Why We Ride

Women Writers on the Horses in Their Lives


Edited by Verna Dreisbach

Foreword by Jane Smiley

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Women and their horses—a symbiotic relationship based on trust, camaraderie, friendship, and love. In Why We Ride, Verna Dreisbach collects the stories of women who ride, sharing their personal emotions and accounts of the most important animals in their lives.

This collection of stories includes the heartfelt thoughts of a range of women—those who rode as children, those who spent their girlhood years dreaming of owning a pony, and those who have made a lifelong hobby or career out of riding. Each story reveals how horses have made an impact in the lives of these women. 

With a foreword by bestselling novelist Jane Smiley, Why We Ride offers a reflective view on the relationships between women and horses.


In memory of GOSLOVICH, my first true love.

Note from the Editor
Verna Dreisbach
I have been in love with horses since I can remember. And I know I'm not alone as I remember images of that first glimpse, sensations of that first touch, and ultimately the exhilaration of that first riding lesson. As a young girl, I was hooked. But it wasn't until junior high that I found my true love.
Like dog owners who profess their breed of dog as the only one they'll ever own for reasons ranging from loyalty to intelligence, personality or "just because of the way he makes me feel," horse owners are no different. We choose a horse for her beauty, her ability, or for what we see of ourselves reflected in her. I found beauty in the racehorse, the thoroughbred racehorse—a beauty that captured my heart long before a boy ever did. Enticed by slender legs and narrow faces, I treasured the climb upon their back, the long view down from above, and the effortless movement of their strides, the sensation of the ground passing under us as if Pegasus had taken flight. But mostly, I loved their passion to run and the sweat of their bodies glistening in the sun, dripping from their bellies to the ground—a passion so intense that it seeps through every bead of moisture that tickles their skin, into every muscle that twitches. The prancing, the inability to stand still, the glaze in their eyes as they near the racetrack. That reveals their spirit. That tells their story.
And while a thoroughbred's passion for life, for the run, has an addictive quality that I can identify with, at times I yearn for a casual ride, to stroll with dropped reins and loose legs, to lose touch with time. Without having to light the sky on fire.
I'm learning to enjoy and appreciate the balance—what other horses, other passions, can teach me. I've learned that after the sprint, life is also about the slow parts, about the calm where we find our peace. And to that end, I bought a paint and a quarter horse to balance my blazing passion with some much-needed grounding. Sometimes my thoroughbred needs to take a nap.
But what is most true about my connection to each horse I have ever owned is that each has been a catalyst of personal exploration—each horse providing insight and revealing my hidden self, those parts that ultimately make me whole. Just as we ride through life collecting bits and pieces of ourselves, this collection of stories offers a journey through the horse lives of so many wonderfully gifted writers. There are many of us whose lives have been shaped by our horses and whose lives have been made richer for that.
Why We Ride features twenty-seven personal, heart-felt stories by women who I truly hope will transform your life as they have transformed mine. May their voices inspire you to believe that your life is a shared journey. If you've ever dreamt of that first horse, Dee Ambrose-Stahl will share with you that you're not alone. Jane Smiley offers insight into her life-long relationship with horses and the moments of unity we yearn for and sometimes capture. Jacqueline Winspear suggests that we all need to return to the basics, and it's her horse that reminds her that the simplest way is right most of the time. Michele Scott, Kara Gall, and Kate St. Vincent Vogl all speak to their relationships with their fathers and how horses were at the very heart of those relationships. Valerie Riggs, Janice Newton, and Samantha Ducloux Waltz discovered that their horses held insight into their marital relationships. And several women, (Lisa Romeo, Vanessa Wright, Dobie Houson, and myself), hold the heart of the horse so close to their own that they sometimes can't tell where the horse begins and they end. For those who yearn to push boundaries, Jill Widner, Linda Ballou, and Therese Zink share in the spirit of the horse, the horse that yearns for its freedom past imaginary fences. Many more stories in between share in the enduring and passionate experiences with our horses—horses that have helped us become better women and, most importantly, better people with richer lives.
Animals can endear themselves to almost anyone's heart, but horses—and specifically the bond these women share with their majestic creatures—tell a special story. May these stories remind you of your strength and insight in knowing which paths to choose. May these stories show you that your journey with horses is more than the sum of its simple parts. May these stories help you to see that in the end, why we ride and whom we choose to take along to enlighten our journey become not just a part of us but make us who we are. We are all horses of a different color as Penny Porter tells us. And yet our colors melt into others along the way, turning life into a never-ending kaleidoscope of wonder. This is what makes life such a thrilling ride, and what better way to experience life than through the pastures you cross, the hills you climb, and the fences you jump. What better way to journey through life than on the back of a horse.

