vogel Custom Boots, in SoHo, to be fitted for my first pair of dress riding boots. I changed riding disciplines in the last few years, moving sideways from the hunter/jumper world to the other, even more froufrou, dressage. The tiny Vogel store front sat on a narrow, quiet street in a neighborhood of exquisite historic cast-iron buildings now bustling with high-end retail stores; it fit in nicely with its carved wood sign with gilded lettering, and custom shoes in the window, displaying the full spectrum of English riding boots.

My trainer likes to remind me that the word “dressage” is from the French, meaning “training.” It’s the flatwork, the not-jumping part of riding. At the Olympic level, the horses seem to dance, and they perform freestyle choreography to music.  At my level, you learn a test, in advance, that is written out on paper, with different gaits and figures performed at the letter-labeled points of the ring. The test takes 5 or 6 minutes, a long time for an athlete (horse or rider) to concentrate and really give a peak athletic performance. It looks like plain old horseback riding, and it’s judged by a person with a scorecard, giving you marks for the different movements and then a written score at the end. You can read where the judge thought your horse hollowed or fell in or bulged or hurried, where you needed more bend or impulsion, and you are welcome to use it to become a deranged and obsessive perfectionist about your riding and your horse’s way of going. Or, you can use it to reflect on those things you need to work on, and get to work improving.
The way a test is written, “3. K-X-M Change rein; 4. Between C &H Working canter left lead. 5; E Circle left 20m,” is not how it always rides. At a recent (unrated) schooling show, for example, my 6-year-old horse Mars whinnied violently at M, beginning at step 3 of the test, and then again, each time he passed the corner marked M or even got close to it: at step 5 when we circled at E, between step 8 & 9, at step 11 when we circled at E again, and then, again after step 13. I think another horse somewhere on the property was answering him.
A horse can whinny gently and quietly, almost under his breath. This wasn’t that kind of whinnying. This was like the horse equivalent of screaming. You can feel it emanating from the bowels of the horse, rumbling up under the saddle, vibrating through his chest, and then erupting from his great jaws. What are horses saying when they whinny? Maybe the horse version of, “WHERE YOU AT?” and the reply, “WHERE YOU AT, BRO!?” Whinnying during a test does not do much to earn a horse “submission” points, added to the end of one’s dressage score, for “willing cooperation, harmony, attention and confidence, acceptance of bit and aids, straightness, lightness of forehand and ease of movements.” Alas.
Coming from the hunter/jumper world, where flatwork is to prepare a horse and rider for jumping courses, it was my experience that trainers had limited patience to teach me flatwork in a way that I understood what I was doing, or why I was doing it, and how I might do it better. I was vaguely aware that I was bad at it, that flatwork, with my stiff, arched back and turned-out toes, my unforgiving arms and hands always at odds with the horse. But I didn’t have the slightest clue how I was supposed to get better at it until I started serious dressage lessons. And I’m still working on it, every ride.
Dressage was also a way to use my older, semi-retired horse, whose old injuries have meant that she will only be sound for trail riding and light work. Soon, though, I had ordered a new, black custom saddle, made in France, of course, specifically for dressage. And I had a new, young horse; a project we named Mars. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know.
Of course, I owned tall boots for riding already, but they are field boots, with laces at the top of the foot, going a short way up the ankle. The subtle and not-so-subtle distinctions in equestrian disciplines start with big, expensive things like boots and saddles, but also include variations in show apparel, and fundamental differences in the rider’s position. A dressage rider will wear a white stock tie, with a pin, as a foxhunter would; a showhunter wears a backwards collar called a rat-catcher. A dressage rider has a long stirrup and an open hip angle; a hunter jumper will run her stirrups up and crouch in the tack. It will take me years to develop new riding instincts.


