Horseback riding lessons with my mother taught me more than riding.
In every ritual, there is the costume that transforms reality into something bigger. Ours began with squeezing into our second-skin breeches first, followed by the requisite turtle neck or the tweed blazers that my mother had custom-made for us in Bogotá.
Then came the stepping into those tall, stiff equestrian boots, in which we would stomp around on our plush, mauve-colored carpeting, like Frankenstein & Son, leaving big and small footprints in our wake. Not wanting to be late to our Saturday morning horseback riding lessons, we’d do our best to scramble out through the front door of our Mother-Daughter style and whip in hand, the adrenaline racing through our veins.
Once I had strapped myself into the bucket seat of my mother’s new, post-divorce sports car, I kept myself occupied by manning the radio dial: stopping on songs by Juice Newton, Neil Diamond, Bonnie Tyler, the BeeGees, adding atmosphere to our dynamic-duo day. Back then, my eight-year-old self was already aware that all mothers weren’t like mine young, like, could be my big sister young, really, really attractive, adventurous, career woman, single, mine, and no one else’s. I’d sing all the words to the songs to entertain her on that hour-long car ride to the deep suburban countryside, making up lyrics to see if she was listening, while she concentrated on driving and not spilling any tea from a Styrofoam cup. We’d roll the windows down, mom in oversized sunglasses, the wind lifting feathered bangs off her thinker’s forehead, my ponytail whipping around aimlessly.
“We’re going RIDING!” she’d say.
“Uh, yeah. I know, mom.”
GETTING BACK ON THE HORSE
Oh, the butterflies in my stomach. I tried to act cool, but I had watched my mother fall off her horse the Saturday before, and I would have given anything to be able to just ride shotgun next to her, than have to get back on the horse by myself. Up to that point, falling had never seemed a possibility. Watching her fly off and tumble to the ground, the look of worry on our trainer’s face, instilled a new sense of fear of falling in me. But Victoria being Victoria, and always victorious, had found a way to teach me a lesson. “We all fall, Adri. But we all have to get back on the horse.”
This whole horse thing was entirely my fault, for I remember asking her once, in all seriousness, “Mom, what would you most like to own?” “A horse,” she answered. “No, wait. Make that a farm with horses in my backyard,” she corrected herself. Mother had spoken. So I began a horse collection; accumulated statutes made of plastic and glass, lined-up in size order on white Formica shelves. Then I acquired the entire Black Stallion books series, followed by The Encyclopedia of the Horse, for I had to know about their anatomy as well. I soon developed quick no-brainer answers to adult’s questions: Career aspirations? Jockey! Favorite movie? National Velvet! Number-one item on your Christmas list? The white horse stuffed animal from FAO Schwartz! Mom and I named him Greyling, and after Greyling had to spend the bulk of his life squashed between my legs—I’d ride him to the kitchen, to my chores in the backyard—his white fur eventually lived up to its name.
Mom decided it was time to give me some real riding lessons, English-style riding classes, not that slumpy, slouchy Western riding from those horse-and-pony shows. She hired Joe Simons, a retired jockey, and owner of a private horse farm to train us. The first time he saw me, he called me “Peanut” and paired me up with a gentle horse named Dreamboy. Mom was given a larger horse named Buttercup. These were the animals that we tried to tame and that tried to tame us. Sensing my nerves, mom took me over to Dreamboy for some alone time before my lesson. We brushed him, fed him carrots, admired his shiny brown coat and honey-colored mane. “Now you take care of my Adri, Dreamboy, you hear? She fancied herself a horse whisperer. But I rode terribly that day, completely petrified of falling like my mother had. “Come on, Peanut, who’s riding who?!” shouted Joe. My body crunched down in protective mode. “Sit up straight, come on now!”
NEVER LET THEM SEE YOUR FEAR
My God, it must have been scary for my mom to watch her only child, out there in the field on that big horse. But she never showed me her fear. She smiled big, cheering “Go, Adri!” instead. During the last 15 minutes of my lesson, I caught my stride, sat up with my back straight, reins short, stirrups high, knees bent, up down, up down, for the trot, and then managed to sit back and slide, slide for the canter. Feeling awkward, but going through the motions. I managed to get off in one piece, knees shaky, but proud that I’d done it.
Miraculously, over the course of those wonderful years of riding with my mom, I never fell, but I sure came close one day. And luckily, it wasn’t in front of my mother, who was back at the corral waiting for me with my grandmother. Horses get spooked at the slightest things; small animals, high-pitched sounds. I don’t remember what set him off, but while riding with my trainer through a wooded trail, Dreamboy suddenly took off full-speed ahead, yards in front of Joe and his horse. My instinct was to shorten the reins and lean in, hugging my frightened horse’s neck to cajole him and myself, holding on for my life. A huge mistake on my part; that’s what jockeys do to gain more speed. “No, don’t lean forward, lie down!” Joe shouted. Grab the reins and lie all the way down!” And with all my force I grabbed the reins and shot back onto the saddle, watching the sky and tree tops pass by above, slowing the horse down enough for Joe to catch up and cut Dreamboy off at the path.
My mother remembers Joe and me coming back to the corral, white as ghosts. “Peanut held on like a champion.” My mother never let on how fearful she’d become that something like that could happen again. We took off our helmets, sweaty from the noon sun, smelling like a couple of horses ourselves and all climbed into her car and headed home with a feeling of survival swelling in our hearts. “Next week will be better, you’ll see,” she said. My grandmother offering me a loving leg squeeze. And it was better: Joe said I was ready to learn how to jump. But once I learned how to jump, mom signed me up for Saturday morning ballet classes, tennis matches, soccer games, for that was all her adventurous heart could take.