You can Climb on Again
Can a Woman over 60 find happiness back in the saddle?
“What is it with girls and horses?” What a silly question. You might was well ask ‘what is it with boys and cars?’ Speed, power, beauty, freedom; a soft velvet nose…well, on the horses anyway.
I was a girl once. At thirteen, and on foot, I lived a constant agony of worry about how to please my parents and teachers and how to make the popular kids like me. Then I got on a horse and life changed. I sat tall. I gazed fearlessly at the horizon and told the horse to go there. And he did.
After that it was horses for me. My sister and I even managed to purchase a horse, then another. We loved them, they loved us. We wandered the trails in rural New England, free as larks and as happy all the time.
Of course I grew up and got over all that. One gets serious. One gets busy with the business of real life. Besides I developed hay fever and barns and hayfields made me sneeze.
It was my hay fever, oddly enough, that brought about my reunion with the noble animal I loved so well. I In my 60th year, dreading the approach of another pollen-ridden spring, I vowed to escape. There must be somewhere in the world where I could be outdoors in June without having an allergic melt-down.
All modern-day quests begin with Google, so I punched in “Allergy, pollen count, tourism.” Desert islands, Mountaintops…Antarctica? New Zealand? Australia? Iceland.
A mere four hours away from my Boston home lies Iceland, a refuge for the allergy-afflicted, with its late-breaking spring its pollution-free air (Iceland is heated and illuminated not by fossil fuels but by its very own volcano!) and its sparse vegetation.
But isn’t t it all ice in Iceland? No, that would be Greenland. Although Iceland has big glaciers and its northernmost coasts touch the artic circle, the Gulf Stream (and of course, the volcano) keep the climate fairly temperate. Spring and summer there resemble the crisp autumn days in Boston. And the Icelandic landscape bristles with touristic wonders…mountains, waterfalls, geysers, and Vikings. And….
Not regular old horses either, but a pure Viking breed over a thousand years old. Small shaggy horses (do not call them ‘ponies’ or swords will be drawn), bred for hardiness, stamina and astounding strength. Small horses offer benefits for us senior citizens. If your knees lock up mounting a horse, rejoice; the Icelandic horse’s stirrup is not all that far up. And, should you find yourself falling off, you can console yourself that the ground is not all that far down.
Moreover, “Iceys” are gaited. They perform the standard walk-trot-canter of course, but they offer two exciting extras: the swift satin-smooth ‘tolt’ and the four-off-the-floor ‘flying pace.’ “Icelandic horses come in 85 different color combinations, and sport luxuriant manes, tails and winsome foretops flopping adorably over their wise faces.
I was instantly lost in dreams. I saw myself sitting tall, trekking over rugged trails between the glaciers and the geysers on a wild-maned Viking steed, with the volcano belching on the horizon. Just once, oh just one last time, let me climb on a horse and feel the old thrill..;but could I do it at my age?
I e-mailed Holly Nelson, who runs HorsesNorth, an Icelandic equine tourism agency, and begged her to tell me I was not too decrepit for the Icelandic Horse.
“No problem,” Holly told me. “They are a really comfortable ride, and besides, it’s Iceland, so if you stiffen up you always get to soak in a hot tub afterwards. Just take a few tune-up lessons before you go, and you’ll do fine.”
I looked at my options. I secretly desired the week-long roughing-it cross-country trek, riding all the endless artic day amid a herd of free-running horses, catching and saddling a fresh mount every three hours. After nine or twelve hours of riding I could bed down in a sleeping bag on a wooden bunk of a rude herdsman’s shelter…
Who was I kidding? What if I got too stiff and sore riding all day? What if my old bones couldn’t endure sleeping on planks all night? What if, what if?
Holly understood; she suggested a tour that wouldn’t outright kill me. I would do little six-hour picnic day-rides, coming back each evening to a farm hotel with soft beds, hot meals, and that all-healing hot tub. I booked for the first week in June.
The farm hotel had a romantic swashbuckling name: Eldhestar: ‘Volcano-Horses.’ It sounded like something out of “The Lord of the Rings:” not suprising, since Tolkien borrowed names from the great Icelandic sagas and put them into his trilogy. Gandalf, Gimli and Snowmane (Snaefaxi) among others, are Icelandic names.
All I had to do now was take those tune-up lessons on some placid trusty riding-school nag. I would have to venture into a dusty moldy barn and arena in May; but there was no turning back now. Volcano-horses! I was going to ride in Iceland or bust! Donning my traditional carpenter’s dust mask, ignoring a wicked sinus headache and medicating my itchy eyes I reeled into the local stable for my first riding lesson in, well, a long while..
