So it’s officially Monday and I’m at the keyboard, ready to plunge back into my manuscript-in-progress. Maybe “progress” isn’t quite the right word, but I’ve been thinking about it. And “plunge” might not be exactly the correct description, either. But I’m here, prepping to work, and that counts, right? Cue a few background bars of that inspiring oldie “Back in the Saddle Again.” On the other hand, please don’t.
Horses terrify me—even more than twisted plot points. And all the attention on Kentucky Derby and (as of yesterday, Preakness) winner Justify doesn’t help. When they trot out the horses, usually chomping at the bit and acting up, I marvel at the brave jockeys who put their lives (and their horses’) on the line for a two-minute race to glory. Because I don’t trust those four-legged critters one bit. Here’s my perfect horse.
I can’t blame any of you for pointing out (gently) that Mr. Ed was a fictional horse, of course. He usually stayed safely in his stall and talked to only one person, his hapless owner Wilbur. And everyone thought Wilbur was crazy and the poor guy found himself in all kinds of predicaments because Mr. Ed was a bossy troublemaker. But I’ve been thinking of those two a lot lately, since my new series-to-be features a not-very-gutsy sleuth ruled by her grandmother’s ghost, who appears only to her and causes endless complications.
I was never like my friends I grew up with, whose bedrooms were adorned with glossy ribbons they’d won in horse shows.
I cheered them on from afar and I loved watching them braid their horses’ tails and shine the saddles (not so much mucking the stalls) and sail over those fake stonewall jumps. My sister, who was sixteen years older than I, begged our parents for a pony from the time she could talk. But I couldn’t erase my Girl Scout leader’s helpful advice when feeding a horse an apple: “Just keep your hand flat, honey, so he doesn’t bite your hand instead.” One look at those giant, yellow teeth and…aaagh!!! Nightmares.
My parents signed me up for riding lessons my first summer at camp. All the other girls were thrilled. Me, not so much. But I dutifully hoisted myself into the saddle with a good boost from the riding counselor that almost landed me in the dirt on the other side. Here is the one and only pic of me actually riding. It’s blurry, but don’t I look thrilled?
My classmates quickly bored of walking, trotting, and endless posting. When could we canter? Well, I got my chance, because during the final class before the big end-of-summer horse show, a tree branch broke somewhere in the woods beyond the ring where we were plodding along. My horse took off like a shot and I attempted an emergency dismount as he headed toward the fence—with my boot stuck in the stirrup. Fortunately, I disentangled myself just as I was dragged into an enormous pile of clean cedar shavings to be spread through the ring for the show. I came up coughing cedar and badly bruised, but alive and hopeful. Would this get me out of the show?
But there were no excuses for wimpy ‘fraidy cats. The camp nurse pronounced me good-to-go and I made it back to class (my horse was frolicking somewhere deep in the woods, after easily clearing that spindly white fence) in time to draw straws for horse picks for the next day’s event. I got the last straw. And I had two choices of steeds: the excitable one I’d just ridden into the Great Near-Beyond, or…Bunker, the elderly, dappled gray who was literally two steps from the glue factory. My fate was sealed. I chose Bunker.
Here’s where the inspiring, National-Velvet-style ending comes in, where I overcame my fears and won the biggest blue ribbon of all, right? Well, not exactly. Good ol’ Bunker refused to trot, although I valiantly posted away anyway because I was supposed to show I’d learned something. He kept stopping to chew on stray branches that hung over the ring. When the class mercifully ended, all the other riders ordered their horses to the center for the final judgement. I couldn’t bring myself to use my crop on my sad, stubborn equine companion. The judge ran up, frowning and hissing through her teeth. “Kick him!” she said. “KICK HIM!!!” But I couldn’t do that, either, and sat there in pitiful defeat until a CIT finally arrived to lead me and Bunker out of the ring. After a moment or two of dead silence, the crowd golf-clapped politely and I went off beyond the barn to cry big, salty tears of humiliation. Needless to say, I was the only rider who did not win a ribbon, even for participation. I swore I’d never get back on a horse again. You win, Liz.
Like the futile quest to acquire a taste for lima beans and tennis, however, one is always forced to face one’s phobias again. When I grew up, due to my extensive book-knowledge of all things equestrian, I became the go-to “horse” editor at several publishing houses. I even started an entire kids’ line called Random House Riders. My ever-patient authors schooled me in every last factoid, so I’d know to direct cover artists that Thoroughbreds have tiny heads in relation to their enormous bodies. I ghost-wrote a beautiful children’s coffee table horse book. I set up photo shoots at stables in the middle of Brooklyn, in fancy suburbs, and in studios (my personal preference) where the models posed on sawhorses and nuzzled up lovingly to hobby horses (the actual horses were Photoshopped or painted in later). My ultimate horse-y achievement: I managed to ride through the woods behind my daughter on a Brownie Scout trip, without incident (we all wore giant white helmets).
Sorry, I think I’ve strayed from the path here. I was supposed to be buckling down to writing my manuscript. And I am, I swear—but let’s give those horse and saddle motifs a rest, okay? And good luck at Belmont, Justify. Mr. Ed and I are outta here and back on the case. WHOA, boy!!!
Readers, is there anything you’ve miserably failed at, even though you tried (or sort of tried)?