Now, I had been to Vogel before this visit, when I had my trusty old field boots serviced the previous year, getting new soles and heels and having a ripped boot loop replaced. But it’s such a small shop with only a few chairs for customers that it can be quite awkward to walk in. The Vogel showroom was a few steps above the street, and smelled intensely of leather and leather dyes. I stood there in the small showroom, my messy, dirty hair going in strange directions, my wrinkled shirt untucked, and asked the first person in the back who noticed me if I could be fitted for some dressage boots, please.
“Do you have your riding pants?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
She took me through the crowded work area to a small changing room in the back, where I put on my riding pants. When I returned to the front room, there
were two customers being measured for custom shoes. Both were sizable men, with shiny, combed back, black hair. One wore a suit and tie. They were peppering the salesman with questions.  “Why would it take so long? Why didn’t they make a mold of your feet? Why are the soles leather? Which pair is the most comfortable?”
Somehow, in New York City, there are still people who aspire to dress and talk and comport themselves publicly like mobsters. They purposely ask dumb questions, demand to know why everything is so expensive, excessively quote mob movies, and constantly assess whether others are with them or against them. For the purposes of this story, I am going to call these guys in the custom boot shop mobsters.
The younger mobster of the two asked, “How long do these shoes last?”
And the salesman said, “Well, it depends how much walking you do.”
The older mobster pointed to his fat stomach and said, “If I did a lot of walking would I look like this?”
I was introduced to Jack, the guy who fits the equestrian boots. He asked me if I’ve had boots made by them before, and I said I have. We reminisced about Olson’s, near Seattle, where I bought my boots a number of years ago, and Mike, who he’s known since he was a young employee there, long before he was manager or owner. I go back that far with Mike, too.  Jack went to look up my earlier order, and came back out with a clipboard, pencil and tape measure. I was still standing.
Jack sat in a chair next to the coatrack; one of the mobsters had left his coat draped over the seats, instead of hanging it up. Jack took down my address and email, perched on the edge of the seat so as not to crush the coat.
The mobster grandly offered to move the coat, and now that Jack had their attention he was able to find me a place to sit. Jack took a lot of measurements, all with me sitting, tracing my foot onto a piece of paper. We talked about my bunions, and the scary surgeries suggested by the two podiatrists I’ve seen. He told me no one he knows is happy with their bunion surgery. I concurred. He made me pull up the leg of my breeches, over my knee. Underneath my legs were really hairy, of course. 
The mobsters were still discussing leathers and soles. They were not coming to a decision. They said they’d call with their final decisions, but it seemed they’d be making no purchase that day. Though they’d said nothing to me, as they left the younger mobster called, “Good luck with your horse.”
He didn’t even say it like he believed I have a horse. He said it like he thought I made up the horse, the way that a kid in elementary school who didn’t believe your uncle was an NFL kicker would say, “Yeah right, sure.” Also, tucked under the “Good luck with your horse,” was, of course, that scene in the Godfather movie, where revenge came in the form of a horse head in a guy’s bed.
I learned my left calf is bigger than my right, and I’d have to have an elastic gusset if I didn’t want a zipper. I chose a squared toe, and a spur rest. I didn’t want mine as stiff as the sample he brought me, though I liked the stiff souls and the ribbed bottoms. As I paid (a sobering $1366 with tax), I asked how long it would take. I was told 10 to 12 weeks. I didn’t say that I wouldn’t even live in the neighborhood anymore in 10 to 12 weeks because I couldn’t face that at all. Moving in New York City is another tale of mobsters; with complicated rules of daily tipping and separate insurance and the always suspicious requirement that the whole thing be transacted in cash. I promised to lend Jack my orthotics for a few days without a word about my move.

Only six weeks later, I got a call that my boots were finished, and was told Vogel was two days away from packing up the place and closing. They were moving to Brooklyn. Someone made them an offer for their location; it was an offer they couldn’t refuse.