I felt pretty confident. I loved horses, they loved me. My riding skills would come back, it was just like riding a bicycle.
Ah me. The trusty old beginner’s cob nipped at me without ceasing as I fumbled and bumbled with grooming tools and tack. When I got on-- safe at last from those clacking teeth– and I invited him to go forward around the arena, dear old Mr. Trusty laced his ears back and dogged it at a pace too slow to sustain life.
As we moped along the wall I discovered that I still had my solid seat and light hands, but my legs were like wet noodles. Squeeze as I might, I couldn’t get Mr. Trusty to walk out. The horse, secure in the knowledge that I was helpless, ignored me.
“Trot,” said the instructor.
“Trot,” I tried to make my legs say. “Please trot.”
“Make me,” said Mr. Trusty..
“Make him,” said the teacher. “Put some leg on him.”
“Squeeze, legs. Please squeeze.”
I was so pathetic. I was so old. The teacher sighed and handed me a whip. However, with my weak little kicks bolstered up by taps from the stick, Mr. T shuffled grudgingly into a trot.
When the lesson was over I was soaked in sweat and tears of frustration. I slid off onto shaky legs, leaning on Mr. Trusty for support. He promptly snaked his head around and nipped me again.
Fiasco. Disaster. As I staggered away to my car and drove away, grateful to be in a conveyance that did my bidding, I took inventory. I was stiffening up badly. I had pulled my groin. Horses didn’t love me any more. I was never going to ride in Iceland.
But I went anyhow. If I couldn’t ride maybe I’d go birdwatching or hiking or something at Eldhestar. And I might as well pack my riding kit just in case.
The Eldhestar van picked me up in Reykjavik and drove me an hour southwest, past lush low-lying pastures and glimpses of ocean on the right, and bare black volcanic mountains on the left. Huge spaces, enormous dome of sky. Few trees. No sprawl. No billboards. The air was sparkling clean.
We arrived a bit late, and when I climbed out of the van a man asked me “Do you want to ride today?”
. “Yes,” I heard myself saying.
“Hurry up then, we leave in ten minutes.” No time to check into the hotel, or regret my rash words. I tore my brand new breeches chaps and paddock boots, out of their packaging. (you cannot bring used tack or riding equipment into Iceland. They are trying to protect their disease-free herd from the rest of the world), and hauled them on.
Eldhestar’s Viking-girl wranglers were waiting in the barnyard, matching horses to riders. A wrangler leading a small, short-necked homely and equally blonde mare, handed me a helmet, sized me up and said “Experienced?”
I said –what the hell—“Experienced,” and took the reins. In two shakes, I was up, stirrups adjusted, girth tightened.
“Hello, my name is Asa, Everybody walk once around the ring please!” said the wrangler. I closed my legs firmly – for me – on the mare’s sides, and whoops! She jumped forward like a racehorse out of the gate!
“Don’t put any leg on her,” said the wrangler.
“Wha-a-a-t? You’re kidding, right?”
“That’s the way we ride here, no leg contact. Isabella is very sensitive, so just barely touch her and she’ll go like a rocket.”
“Oh, believe me, no problem at all,” I grinned.
We left the ring and paraded down a lane. The little mare’s ears pricked toward the horizon, and she skimmed over the ground with a light quick cadence that had nothing of “Make me” about it.
The old flood of delight entered my soul as we turned into an unpaved road. Asa, on a stunning black gelding, trotted up abreast of me.
“OK,” she said. Your legs look good, your seat is excellent. We’re gonna tolt now. Just sit back, take up your reins and just touch her sides.”
Tolt! Omigod! What do I do? What do I do? But then I got another bit of advice; this time from the little mare herself, a message seeping up through the saddle into my seat bones. If I put it in words it would be something like:
“Hey, you up there, I know you have a sore groin, but try to relax your crotch, will you? Roll back a bit and just sit there, and we’ll do fine.”
In a twinkling we were skimming over the ground ticka-tacka-ticka-tacka. The breeze of fast motion blew in my face and ruffled the mare’s big mane, but I could have been on a flying carpet, so smoothly did we go. The tails of the horses in front of me rippled like silk, their little feet flashing glimpses of bright iron. Farmsteads swept by while the dark ramparts of the mountains loomed ever nearer. WhoopEEE!
My horse tucked in her haunches again and went into a seriously fast tolt, so I tucked in my haunches too and– burst into tears! Yesss! I GOT it! O joy unalloyed! O please, let it never end!
