Back in the Saddle

When I was a little girl, I briefly got to take horse-back riding lessons.

We lived in North Carolina back then. And I lived for those lessons.

Once a week my mother would pick me up outside of Estes Hills Elementary School, hand me a brown paper bag with string cheese and a box juice, and we’d drive the 15-20 minutes out of Chapel Hill to the stable. I’d kick my legs in the front seat, barely containing my excitement.

The presence of these huge creatures soothed and thrilled me.

But also I loved getting dusty; loved the warm air that comes from the velvety part of the horses nostrils, the soft sound they make with their lips when they breath out into your hand. I loved the scent of hay and barn and leather and sweat. I loved the country music radio station blasting from the little transister radio propped up sideways on a stack of blankets in the tack room. I loved my college-student riding teacher with her blonde ponytail, calling out commands in her Carolina drawl.

To be clear, I was never very good and it also wasn’t about that.

I loved it in an uncomplicated way. Without ambition. That was it.

When we moved back to Venice and were again surrounded by the whine of sirens, drunk tourists, surfers, and a lot of people experiencing homelessness, I stopped riding. I suppose I could have found a barn out in Malibu or Topanga but someone would have needed to drive me and it just never happened. I missed it a lot. Not because I was in the process of becoming an accomplished horse person, just because how the animals made me feel. Safe, and quiet in my mind.

Then one day, a family friend with a horse in L.A. invited me to ride her new stallion. He was jet-black and beautiful.

“But are you sure you are experienced enough to ride a baby?” she asked.

“OH YES” I remember saying, fraudulently.

It was 100 percent wishful thinking, childhood hubris at its worst.

The friend said OK, well let’s get you up.

The stallion bucked me off in 10 seconds flat.

I flew up into the air, twirled in terrifying slow-motion, and crash-landed on the hard white picket fence. Big purple bruises bloomed on my chest and back. Got the wind knocked out of me pretty good too.

I did not get back up on the horse.

That one thing you are always, always supposed to do? I did not do it.

A lifetime went by and other loves came.

Music and theater eclipsed most the other loves. I put on blinders and devoted myself fully to singing.

Over the years I’d see horses, and look at them, longingly, but never really got back up.

Yesterday, January 16th, 2021, for the first time, I got back up.

Because of my partner, Max Hoetzel, a devoted horse person, I got back up.

And because of him I got to take a lesson.

As synchronicity would have it, my wonderful teacher Courtney, right here in CA, hails from North Carolina, too.

At first, when I got up on Romeo, the very gentle sweet horse, I held on for dear life to the little knob on the saddle.

“Breath!” called out Courtney.

“I am breathi—“ I called back, and realized in that exact minute that indeed, I was not.

“He needs to feel your breath because it will make him feel relaxed. Right now he feels your tension and stress. The horse is a mirror for whatever is going on in you. You need to be the leader.”

So I started conciously breathing. My back and shoulders released. My breath dropped way down into my lower body. My core was engaged, but not tense. It reminded me….well, it reminded me a lot of singing.

Romeo started yawning, blowing air out his nose.

“This is great!” called Courtney. “This means he is relaxing. Because you are. Y’all are starting to have a relationship.

And we were.

After all these years, yesterday a horse helped an opera singer remember how to breathe.

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