One Round

Alone in the car on my way to the horse show, first thing in the morning, against the flow of the commute, listening to my favorite music, and it’s Your Favorite Music (Clem Snide) or Eels’ Souljacker and I’m going just a little too fast. I am headed to the Evergreen State Fairgrounds, in Monroe, a grim, paved facility with large metal structures, chain link fences, and dank cinderblock bathrooms. The main ring of the show is indoors, but built for rodeos, with row upon row of bleachers, climbing up into the eaves where the steel I-beams of the roof meet the corrugated steel walls. It has cow pens and chutes and a snack bar with curly fries and grilled American cheese on salty white bread.
But I’m not a rodeo rider. I don’t know anything about western riding or cows. I’m at a hunter/jumper show. The parking lot filled early, and a late-comer would be parking her new-ish 2002 BMW on weeds at the end, near the long row of parked horse trailers, gravel crunching under her low-profile tires.
I’m wearing jeans and paddock boots, carrying my show clothes in a monogrammed garment bag, and my tall boots in another, matching bag, banging against me as I walk to our barn, the boot pulls rattling against each other with my every step. I polished those boots at home, and won’t put them on until I have to.
I’ve worn my show shirt, unbuttoned; later I will have to button it up to the top, and put a monogrammed collar over it, backwards like a priest’s collar. It’s called a rat-catcher, and sometimes it makes me feel like I’ll have an asthma attack. On top of this shirt I will put on a freshly dry-cleaned wool jacket, called a hunt coat; mine is the traditional navy blue, but I have a brown one with a subtle plaid, too. Over my hair I will stretch a heavy-duty hairnet, back to front, tucking the knot up into my hair or it will press into my head and give me a headache later. Then I will pull on the helmet, back to front, tucking in the hair to make it even.  It’s supposed to cover my ears, but I think it’s too ugly and I leave most of my ears exposed. I will wear the clean black leather gloves I save for showing. I will decide at the last minute if I will wear spurs; it depends on how bright the horse is today. It’s still early in the week, so he might be fresh. I will carry a crop, but the most I can do with it is wave it past Petey’s flank; he’s a sensitive fellow, though a giant at almost 17 hands. I will have to find my number and tie it around my coat before I get on, too. The number is printed on a white oval of cardboard, with pre-punched holes in either end. I tie it around my ribs, with the number on my back, threading the black string through the second button-hole and tucking the bow inside.  I will step up a tiny set of stairs and mount my horse. Hello, Petey.
Before I get dressed, I’ll have grooming to do. But on this day, I’m not showing until much later, and there are other horses to help with. Petey’s grooming routine will wait until just before I get myself ready and get on. Since it’s early in the week, most of the classes today are warm-up rounds for later days. It’s a chance to show your horse all the scary sights and sounds and smells of the ring. Many trainers ride all their clients’ horses’ rounds on this day, leaving the separate adult amateur and childrens’ divisions for the owners to do later in the week. There are few spectators on a day early in the show week, and the horses go in the ring, jump their course, and leave with the next horse entering and doing the same without a pause in the action.
By the time I get Petey groomed, I’ve groomed a couple of other horses, set fences, held horses, eaten a grilled cheese and watched twenty or more rounds in that indoor ring. I’ve seen my course so many times I don’t even need to check the printed and labeled sheet outside the ring. I know all the strides between fences, as well.
When it is time to groom Petey, I put on his halter and walk him to the grooming stall. His mane is not braided today, though he will be braided tomorrow. We’ve hired a braider for the show and she will come and braid him before dawn for my first thing in the morning class the next day. I start with picking out his feet. I curry his face and legs with a grooming mitt, and his body with a different curry comb. I comb out his mane, put product in his tail, and brush it. Next, I brush a few spots with a stiff brush and then everywhere with a soft one. He’s a plain chestnut horse, red-brown from hoof to tail. We body-clipped him during the winter, revealing his homely yellow-gray winter undercoat, but as the days have lengthened he’s been growing back his sleek, shiny summer coat.
I slide a fleece show pad on his back and put his saddle on top and buckle the girth; Petey likes to fill his lungs with air as the saddle goes on, so I will take up the buckles on both sides several times before I get on. I put protective jumping boots on all four legs that my trainer C. will pull off before we go in the show ring. I bridle him last, throwing the reins over his head, sliding the bit into his mouth, and buckling the noseband and throatlatch.