“Having a tolt moment?” said Asa as she came abreast again. “You either laugh or cry when you break your tolting maiden.”
All the blessed morning, under the huge, changeable Icelandic sky, that good little mare took me over the wild mountains with her light sure steps. We forded streams, slid straight down steep gravelly banks, galloped up lanes, tolted along level tracks, with never a foot put wrong or a misunderstanding between us.
At lunch-break I loosened Isabella’s girth, un-clipped one end of her reins from the bit, and held it like a long leash so she could graze at my side while I ate my box lunch. I shared some bread and sweet biscuits with her. After the food was gone and the other riders went to soak in a natural hot spring, I sat on a grassy bank, not daring to stir; because Isabella, had cuddled up close, leaned her head against my chest, and was now snoozing with her little nose in my lap. Hot-springs and geysers steamed around us and great birds of prey soared and wheeled in the deep blue air above.
“Why do you keep smiling like that?” said Asa.
“Bliss,” I said. “Because this mare is so kind, and because I found something I lost a long time ago,” I said.
Asa nodded. “If you love them you never really lose it.”
After the ride home, and a fabulous lamb dinner, I slid into the hot tub. Ahhh. Bliss again. I was not sore. I was not stiff. I was so happy, so proud.
I know, I know, a simple day-ride is not exactly the Grand National. But! I had gone riding, bold and free in the wide world! The sun had been bright and the mountains wild and wonderful- and best of all, Isabella and I had joined up, as the horse people say.
Next morning at seven, that’s four hours after sunrise, I walked out to see the horses come in from pasture. They paraded down the farm lane, a rainbow of pastel colors- duns, palominos, greys, roans, paints, blacks, bays. chestnuts with strawberry-blonde manes and tails, buckskins with black-and-silver manes and tails, silver dapples with white manes and tails. Walking, trotting, tolting, pacing to the barn, every now and then two would rear up and play-fight with each other. My heart swelled with love for these rugged little creatures.
Over the next three days I rode four horses, all kind, smart and sure-footed. They carried me through the meadows down to the sea, and up to the peaks. They socialized with me and shared my lunches. Icelandic horses don’t get carrots or apples, those are luxury foods there- should you offer an apple to Isabella she would spurn it and want to know where the bread was.
I bawled when I slid off after my last ride. I sobbed when I left the farm, and continued leaking tears as my plane took off from Reykjavik.. My world had changed; I felt homesick for Iceland before it was out of my sight.
But it’s Isabella I dream about. Because she took me places, over a wild country beneath a huge clean sky. She also took me places you won’t find on any map.
So of course I’m going to keep riding Stateside, as long as I can, somehow. Of course I’m going back to Iceland, and of course I’ll be doing that week-long trek with the herd and the huts.
“What is it with middle-aged matrons and horses?” Need you ask?
Post-script: I did indeed find an Icelandic horse to ride in Massachusetts. Adam was American bred, and had been owned and, I’m sorry to say,neglected and abused, by people who didn’t ‘get’ the Icelandic horse. These benighted souls didn’t actually like gaited horses and wouldn’t allow him to tolt!
His present owner John treated him like royalty, but John’s job prevented him from riding during the week. So I became his exercise boy. Adam and I rode out twice a week with his barn-mate Raven and Sue, John’s wife. Adam, having forbidden to be a toltin’ fool Icey, had almost forgotten how. He would tolt only for his owner and for me sometimes, maybe because I had gotten a feel for it in Iceland.
During this wonderful time I began to feel my back stiffen and go into spasm. Just age, I thought; so I’d take some Ibuprofen and go riding anyway.
One gorgeous mild day in November I was so stiff and sore I almost cancelled, but I couldn’t stand not going even though I could barely get on. Old Adam, with no encouragement from me, offered tolt that whole ride, any time the terrain was level. I was ecstatic, and blissed-out by his generosity and his sudden enthusiasm for tolting!!! At the end of the ride I had a hard time getting off Adam; I was terribly sore, even though the horse had literally smoothed my path.
Two days later, lying in a hospital bed with acute whole-back spasms that practically paralyzed me, I wept to think I would never be able to ride any more…through my deep sorrow and through all the painkillers being pumped into me came this thought.
The horse knew. He knew I was in serious trouble, he felt it right through the saddle. So he put himself out to make it all easy for me. This horse who had received some bad treatment from people in the past, was kind enough to take care of an old lady he had only known for a couple months. Thanks, Adam. Thanks all you good horses everywhere, I’m humbled, I’m grateful, I love you all…. and forever, O my Brothers, Hail and Farewell!
Copyright Susan Larson, July 31 2004