It’s officially Monday and I’ve hit the manuscript trail nice and early, thanks to some extra-strong chuck wagon coffee. Cue a few intro bars of “Back in the Saddle Again.” Actually…please don’t.
Horses terrify me. My perfect horse? Mr. Ed.
Yeah, I know. Mr. Ed was a fictional horse, of course. He usually stayed safely in his stall and only talked to his hapless owner Wilbur. 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 lately, since my new series-to-be features a sleuth dealing with her grandmother’s ghost, who appears only to her and causes endless complications.
A lot of girls I knew when I was growing up collected Breyer horses and had bedrooms strung with glossy ribbons they’d won in horse shows.
I cheered my friends on from afar. I loved watching them braid their horses’ tails and shine the saddles (not so much mucking the stalls) and sail over fake stonewall jumps. My older sister 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, yellowish teeth and…aaagh!!! Nightmares.
My parents signed me up for riding lessons at summer camp. They thought I’d love it once I tried it. All the other girls were thrilled to pieces, and I pretended to be excited, too. On the first day of the Beginner Riders class, I made a mental sign of the cross and the riding counselor gave me a boost into the saddle that almost landed me in the dirt on the other side. Here is the one and only pic of me actually riding, taken by my dad when he came up on Visitors Day. Don’t I look thrilled?
My classmates quickly mastered walking, trotting, and endless posting. When can we canter? they begged. 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. 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 me through an enormous pile of clean cedar shavings to be spread through the ring for tomorrow’s event. I came up coughing cedar and badly bruised, but alive. And hopeful. Would this get me out of the show?
Sadly, no. 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 the fence) in time to draw straws for horse picks for the next day’s big event. I drew the last straw. That meant I had two choices of steeds: the one who’d just battered me in cedar or…Bunker, the elderly, dappled gray who made Eeyore look like Tigger. I chose Bunker.
Cue the inspiring, National-Velvet-style ending, where I overcame my fears and won the biggest blue ribbon of all, right? Neigh. Good ol’ Bunker refused to trot, although I valiantly posted away anyway, trying 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 judging. I couldn’t bring myself to use my crop on my sad, stubborn equine partner. The judge ran up, frowning and hissing through her teeth. “Kick him!” she said. “KICK HIM!!!” I couldn’t do that, either, so I just sat there in pitiful defeat until a CIT finally helped drag me and Bunker out of the ring. I headed straight behind the barn to cry big, salty tears of humiliation. Needless to say, I did not win a ribbon, even for participation (this was the 70s). I swore I’d never get back on a horse again.
Years later, despite my equestrian failures, I somehow became the designated “horse” editor at several publishing jobs. I even started an entire kids’ line devoted to horses and riding. 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 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 kid models posed on sawhorses and nuzzled up lovingly to hobby horses (the actual horses were Photoshopped or painted in later).
But now it’s just me and Mr. Ed, safely social distancing (he’s self-isolating in the barn) as we collaborate on this new ms. I’m hoping to finish it during Camp Nanowrimo, which starts July 1st (no riding, just writing!). It’s a good thing that I’ve finally made my peace with horses, real or fictional, because–WHOA, boy!!! Get back here. We have work to do!
Readers, is there anything you’ve miserably failed at, even though you tried (or sort of tried)?