I climb a short set of plastic steps and get on the horse in the barn area, about 20 minutes before my expected time in the ring. C. and I walk over the warm up area together; I can walk Petey on a loose rein because he’s a pretty chill guy.
I get about ¾ of the way around the ring at the walk and start feeling a little impatient so we break into a trot.  My stomach reminds me that I’m actually a little nervous. I learned my course earlier, but still, there are always show butterflies. I change directions, trot around some more, and pick up the canter. Now I find out just what I’m sitting on today. Is he fresh? Is he lazy? Is he leaning on my hands? Is he on the forehand? I come back to the trot, turn around, walk and canter the other way. Slipping between all the other horses warming up, I attempt a flying change of canter lead, just to see if I can brighten him up.
C. has claimed a warm-up fence in the middle of the ring. She sets up a small x (crossed rails, set in cups on the uprights, known as standards). “Catch this off the left when you’re ready,” she calls.
When other horse traffic allows, I canter over it on the left lead. There are several horses warming up at once. One or two will be the horses ahead of me; another will be the horse after me. There are only three fences between four trainers, so the rider after me waits. My first jump goes well enough, so C. says, “Come back the other way”, and makes it a vertical (where the top rail is straight across). I pick up the canter again and jump the vertical. This time Petey arrives at the fence at a funny distance and breaks to the trot to fix the situation; he’s a good boy, a safe horse, and honest, but this horse is not, as horse people say, ahead of my leg. He has chipped it. Chipping is when the last stride is shorter than the others. It looks ugly, and it sounds ugly. “Get him ahead of your leg,” C. calls.
I give him a squeeze and pick up a livelier canter. Now I’m feeling nervous about going in the ring soon, so I start to count his stride, “1, 2. 1, 2. 1, 2,” silently in my head. Petey settles into a rhythm. “Get it again,” calls C.
This time I’m counting, I see my distance five strides out and count them down, “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, jump.” This time it’s a nice distance. C. builds an oxer, a square fence with two vertical poles of even height. She says, “Get this off the left.”
Soon enough, D. at the gate makes an announcement over the loudspeaker, saying who’s on deck, who’s in one, etc. When she says, “Maggie’s in four,” we walk out of the warm-up ring and out onto the pavement. Someone brings me a sip of water. C. pulls a rag from her pocket, wipes off my boots, and bends down to take the open-fronts off my horse. If someone remembered it, she’ll put a coat of hoof oil on Petey’s hooves. As you approach the doors, C. asks, “Do you know your course?”
The correct answer to this is not, “Yes.” The correct answer to this question is, “Right lead canter, home down the quarter line, up the diagonal four, down the judge’s five, up the single diagonal away and home on the outside five.”
“Don’t let him build coming home; that last five is easy,” says C.
Inside, there are bleachers on both sides. The judge is sitting by himself, halfway up on my left as I enter the arena. He has finished his sandwich which I heard him order earlier when I was watching other rounds. I had come over and sat down near him to get his perspective, before you got dressed. A lot of horse showing is sitting around waiting, and this day has been no exception. As a rider, I’m still new to this game of showing, and still learning. I heard the judge  on a walkie-talkie, discussing what kind of bread they have for sandwiches and whether the rye bread has seeds or not, all the while a woman was in the ring doing her best to jump eight nice fences. Whether the judge was watching was unclear, but the sandwich has been ordered. I watched a few more rounds, all the same: single vertical with yellow flowers coming home on the quarterline, past the in-gate, up the diagonal over the four stride line, a vertical followed by an oxer, both with red flowers. Then around the far end of the ring on the left lead to the judge’s line, an “easy” five stride line facing home, then up a single diagonal oxer with blue flowers and little wishing-well line next to the uprights.  And a finishing circle.
D. says, “You’re next.”
I don’t wait for the horse and rider who’ve just finished to come out of the ring. Instead, I slip in and pass them as they leave. The people at the gate appreciate that I know to keep things flowing, but really I do it because I know that horses don’t always like to be alone, and some horses will pitch a fit going into the ring. Petey is a trusty gelding though, and he walks in like an old pro. I turn right straight away, so that I can turn left and make a long, straight diagonal line across the show ring at a trot. He is not the fanciest horse in my division, but he is pleasant and calm. My long trot across the diagonal shows him as much of the ring as I can. And as I reach the other end of the ring, just past the judge, we pick up the right lead canter and go to fence one.