Number One Son
Jane Smiley
Back in 1996, I fell off my horse and broke my leg. After I was set up in my hospital bed in the dining room of my two-story house, I didn't have much to do, so I subscribed to The Bloodhorse, and sometime in December, they sent me their annual Stallion directory. I was still lolling about, unable to ride, so I taught myself how to decipher the various coded messages attached to the pedigrees, and one of these was "dosage." Dosage is a way of analyzing whether the bloodlines of a given Thoroughbred make him or her more of a sprinter or more of a stayer. Since I was a big fan of National Velvet, I only looked at the stayers (hmm, that word still gives me a thrill), and the sire with the most stayer dosage was a big brown horse, then almost thirty years old, named Big Spruce. I pondered his picture every day. He was completely unrelated to my adored gray gelding (also a stayer, imported from Germany), but there was something about his look—kind, muscular, large—that appealed to me.
Then my leg was healed, I was back on Mr. T., and we had all moved to California. My subscription to The Bloodhorse followed me, and of course I could not help perusing the classified horse-for-sale ads in the back of the magazine, and of course in February, those words "Big Spruce" popped right out at me. The mare was in California, about three hours from my new house. I had no idea where I was going, but I drove there. The woman who owned the mare was dispersing her band. The mare was not very large, but she had a certain air that could only be called stylishly self-possessed. She could have been in a fashion show. On top of that, of course, when the woman put her back in her stall after showing me how she moved, the mare turned and looked me in the eye, not omitting to rest her chin on my shoulder. I was, as they say, done for.
A year later, my firstborn foal was on the ground, and looking at him, energetic, beautiful, the spitting image of Big Spruce, I thought, That was easy. He was so big that the farm manager where I kept the mare called him Lumberjack, and "Jack" stuck, though now his show name is Little Jack Horner, who said "what a good boy am I." This is a bit of wishful thinking on my part.
Since I've detailed Jack's early life in my book A Year at the Races, I don't plan to repeat that in this essay but, rather, to ponder the strange day-by-day enmeshment that is possible when you have known a horse all his life, when he is your dream horse, and when you become so aware of his idiosyncrasies that you feel them in your own body as if they were your own feelings, especially when this is a learned behavior, hard won on your part, not the result of any inherent talent or sensitivity.
I rode Jackie today, in fact, as I do five times a week whenever I am not on the road earning his room and board. We had a jumping lesson. Here is how it went: I drive down to the arena and leave the tack there, then drive back up the hill and park the car. I can see Jackie in the far aisle, beyond the near horse and through the bars. As soon as I pronounce his name, his head goes up and his ears flick forward. He starts watching me. He always starts watching me as soon as he sees my car. His life-companion, Essie, is not so attentive—she recognizes my advent but is not as passionate about it. For Essie, life goes on, day after day. For Jackie, everything is a drama.
I groom and halter both the horses and lead them down to the arena. Jackie goes slightly ahead of me, casting his gaze here and there. He has been watching the horizon since he was a day old. One of my trainers, Ray Berta, calls him a "sentinel horse." This is not necessarily a good thing. In the arena, I unsnap Essie's lead rope and she wanders away. Jackie gets tacked up and goes on the lunge line. After he has lunged for a while and my jumping trainer, Samantha Reid-Scanlan, has commented that he seems quiet today, she turns him toward a two-foot fence along the railing and invites him to jump it. He's cautious, but he jumps it three times in each direction, increasingly self-confident each time. His form is perfect—lovely bascule, legs neatly tucked, always right in his choice of the take-off spot. After he does this job, Sam walks him around the arena, over lots of cross-bars, some with flowers set underneath them. Jackie seems confident about these, too.
But he is not like Essie, who starts every jumping lesson looking for the next jump, who is never bothered by any fence or, if she is, would rather jump it than contemplate it. Jumping is Essie's delight. For Jackie, jumping is an existential dilemma—he loves the energy of it, the way it appeals to his pleasure in forward movement, his pleasure in galloping, his pleasure in using his body, and even his pleasure in showing off. But jumps change size, change shape, change position in the arena. Jumps are untrustworthy and suspicious. If you do not get over them perfectly, something bad could happen (though nothing bad ever has). You could make some sort of wrong move, and then, God knows. Essie feels that whatever happens, she can put it together somehow. (Once, Essie spooked at a strange man emerging from the shadows. She took off and within three strides was faced with, in a row, the back end of another horse, a four-foot-wide jump standard, and a 3' 3" jump. I tweaked the rein, she jumped the jump. No problem.) Jackie is as perfectionist as any human I've ever known. His confidence depends on everything going just right and being predictable. Once he's done it his way for a while, he thinks quite well of himself. Do I sound crazy, shamelessly anthropomorphizing my horse, making him unique, treating him with a dose of psychotherapy? If I do, it is because thinking of him in these terms is the only thing that has worked to make him useful and reliable. He is a personality. I have to give him credit for being a personality, for showing the effects of nature and nurture, in order to train him. It wasn't until I attributed to him the psychology of perfectionism that I began to be able to work with him in a productive fashion and, in fact, to manage to reassure him and get him to trust me.
