The first time I went horseback riding I was eight years old and a Girl Scout-in-training (a Brownie, to be specific) who would never quite make it to the Girl Scouts. It was a surprise, too, because as a child I liked uniforms and codes of conduct and members-only salutes. But the wilderness skills, the large group socializing games, the requirement that we become door-to-door saleswomen who didn’t get to keep even a little of the money we raked in—it wasn’t for me. I earned three or four badges over two months, and then I quit. One of these—ironed onto my tiny brown vest by my mother—was the Horse Rider Badge.
I got it on a summer troop field trip to a stable in the suburbs. (All the badges I earned were ones given to us, collectively, after field trips that forced the relevant achievement upon us—there were always girls with vests almost full, coming into meetings with forms and evidence that they’d learned to knit or, like, helped a younger child in distress, and the troop leader would help them send away for the appropriate badge. They were a pain.) The only thing we had to do to earn the Horse Rider Badge was to allow ourselves to be pushed up onto a horse and to remain seated there until the trail ride was over. It was easy and pleasant and when we reached the end of the trail I knew that I hadn’t messed it up. The guide circled us up so that we could dismount, and that’s when my horse decided he’d had enough of me and bucked.
The good news is that I didn’t fall all the way off my horse; the bad news is that I did fall off part of the way, and that the thing stopping me from falling off all the way was a metal garbage can behind the horse’s rear. I didn’t fall in the garbage, but I hovered a lot closer than I’d have preferred, and then there was all the clanking. The cool Brownies laughed at me scrambling to climb back up my horse’s body, which set off the nerd Brownies laughing extra-loudly to fit in with the cool Brownies. Worst of all, my mom was on the trip as a chaperone, asking me if I was OK, even though she had to know how uncool it was, as an eight-year-old, to appear loved by and dependent on an adult. I got my badge, but really: was it worth it?
I’D ALWAYS LOVED HORSES, or at least what I’d read of them in books. There are so many paragraphs in so many period novels devoted to describing young women and their horses—feeding them shiny red apples and cubes of sugar, brushing their manes, fastening saddles over thick and symbolically meaningful horse blankets, galloping off over fields to see boys or to get away from them, dismounting their mares, un-lady-like, with dirty petticoats and rosy cheeks. You get this idea that they—we—belong together. A girl and her horse, the great abiding love story.
I asked my parents for a horse a number of times, like everyone, not recognizing the various impossibilities of the request: our tiny house in the city with an even tinier backyard, the cost, the way my parents knew before I did this was a fiction-based desire I’d grow out of by the time I started middle school. Instead my brothers and I made up horses and trotted them around the backyard in circles—what that must have looked like, I do not know—but even then it should have been clear: we spent so much more time describing the food we’d pretend to feed them than we did pretend-caring for the horses themselves.
The idea of it is so enduringly romantic that I almost always have some vague desire to go horseback riding, even after a few outings as a teenager that were modestly enjoyable but ultimately underwhelming. (Not being allowed to gallop or even trot really tempers the reckless, revolutionary-American girl spirit of the thing.) A lot of us have these weird, lingering feelings about horses, and that is probably why so many couples end up going horseback riding on the beach as a date, even though it seems to rarely work out as planned. That’s how it happened the last time Rylee went: with an ex-boyfriend in college, whom she took out horseback riding and to a fancy, expensive dinner, and who, right after all that, said “OK, see ya!” and went to hang out with his friends. And then they broke up.
It is in a semi-confused emotional state, then, that she and I arrive at Bunker Park Stable for a trail ride on a Saturday in mid-March. I’m excited and I don’t know why. I half expect to fall in love with a stable boy.
AFTER PAYING OUR FEES, we spend the 10-minute wait watching a group of little boys—one of whom adorably waves at us each time he passes, as though he were in a parade—receive a riding lesson in an enclosed arena. “I’m glad I don’t have a tail,” says Rylee, suddenly. “Just one more thing to worry about.” Things don’t often occur to us in the same way, but I can’t say I disagree.
A few minutes later a woman named Jackie takes us to meet our horses. I’m given a white horse named “Jericho,” and Rylee is given another named “Sarge,” who is white with brown splotches. Another guide, Doug—who is wearing a cowboy hat, somewhat incongruously, over a head and neck warmer—shows us how to lead the horses, but in truth we’ll never have to direct them even once: the trail is a narrow, packed-down path about a foot across, with four to five inches of snow everywhere on either side. There isn’t much room for interpretation.
Jericho doesn’t seem to think about escaping the trail even once in our time together, but I do constantly. It’s an impulse to do something bad, like thinking about driving into oncoming traffic but much less severe. What would happen if I yelled “HYAH” and dug my heels into his sides, and we took off galloping into the snow? How quickly would Doug catch me and how would I be punished, if at all? I already paid. They couldn’t arrest me. Right?
I’ll never know, I suppose. It was on me to make that ride into something closer to an adventure, but I never could break a rule. If I am honest with myself, I never would have wanted to get my petticoats dirty. Instead, ours is simply a pleasant (if freezing) ride in a very pretty area—forested in parts, clearing onto lakeside fields in others. And though I try to bond with this animal by rubbing its neck and calling it “Jeri” for short, there’s only so much you can accomplish in an hour. We’ll never ride into the sunset together. But at the end, when I step out of the stirrups, Jericho stands perfectly still until I am safe on the ground, and I would like to think that’s because he knew.
Katie Heaney is a writer based in Minneapolis. She has a memoir coming out in early 2014.