I’ve been at the horse show so long this day that I think I know everything about the course. Which are the verticals, which are the oxers, the color of all the flowers. It is conceivably possible to jump the wrong first fence since there is a single fence on the diagonal.  Fences in the hunter ring typically have a front and a back, but it isn’t marked with red and white colored flags as it is in the jumper ring, where you compete for speed and leaving the rails up. Here in the hunter ring, the fences are meant to look natural and are decorated with a mixture of real and artificial flowers.  While a square oxer has rails at the same height in front and back, many oxers have a ramped appearance from the front. They would never have you jump an oxer with the front rail higher than the back since this is considered a bit of a dirty trick for the horse, who might get his eye on the back rail and then clunk the front rail pretty hard with his hooves. In the hunter ring a clunk like that would be penalized for interfering with the smooth relaxed and effortless picture the rider tries to make on course. In the jumper rung, with you’re not judged for looks, it only matters of if the rail comes down, in which case it is four faults.
As we round the end of the ring and canter to fence one, I notice for the very first time today that the flowers at fence one are actually purple. They were yellow on the other side, but I never came all the way down the arena and around to see what color things were on the other side. Of course the color of the artificial flowers is of no matter, but it is unexpected– so much so that they take my attention and my eye down to them. I am now riding to a problem; your head weighs about 10 pounds, and more with a helmet, and your horse can feel when you turn it.  Where you look matters to a horse. If you stare at the base of a fence, there is a very good chance that the horse you are sitting on will canter slowly to that spot and stop there. Refusals are major faults in a jumping competition, and after three refusals (or two in Canada), you will be excused. I needed to do something, now.
I was taught to have a high focal point. I raise my eye, deliberately, and I find N., the announcer at this and many other shows, sitting in the announcer’s booth, wearing a blue ball cap. I like N. He plays Van Morrison, and Tom Petty, and pronounces my name correctly. I watch his ball cap as we canter calmly and vigorously down to jump one, and we get a beautiful open flowing relaxed distance land and canter down around the end of the ring past the in gate. Well, I think, that went well! But I don’t allow myself to celebrate, because now I’m trying to canter away from the in-gate, and this is requires my concentration, too. Leg on. I decide that the high focal point was a good idea at the last fence and I find another impossibly high one, on the ceiling in the corner, where there is a hole or a dark shadow where maybe something like raccoons live in the roof. I don’t think about raccoons. I count the rhythm into this four-stride line, “1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2… .”  The four strides are perfect, and we jump out just right, land on the left lead, and continue.
As we turn the corner onto the judge’s line I can see out of the corner of my eye that someone is there bringing him a coffee. I hear him say, “I love this, old-school hunter,” absently. I find my third, high focal point in another corner of the arena, up where the high walls meet the arched roof, in among the I-beams. We are on an easy rhythm, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2… and he jumps in, makes the five strides, and out, 1, 2, 1, 2.
We pass the in-gate again and are chugging up the diagonal we entered on, 1, 2, 1, 2 and I’ve got another focal point, this time it’s an exit sign. It’s a game now. 1, 2, 1, 2, and the fence meets us in rhythm. Petey lands on the right lead and heads for the last two fences. There is N. again. He’s moved, and we’re twenty feet to the left of him now but I feel like if we just stayed on this rhythm we could keep going forever, and jump anything.
Sometimes in lessons I have been known to have last-fence-itis, where I’ll do a good enough job on the first 7 fences and botch the 8th. But not today. Today we have 8 out of 8 perfect fences, good enough for 4th place in a huge open class, against a lot of other riders, a few amateurs and mostly trainers. The ribbon we win is an unassuming white one, not impressive really, but what it represents to me is a perfect hunter round. I keep the ribbon on the mirror of my dressing table until we move from Seattle in 2011. I never have another hunter round like that, on any horse.
The magic of a perfect round, though, is that I can recall every detail– the purple flowers, the judge, N.’s blue hat. The magic of a perfect round is that you can be beaten, and regardless of the ribbon, it is yours forever. When you have those moments as a horse and rider you are absolutely sure you could reach up into the sky and rearrange the stars with your index finger. 