After he has lunged for ten minutes and walked over the flower fences, I take him to the bank and mount. As I walk him over there and as I set him up to be mounted, I fend off my own anxiety, which is a habit I got into at the beginning of 2007 and have yet to completely master. In our neighborhood, the few weeks around Christmas are wet, cold, and busy, so sometimes I don't maintain my riding schedule. In January 2007 I got on Jackie after a week of rain and took him into the indoor arena for a jumping lesson. All through 2006, he had been reliable and fun. When he was hard to get along with at the beginning of the jumping lesson (bucking, jerking his shoulder away), I got off, untacked him, and let him run around so that he could let off steam. This time, when I got back on, he was limping in the right front. There was no way to know what had happened, and I knew that even if we did know, the vet would prescribe stall rest. We had tried stall rest before, and less than a week of stall rest had resulted in so much anxiety and resentment that Jackie had tied up within a half an hour of being brought out of the stall. Long-term sedatives, which work for some horses, had no effect on him, and so I took a chance. I turned him out with his mares, and I said, "It's up to you to get better." I gave him four months. He got better. But at the end of four months without being ridden and regularly taken out of his comfort zone, he was spooky. One day, I walked him through the gate of an arena he had been in hundreds of times. He was on a loose rein. He spooked at something up the hill and was out from under me in about five seconds. I landed hard on my hip. I still have a bump there. Some horses are happy to get rid of you (I've seen those and had one, too), but Jackie is not happy to get rid of you. He saw something scary and he thought it was his job to get us out of there. He was worried and anxious that I had been left on the ground in the danger spot. He came back immediately and sniffed me. I came to wonder, over the next couple of days, whether I would ever trust him again.
Every time I mounted up, my heart started to pound and my hands tightened on the reins. And he did not trust me, either—he took it upon himself to spook at every little thing—water stains in the wall of the indoor arena, rustlings on the hillside, strips of sunshine—and while he didn't get me off again, he came close. I was all too aware of our relative degrees of athletic talent. For a horse, he is quick and strong and agile. For a person, I am none of these, so he was ahead of me by several dimensions. I had to make myself conscious of the position of his shoulders, because where they were, he was about to be. But his body worked faster than my mind (not to mention my body). We spiraled downward. What had once been a pleasure that often gave me a sense of exhilaration now became a torment that at best produced a sense of relief. The worst part was the feeling that I had when I rode him; fear paralyzed me and made me unable to think about what we were doing in the course of a ride. We went around the ring like zombies.
As soon as I am on Jackie today, I sense that he is in a quiet and cooperative mood. Did I not used to notice this? I can't remember. All I remember is getting on him day after day and riding off, up the hill, onto the trails, down to the arena. These thoughtless days would be punctuated once a year by big spooks and sudden falls. Sometimes, I admit, he had good excuses—once he spooked at two dogs leaping out of the long grass and another time at the plastic Liverpool jump rising up in the wind. But once he spooked at the shadow of his own head preceding him over a trot pole, and several times at nothing discernible to me. The mood of going to work—of expecting to do lots of changes of direction and pace that will culminate in jumping jumps—is one that is good for me as well as him; it breaks through feelings of paralysis (but that is not the word—the word is "trance"; my fears have entranced me and made it hard to think and move).
My third instructor, my dressage instructor, cautions me against conceiving of Jackie's spookiness as too mental. Her theory is that all horse feelings begin in the body, with stiffness along the spine and in the hind end. A horse who is stiff is a horse who is ready to react when stimulated to do so, by bucking or spooking or rearing. The way to smooth his performance is to get rid of his stiffness by flagging him and working him in the round corral. When his body is soft and relaxed, he will forget about his fears or his resentments and do what is asked. This is certainly true, and I have known horses in whom resentment predominated and horses in whom fear predominated. It's taken me a long time to feel residual stiffness in my horse and even longer to act on my feelings. Too many times in the past, I have been too lazy to get off and work the horse through his stiffness. Now I know, as I did the day before yesterday, when I walked Jackie down to the arena and his head was high, that untacking him and letting him work it out is the best policy. But today, I sense nothing—no sudden interest in events outside the arena, no overflowing energy that has to be galloped off, no impatience.
There are horses who can be warmed up the way we warmed up horses when I was a teenager—a few circuits around the ring this way, a few around the ring that way, walk, trot, canter, but Jackie has to be warmed up like a dressage horse—turns on the haunches, turns on the forehand, shortenings, extensions, transitions, shoulder-in, haunches-in, leg yield, serpentines with flying changes. He has, in fact, had a lot of dressage training and enjoys everything about it, including going to shows and warming up (or blowing off steam) by galloping—once he had to go into the main ring at the Pebble Beach Dressage Show, which was full of flags and flapping tents, and the only way I could settle him was to let him gallop on the lunge for the half hour ahead of my ride time (he got a decent score, too). He also likes to work off the tension of jumping with some beautiful extended trot. This reminds me that a few months ago, a woman I know ran into the woman who sold me Jackie's dam. She asked me, "Did that mare ever settle down?"
I thought, Nature strikes again. But I don't remember her as agitated; I remember her as interested.
Sam doesn't correct him, she corrects me—heels down, heels down, heels down. She is the soul of patience. I work on looking up, raising my hands slightly to shift my balance back and down, keeping my weight in my outside heel. Almost fifty years of this, and I am still reminding myself how to ride. As for him, I can feel his body relax and start to float. This is his particular talent. Once I saw a small suspension bridge across the Delaware River, and I realized that some horses have that architecture—the spine and the muscles of the neck and the back are constructed in such a way that the horse is especially light on his feet, and when Jackie is really together, he hardly seems to be touching the ground. My job is to be balanced and light, too, but never to get ahead of him. This is the hard part of his perfectionism—it extends to me, and I am more of a "whatever" sort of person, like Essie.
