A few months after I was able to stand upright on crutches I climbed on my crazy appaloosa and started riding. I was fifteen the summer of 1977: I'd spent a year in bed and six months in a wheelchair with a bone disease my parents and Christian Science practitioner treated only with prayer. As I crept around on my crutches with my rigid bent leg held out ahead of me, I continued to pray desperately. I wanted the perfection I was assured I could have, not just the scarred survival I'd clawed my way into. To give up on a complete HEALING through Christian Science would have been to revolt against the cause that had ruined my knee and crushed my normal transition out of childhood. My mind was as weak my twisted leg. Neither was strong enough to support me. So I went on praying.
Christian Science prayer is the mental contortion of imagining without insisting, yearning without selfishly wanting, envisioning and "opening your thought" to perfection while being one thousand percent grateful for what you have already, even this excruciating opportunity itself. It's a gentle gloved hand reassuringly resting on the back of your neck that can slip around your throat and squeeze. And squeeze. It holds the pain of your despair of failing to be HEALED exactly in balance with the agony and shame you'll feel if you try to extricate yourself. This was my experience with prayer. "Be still and know that I am God." Or else.
But on a horse? Movement. I could travel, explore, gallop and jump. Riding was motion and rhythm, freedom and flight, power and strength and speed. When my anxiety descended in the late afternoons as darkness loomed and fear clamped its hands on my shoulders, I could slip onto a horse, preferably bareback, and feel my mount settle into a loose-limbed walk down a trail or back road. It relaxed my mind; it settled my mood; it let me meet the night on my own terms. Riding gave me back the running that my legs would never manage again. And though I wasn't conscious of it, riding gave my cornered and frightened self a way to relax in peace.
I was a devout Christian Scientist straight through my twenties; the only thing I treated as seriously was hard work and riding. I'd always wanted to ride racehorses. I got my chance when a local track built for quarter horse racing opened as a training facility. It had a five-eighths mile track, a quarter-mile chute down the homestretch, and a starting gate. It also had a thousand empty stalls, acres of crumbling parking lot and a grandstand full of pigeons. There were never more than fifty horses stabled there at one time, usually only a dozen or two. But the horses needed galloping. And so did I.
Exercising meant endless circuits of the track at a full gallop, usually two, four or more laps per horse. The colts and fillies we started had to learn a steady gait to develop condition and balance before we could tap into their competitive spirit. The seasoned horses were athletes. They knew the drill, knew how to breathe and snort in time to their stride.
I loved those laps pounding along at a strong and yet effortless gallop. I'd stand balanced in my stirrups with the sun warm on my shoulders and the wide rubber-coated reins snug in my hands. I learned to breathe in time to the stride so I wouldn't get a stitch in my side the way I used to back when I could run...run... It was an antidote to the inward spiral of fear and concentration when I prayed. It set free the caged animal in my brain.
My left leg was fused slightly more open than ninety degrees. Trainers had to leg me up in a different way and I couldn't hike up my stirrups super short. But there weren’t any rules at the little nowheres-ville track. There was effective riding and ineffective. To slow an iron-mouthed veteran I stood in my stirrups like a water-skier and leaned my weight against the bit, or gathered the reins short and set my hands down on the horse’s neck to use his muscle as leverage against him.
The irony of those countless, steady laps was that it was the rehearsal for a flat-out racing pace. Each day galloping taught the colts about the setting and the company of horses running beside them. It prepped their muscles to breeze. The methodical, tiring, and usually--fortunately--uneventful laps were the building blocks of speed.
When I “worked” a horse, I crouched low over his withers and let his strides quicken until the beat began to sing, began to inspire him to pass his stablemate. To stampede down the stretch in front of a hollow grandstand full of birds and a woodchuck in the infield. Horses understand the goal of getting there first. The need to outrun and not be slowest is how this animal evolved. To survive. Honing that need for flight into a celebration of power transcended wild fear, harnessed and guided it. Riding horses that loved to run on that equine autobahn of track was the most powerful thing I'd ever done. It was a rush unlike anything else.
I didn't view it as another form of flight from my own issues until years later. I didn't recognize my own inability to be still, like a nervous horse that won't stand. Like a horse, I've felt the paralysis when movement is frustrating and impossible, when I cannot step forward as asked. But I've also had a need for pounding hoofs and reactive horses that bolt rather than balk. Don't force me to hold still. I can't. I won't.
Eventually I had to learn to be quiet, and breathe, and stand my ground. More on that tomorrow in Part 3 when I wrap up this meditation on prayer.
My dad took this photo of me working Rite On John up the stretch at Tioga Park in 1985. Those were the days, you know?