 

Another day, another round

A Ride Out in Early Spring

For weeks it felt like spring’s start was delayed, because the snow had been so plentiful and long-lasting, but now all is thawed and the grass coming green and the trees are slowly starting to set buds. The cardinals are busy again, and the blue jays noisy, and the irritated robins call, “Yeep! Cuck, cuck, cuck! Yeep!”
“Let’s go down the road and up and over and see how the trail through the woods looks,” said W—-, and I agreed to it. X— didn’t know what any of that meant, but was willing enough to join us. X— has been preoccupied lately, having unexpectedly lost his job. He has admitted to folks in the barn that he’s still having nightmares, and though he’s still smarting from the indignity of losing his job without cause, he seems relieved to be done with it.
W—- led on Jenny, a semi-retired show-jumper, a big, dark bay with big, dark ears, and the oldest mare in the barn. I followed on Mars, chestnut in color and temperament, and, at 6, the youngest horse in the barn. X— rode his gray mare, a steady, sensible horse that knows her job and rarely gives anyone any trouble.
The road was quiet. There is little shoulder to ride on, but not much in the way of traffic. The last time we went this way we turned off the road and a flock of unexpected birds had flown out of a building, startling Mars. Now, he walked calmly but carefully past the spot of prior alarm. There is plenty for a young horse to look at on this route, crossing two bridges over the Shekomeko Creek, winding around old buildings, cornfields, and small piles of decrepit farm debris, down several residential streets. We’d done the ride recently enough so it wasn’t completely new to Mars. The only new part was going to be the trail through the woods.
When we reached the woods, the beginning of the trail looked like it had been cleared quite recently. It is wide enough to ride abreast. But once we were in, we encountered a fallen limb of the kind that we couldn’t just step over (too many sharp and pointy bits sticking out). W—- hopped off Jenny to clear the branch, and having done it, stayed on foot in case there were more.
And, there were more.
Every fifty yards or so there was a tangle of fallen branches. Some were easier to clear than others. The woods here are a mix of deciduous trees, mostly, with a few long-needle pines, and many thorny bushes and climbing vines. By the third obstacle, W—- needed both hands to try to budge the mess, and she had to hand me Jenny’s reins which I held while I sat on Mars. I was focused on watching her, keeping Jenny and Mars a safe distance apart, and staying relaxed.
At the deepest point of the trail the ground falls away to the left, revealing that we were riding atop a steep, wooded hill. There was barely room to hold Jenny and keep an increasingly uneasy Mars out of the sticker bushes. I don’t think X— was feeling entirely ok about the terrain, and before I got a chance to look, I heard X— behind me make a noise.  I turned to see him standing on the ground next to the gray mare, running up his stirrups.
W—- called out to ask if he was ok.
X— said he was fine, but he said his horse wasn’t having it.
Horses can read your mind, of course, which is why people who are terrified of horses rarely learn to ride. Horses can feel your anxiety through your seat and hands, and, as prey animals, they take it seriously. Maybe you know something they don’t about lions or bears.
At this point, Mars checked the mare ahead of him and the mare behind and surmised that he was the only horse with a rider still mounted. Mars gave a pugnacious buck, popping into the air and kicking both hind feet out. This was my cue to get off as well.
W—- asked it I was ok.
I said I was fine.
She said, “Next time, when we get to a fallen tree at the beginning of the trail through the woods, remind me that there will be more and we should just turn around.”
We were not far from the end of the wooded section. The trail leaves off at a spot with a nice view, from the top of the hill to the south. Winter’s straw-colored hills are now washed with pale green, though the trees are still as bare as bones. We found a large rotten log for remounting. We all got back on, including X— who picked himself up and mounted his horse from the ground. Descending the hill, Mars finally let out a breath.
And then we rode home.

A Letter to the County Executive of Dutchess County, New York

The event I described happened in mid-July, and on that day I told the people I was with that I would write the sheriff and the county executive. They laughed. On a different day on that same stretch of road, my young horse spooked at a speeding garbage truck, dumped one of the barn’s professionals on the ground, and took off galloping back to the barn. He stopped and we were able to catch him.
Recent events all across the United States involving police remind me to encourage you, dear readers, to write letters to your local law enforcement and their bosses if you have an opinion about what you see them do. 

