Saddle sore, or just sore
I've been on a horse maybe a dozen times in my life, so I'm no rider, definitely. But 10 years ago, my daughter, Lyla, who's now 17, fell in love with riding, and I've clambered on a little more often since then. It's one thing just to watch her ride, which we both like, but it's more fun to be up there, way out of my element, with her ordering me around and laughing at me, but obviously pleased that I'm giving it a try.
So, when she invited her brother, Sam, my wife, Laura, and me to join her on a trail ride during a recent vacation in Puerto Rico, I just said yes. The two girls had gone the day before and had come back glowing.
We gathered at the stable around 3:30 and watched two groups of eight or 10 set out ahead of us. I think we went last because we said we had ridden before. Hah. Sam and I were both wearing shorts, but we looked like we'd been riding the range for years compared to some of the folks we watched mount up. Bathing suits, tank tops, flip flops, a sarong, and - no kidding - one woman in spike heels. But everyone was smiling, and it was a fetching mix of people, tourists and locals, some who'd driven out from San Juan two hours to the east. It was Sunday.
Our guide was Barry, who introduced himself by telling us to stay in line, not to get too close to the horse ahead, not to pass that horse, and never let them stop to eat grass. "You'll never get their head back up.... OK? Let's go." Sounded like a lot of nots to me, but OK, cowboy, let's ride.
Sam was directly behind me, and I could tell from an immediate "What the..." that he and his horse maybe weren't made for each other. Damn, I really wanted the ride to work for Sam, whose only prior experience with horses had been a disaster. Lyla and Laura were farther back in our pack, out of contact.
We started out at a lazy walk, like a saunter, and all was well with me and my horse, Red. I relaxed and looked around and felt like I'd been born in the saddle. What's the next speed? Let's see what this old fella's got.
Big mistake. Red's second gear was, well, a gait from hell. Maybe it was a fast walk, maybe a slow trot, I couldn't tell. Whatever it was, it shook my nerves and rattled my brain. And there was nothing I could do about it. The horse in front sped up, Red sped up. No matter how hard I pulled, or leaned, or cussed, Red stayed within two feet of the horse ahead. I didn't know whether to stand up, pinch with my legs, try to post, or just go with the no-flow and flop.
On the horse in front of me a 10-year-old girl was getting tossed around like a sack of nerf balls.
"Just relax," Barry told her. "And the horse will relax." Then he went back to chatting up a cute coed from Scranton. Funny how she got to ride alongside the rider in front of her.
Just before I insisted we stop and regroup, we broke through some low, disorganized brush onto a beach so beautiful, it took my breath away. Half a mile of deep soft sand, no people, and piles of foaming breakers rolling in from the northeast under a full blue sky.
Barely had I gotten my bearings, drinking in the beauty around me, and Red slid into some sort of lope-a-dope gait. It felt slow for a canter, but it was even, and we were covering some ground. Maybe we had a future, Red and me.
But within 50 yards, he'd run up on the butt of the next horse, and wham, damn, back on the jackhammer.
"Look, a whale," Laura called out. Great - if I could see it, I muttered to myself. But I looked seaward - gamely, I thought - and what do you know? I spotted a spout.
"Humpbacks," Barry hollered, "getting ready to migrate."
I'd have been happy to plop down in the sand and scan for whales until night came on, but Barry, and Red, had other ideas. Still, I tried to keep an eye seaward.
"Look, look! I saw its tail!" Laura yelled.
"Its flukes? Where? Damn it, Red, stop." I pulled back hard on the reins. No effect.
We moved off the beach into the woods, where Barry pointed out a 200-year-old almond tree. I got a peak at it, and I guess it was beautiful, but focusing was hopeless.
The trail then lead out onto another beach, this one more beautiful, more remote, than the first. Barry led us into some trees at the foot of cliff at the back of the beach. "Tie 'em up and we'll take a ten-minute break." Thank God. I asked him what I was doing wrong, how to get Red to respond, to ride a bit more smoothly. He told me that Red had a great canter, which, of course, we were not allowed to do.
"Some horses are just smoother than others," he told me. That was an answer?
I felt a hot spot on the back of my thigh about the size of a silver dollar. It was bleeding, and Barry noticed it. "Wow, what's that? Must be rubbing on the shackle berry birth grip." Or something like that, and off he went to catch up to the coed.
"Look...another whale! It jumped!" Laura yelled. (You mean breached.) "Did you see the splash?" I had, actually, barely, peripherally. It was well offshore, but it was unmistakable, and magnificent.
Laura and Lyla went off to look into a cave at the base of a limestone outcropping. Sam looked like he might jump in the ocean and swim home, and I just stood there, looking out over the stunning beach and seascape, hoping that this is what I would remember, not just my Red hatred.
Barry let Lyla and the coed gallop their horses for a couple hundred yards, and they both pulled up beaming. The rest of us mounted up and we headed back. Knowing he was heading home, Red stepped up into yet another torturous stride.
Half a mile short of the barn, Barry held us up and asked if we'd enjoyed what he called a "nice two-hour workout." Then he pitched us for tips, and said, "OK, let's bring it on home."
In the car back to where we were staying, Sam and I sat in the front fuming. L and L were in the back trying to be sympathetic, but mostly snickering, which reminded me of nickering, which reminded me of horses, which reminded me that what I really felt like was sweaty, sore, and mad. I pulled off sharply at a convenience store. "What do we need?" Laura asked.
"Beer, chips, and...Advil." Which worked just fine, and in an hour or so we were all chuckling about our adventure. And I knew that the next time Lyla invited me to go riding, just what I'd say.
Whit Griswold lives in West Tisbury. He is the copyeditor of The Times, and his Essays appear occasionally on the OpEd Page.