Jackie was orphaned at a month old—the mare had colicked in the night and died by morning. After that, he was put in with a miniature horse and then with a weanling filly who was a month older than he was. But I encouraged him to attach to me, by visiting him and brushing him and rubbing him down with a chamois. He did attach to me in a way that my non-orphaned foals never did, and his attachment to me is a constant pleasure. But it also means that because he is attentive to me, I have to do the right thing. If I abdicate my responsibility, he gets nervous. According to Ray, my responsibility with regard to spooking is the most important one—if he spooks, I am to keep steady contact and not let him run away. He can't help spooking, but it is not having the spook controlled that really scares him. My job is to control the spook. Does this seem utterly simple? Yes and no. No other horse I've had has been so quick. If the spook happens in adagio or even allegro time, I can sit it and contain it. If the spook is presto, that's a challenge. My responsibility with regard to jumping is to sit up, sit still, and be resolute. Flowers? Still got to go. Jump a little higher than last time? Go anyway. The black box is on the right this time when it was on the left last time? Don't look at it, and jump anyway. That's the key—he is as apt as any other perfectionist to stare at the horror, whether it is flowers or boxes. If I sit up and raise my hands, he looks over the jump rather than at it.
Why I bother to do this is certainly a good question. I don't know many other women my age who still jump. We are never going to go to the World Cup or win a championship. We are never even going to realize his talents. He was good at dressage, but my back was killing me. I wanted to keep riding. But I have Essie—Essie is as safe and reliable and steady a jumper as you could ask for; why am I not obsessed with her?
In part, I am sure that it's because he's the complicated, beautiful one, the "character." Horses, like people, have charisma. People notice him and compliment him. Mares notice him and attend to him—I've never seen a mare reject his advances. Other geldings recognize him as a rival, and the more self-confident they are, the more they can't stand him. In part my obsession follows the law of intermittent rewards—since Essie is always rewarding, I don't think about her as much. I ride her, I show her, I'm grateful and adoring, but I don't have to worry about her. Jackie has me trained to pay attention and to work hard on doing the right thing. The reward may be a blue ribbon (he got two blues at the last show). But the real reward is something I feel in my body, though not often. Today, in our lesson, I get several rewards: The first is relief—no spooking, getting the job done, galloping down to the fence and over, getting the changes, riding a well-behaved boy. The second is pleasure in the movement and in my own sense of being balanced and in sync with the horse. The third is the teacher's knowledge (mine) that the student is improving, getting consistent. The fourth is the student's knowledge (myself as student) that I am putting my riding together more consistently. The fifth is riding through adversity—no, he doesn't get every change, yet he gallops down to the fence and jumps it anyway; yes, we come into a couple of the fences a little slowly, but he opens his stride and does fine. The sixth is that old temptation to love the horse I created, the temptation I've been feeling since I first laid eyes on his twelve-hour-old grace and beauty. But today we don't get the real reward, and I've only gotten it two or three times. This is the real reward: The course is set, six or eight jumps, and I know it. We've been around it once already and it is fixed in my mind. Jackie seems to know it, too, because after the first jump, he is already attending to the second one. He makes tight but steady turns, in perfect rhythm, jumps every fence in stride, is alert and on his hocks the whole time. He's happy; I'm happy. When we finish this course, it has been a single thought with different aspects that are all connected and a single feeling from beginning to end, counted out by the rhythm of his strides. It is like a piece of music or any other art object that presents itself as a whole rather than a bunch of separate parts—it has a defined beginning, a defined end, and a sustained dynamic in which every good stride builds on the last good stride and all the strides are good. Unlike other works of art, though, it cannot be re-experienced. In a few seconds, it has come and gone.
Maybe professional horsemen get this feeling all the time. I once heard Chris McCarron describe a horse race he had just been in, which to me seemed chaotic and hard to understand. For him, that minute unfolded systematically and understandably—it took him longer to describe it than it had for him to take part in it, and his description was cogent and eloquent. For me, though, this experience is rare and unlike any other human experience. In fact, it makes most other human experiences seem abstract, reliant on one sense or the other, but not all senses (surely including smell, if not taste), as well as that sixth sense, rhythm, that seventh sense, body orientation, and that eighth sense, the feeling of being in unity with another living being. That is the upside of the downside of his relying on me—he is better able than any other horse I've known to be with me.
I have spent twelve years asking of this horse, "Who is he?" Theories abound, most of them fairly simple—he's a horse, which means he's not very intelligent, not very complicated, pretty much an opportunist (a carrot and a stick kind of guy), someone with simple emotions (fight, flight) and no ideas. Someone whose perspective is easily ignored. In the course of those twelve years, crows, whales, non-human primates, rats, bluejays, squirrels, elephants, and many other animals have been reconceived as having intentions, ideas, projects, and points of view, but no one (as far as I know) has studied the horses that are all around us, being required all the time to engage in a multitude of tasks that we present to them in our necessarily flawed and inconsistent fashion ("Here, take care of my ten-year-old daughter and do it at the gallop"). Primacy in this research seems to be given to wild animals, uninfluenced to human culture. But let's say for once that there is an intermediate category of animals, those whose culture interacts with ours, who have been found by us to be similar enough to us that they can be put to use by us millennium after millennium. If they are similar enough to do every job we ask of them, then they are similar enough to have a psychology and intelligence that mirror ours. It's time to give them some credit for having an inner life, and past time to study it.