Out Hacking
Marcus J. Molinaro
County Executive
County of Dutchess
22 Market Street
Poughkeepsie, NY 12601
Dear Mr. Molinaro:
Thank you for your kind letter welcoming me as a newly registered voter in Dutchess County. I look forward to participating in elections in my new rural community.
Recently, on a July weekday in the mid-afternoon on State Route XX in XXXXXX, I was out riding my horse on the road’s shoulder along with two other younger staff members of the barn where I ride. We were each wearing a helmet and riding a calm, older horse belonging to a private owner. An unmarked police vehicle approached and turned on its brightly colored lights and passed us, at an alarming speed. Because we are all experienced riders, we were able to calm our horses and continue; however, almost immediately the unmarked black police vehicle was joined by a marked Dutchess County Deputy Sheriff’s car, and passed us from the other direction at even greater speed.  Once again, we had to calm our horses and continue, which we did without further incident.
I have mulled over the encounter during the last couple of months and taken the time to confirm for myself that under Article 26 of the New York Vehicle and Traffic Law, Section 1146 a., “Every driver of a vehicle shall approach a horse being ridden or led along a public highway at a reasonable and prudent speed so as to avoid frightening such horse and shall pass the horse at a reasonable distance.”
I believe that the drivers of both police vehicles, though they may have been responding to an emergency, failed to obey this law, endangering the lives of three people and three horses.
Should any staff members of the Dutchess County Sheriff’s office be interested in learning about basic horse safety, the barn where I ride is a British Horse Society Certified facility, with highly educated and experienced instructors who would be able to provide basic lessons in horsemanship. I would think these skills would be useful throughout much of Dutchess County.
Thank you for taking the time to read this.

Tack

Despite the mounted NYPD officers who house their horses at a facility in Chelsea and the carriage horses in Central Park, there are no horses in Manhattan. As a horse owner, this meant that moving to New York City was a compromise for me. I drive a long way upstate to ride these days, so I ride less, and this is yet another reason to add to my growing list of things I hate about New York.
No doubt the first humans to ride horses did so without much tack, if any at all. I envision a clever tribe of hunter-gatherers realizing that the nearby horse herd had a few slightly more docile individuals, and though delicious to eat, those slightly more docile individuals made suitable mounts, opening up wondrous new hunting possibilities for the primitive people. Once enlisted to carry home huge carcasses, the domesticated horse made the great leap forward from food to engine. Today, modern America has few true working horses, but not none. Most American horses are kept (at great expense) for the pleasure of their owners.
To ride even casually requires an initial investment in a helmet and boots, so many new riders, like me, go to a tack store before they even take their first horseback riding lesson. What this means is that before even going to the barn the new rider goes shopping. In rural areas, you can find a helmet and riding boots at a feed store. But in a fancy suburb, you can go to a real, fancy tack store.
Back in Seattle, this was Olson’s. You walk in and are immersed in the whole horsey lifestyle. They have all the stuff for horse care (from hoof picks and vet-wrap to pitchforks), but also everything for the rider (attire, boots, and saddles).
Olson’s sold us our first helmets and boots.    Within a few weeks we had also bought breeches (riding pants) and half chaps there.   Even before we were known regulars we were greeted enthusiastically. Eventually we found ourselves treated like very important customers.   Everyone knew our names.
When I bought my first horse, I went with my trainer to Olson’s and she showed me everything I needed to buy; it was a long list.  Later, I would go there for a bottle of hoof oil and leave with a bottle of hoof oil and new clogs.  When a store cultivates a relationship with the customer, you go back for little things, and you order special things from them when you could just as easily go online.
One of the surprising things about moving to North Dreadful last year was discovering a large fancy tack store there. Today, on my way back from the barn, I stopped in for a couple of things. I have been to this tack store a few times; I have made major purchases there. I am never greeted by name.  I don’t think they even notice when I walk in; I always have to ask for help. I usually leave without everything I was looking for, and I never, ever buy anything on impulse.  This store makes me very sad, because it isn’t Olson’s. I miss Olson’s.
Because I had stopped at the tack store, I hit rush hour traffic coming into Manhattan and added another hour to my commute. Next time, I’ll buy whatever I need online.

To Ride


I was one of those horse-crazy little girls:  the kind of little girl that draws horses, and reads horse books, and rides a stick-pony.  My favorite books included the classic, “Black Beauty,” by Anna Sewell, “Justin Morgan Had a Horse,” and “Misty of Chincoteague,” by Marguerite Henry, and “The Horse and His Boy,” by C.S. Lewis.   I collected plastic Breyer model horses, often buying them with the money I earned babysitting.  If there was any chance to ride a horse while my family was on vacation, I would beg and whine and beg some more and sometimes be taken on a trail ride.  I would be so over-stimulated by the experience that I would beg to go again, and soon.  On more than one occasion my father would then promise riding lessons when we got back to St. Louis, and I vividly remember that my mother would clench her teeth and seethe at him.  As a kid, I understood this to mean that my mother was an essentially hateful person who intended to be an obstacle to my true happiness.  As an adult, once I took the time to revisit the question, I realized that my mother was not an essentially hateful person who intended to be an obstacle to my true happiness.  She was in fact frustrated with my father making a promise that she knew he could not or would not keep.
At the end of his life, when my dad was sick in the hospital and dying, I realized that being stuck on the stuff I did not get as a kid was unnecessary, since I had my adulthood to fix it for myself. I was 35 when I decided to learn to ride.  My goal was to learn how to do it and get it out of my system.
I made a few phone calls in the area, probably using the old Yellow Pages. Then, as now, most barns do not have a staff member sitting around waiting to answer the phone. Horse people are busy, all day, every day, tending to the enormous responsibility of horses (stalls needing picking, horses needing feeding and grooming and turning out and bringing in, barn aisles needing sweeping, and lessons needing teaching and tack needing finding or cleaning or mending and putting away, and farriers needing calling, not to mention the decision about whether to call the vet or ordering more shavings or hay and then did someone water and drag the ring?). Horse people tend to have a limited presence in their office and a limited presence online. Then, as now, word of mouth is the best way to find a place to take riding lessons. Somehow, I did manage to speak to someone about lessons at a barn not far from my home in Seattle. They taught adult beginners, and had a group lesson starting soon on Friday nights. I called my husband, the Relentless Troubleshooter, at work, to make sure that it would be ok if I made a Friday night commitment.
One thing you may not know about the Relentless Troubleshooter is that he is Hungarian, and was, in fact, born in Hungary.  Did you know that Hungarians invented everything? Hungarians have a thousand year tradition of horsemanship (which I did not then know), and his response was, “Riding horses is in my blood. Can I do it too?” He had sat on a horse twice in his life up to that point.
When I called the barn back, the owner thought I was crazy (she claims I said we’d make our riding lessons our date-night), but she did book us. While I was on the phone, I was overheard by my oldest child, who was just 8 years old. “That’s not fair,” he said.
And so it came to be that three of us started riding lessons in 1998.

Safety Patrol

I try to get out for a walk every day.  There is an almost-three-mile loop from my front door on a country road with neither stripes nor shoulder.  The town speed limit is posted as 30 mph. This is loosely interpreted as whatever speed you will go.  Most cars seem to be aware of me and my leashed dogs, slow a bit (though never a lot), and give us room.  I have only had two scary encounters so far, the first happening during the first week of school.  It was a woman with a blond ponytail who drives a black BMW SUV and since she was on the phone she never did see me or my dogs. The second was this week, when the FedEx ground truck went by so fast Captain dove into the drainage ditch at the side of the road and cowered there, crouching.   
I do see other walkers, mostly women, sometimes with dogs and sometimes chatting and walking vigorously in pairs. There is one young woman who walks down the middle of the road, and who was not wearing shoes the first two times I saw her.  She has long, straight brown hair and bangs and large eyes that don’t look at you.  She wears clothes I can only describe as completely ordinary. But then she doesn’t have shoes on. With her is a dog that I would call a tan and white pit-bull mix. It wears no collar, and she carries no leash.  We saw them the very first time we went for a walk. The dog is out of control but friendly. The woman doesn’t really talk, not even about the dogs.  I gave her a nickname: Gandhi, pronounced “Candy.”
Two days ago, the dogs and I headed off to check the road-kill (which is another story completely), but found the road was blocked for repairs.  Yesterday, I passed the repair crew, and we exchanged smiles and nods. Cherry sneezed at the smell of the hot asphalt, and I got a chuckle out of that. But that day, we headed down the road past the stable with the intention of turning back at the half-way point.  I was thinking about the Haves and the Have-Nots on this road (which is also another story completely), when the vet pulled out onto the road next to me after a call to the stable.  He pulled up alongside of me and warned me, with concern in his voice, to look out for a pit-bull which is being walked loose and has been allowed to chase horses. “Don’t want it to be a problem for you.”