The Racehorse
Verna Dreisbach
The nights were most restless, anticipation not of the rising sun but of the hustle and scurry of the pre-dawn hours. I, too, felt this tension, a keen ear for the sounds of the night. The sound of defiant kicking against a wooden barricade, accompanied by screams of frustration and fear, frequently awakened me. I, too, felt this fear as I bolted from my bed, awkwardly attempting to find my shoes without stepping onto the cold, dust-covered concrete floor. My brother, who slept above me, never woke to the sounds of the night, oblivious to this entire other world. The single window near the door, covered with dust and a metal security barrier, filtered light into the room, enough for me to fumble with the lock on our tack-room door. Our bedroom opened to what seemed to be a limitless shedrow of horses, monstrous robotic hot walkers, stacks of hay and coiled-up water hoses. I listened for the sound of the kicking, for the horse who had found himself bound by his own legs and body against his stall. After many months of living among the horses, I was able to discern which horses had the most trouble with the night. I talked them through their fury, the sound of my voice calming their fear. Occasionally, I slipped into their stall and pulled their legs over their trapped body to freedom. As a girl of ten years old, I felt quite heroic and brave dealing with such monstrous animals, moving their entire bodies with my small frame. A kick of their legs at just the right moment could send me hurling across the stall. Once freed, we would both stand in silence, calming our fears, and then find our way back to bed.


On Sale
Apr 27, 2010
Page Count
336 pages
Seal Press