"Have you ridden before?" Bob Douglas asked me as I filled out a card and plunked down $7.50 for my first lesson.
"A little," I replied warily, "but not so you'd notice. For a week, 15 years ago No instruction. Western saddle."
We were going to learn balanced English here. No horn to hold on to in an emergency.
Bob Douglas, owner and chief instructor at the Rock Creek Horse Centre at Military and Glover Roads NW, put me in the beginners' group. From the look of the novices forming a pack outside the riding ring, I was the only one who was not a beginner at everything in life. To call them pre-teen overstated their ages.
Besides being younger, most of them were better dressed for the part: boots, new helmets, jodhpurs. A few even had their own crops.
I was nattily attired in one of the centre's battered helmets, an old T-shirt, blue jeans and a pair of wing-tips I had left over from college, the only tie shoes I own.
The woman on the phone said I should wear tie shoes with a heel.
I'd come to ride that day out of a long-standing but long-repressed desire that dated back to a 1963 visit to a dude ranch with my parents. After passing the sign pointing to the stables every day for three years, I finally turned in after a Labor Day dare from a close friend, herself a fine horsewoman.
I fell twice, although I avoided being kicked or bitten. And at times I was so discouraged, I believed I never would get the critters to do my bidding.
But pluck and persistence helped compensate for age and modest physical abilities -- I bowl well until the beer frame.
I went from a raw novice to my first jump in about 2 1/2 months, including a 30-day, or-thopedist-ordered vacation after an embarrassing spill that shredded some thigh muscle I didn't know I had.
I'm living proof that anyone, even an out-of-shape journalist, can learn to ride.
"Why don't you take Wendy?" Bob suggested at that first lesson.
"Fine." (What was I to say? "I'd like Alydar?")
With a little assist from a young stable assistant, or barn brat, I mounted. The brat tightened the girth (so the saddle wouldn't slip) and adjusted the stirrups. In English riding the stirrup should hit at the ankle bone when the legsa dangle straight down.
I kicked Wendy in the ribs. She walked into the ring. Even ith my naturally round shoulders, I towered over my nine-year-old compatriots.
We walked about the ring for a while as Bob explained some fundamentals. His voice boomed:
"People, you've got to have total confidence in me if you're going to learn how to ride. And you've got to have total confidence in yourselves... I want each of you to drop the reins... The horse won't do anything... Now Wendy..."
That was me.
"Drop the reins," he repeated, "and lean all the way back in the saddle until your head rests on the horse's rump."
I'd never seen Tom. Mix do that. And, frankly, I thought it a pretty sily and dangerous thing to do. But as a 30-year-old, I couldn't play chicken to a class of prepubescents. I did what I was told. And I didn't fall off.
After we picked the reins back up we continued walking. Bob harped on our posture.
Heels turned down, to drive your weight into the saddle, Balls of the feet rest on the stirrup. Toes point up and slightly inward. The back is straight but "supple." Shoulders back. Chest out.
Nothing holds the rider on the horse except gravity, balance and thigh pressure against the saddle. From the knees to the groin there should be no daylight.
The lower leg does not touch the horse except when the rider is seeking to propel or direct it.
That's not to say the steed always does what it is told. Unless you let it know early that you are in control, the horse will take over. It happened to me many times.
"She knows she has you," Bob told me weeks after that first lesson during private instruction. She did. I trotted in every direction but the one in which I wanted to go. It was an unsettling experience that left me downcast.
But in the first lesson, my horse obediently followed the one in front. And after we finished the rump-resting exercise and some others designed to convince us we would not necessarily fall off, Bob told us we were goint to learn to "post," or move our bodies up and down in rhythm with the horse's trot.
The trot is a faster and more jarring gait than the walk. The trotting horse moves forward diagonally. The right foreleg and left hindleg go down together, then the left foreleg and the right hindleg. It is a two-beat gait. Dum-dum. Dum-dum.
"It's like riding a caterpillar," Bob said. I'd never been on a caterpillar.
To post properly, you squeeze your inner thigh against the saddle, pulling yourself out of the saddle at beat one, then sitting at beat two.
You're not supposed to bounce. I bounced a lot.
"Up. Down. Up. Down. Squeeze with the kness," my instructors would intone ad nauseam. The faster the trot, the more frequent the ups and downs.
The trot can e ridden sitting, and the slower trot usually is. But at a faster pace, it is easier on both the horse and the rider to "rise to the trot," as they say.
That first-hour lesson was grueling. I was exhausted. My thighs hurt. My stomach hurt. Surprisingly, my behind did not hurt much. I don't know why.
I survived and a few days later took a private morning lesson with Bob.
Near the ned of that lesson, I tried to post without my feet in the stirrups, lst my balance and fell off Bojangles.
I pulled what seemed like every muscle in my left thigh and groin.
"Are you OK?" Bob asked.
"Not exactly," I replied. I tried to work the pain out of my thigh and remount, but I could not lift my leg more than a few inches off the ground. Bob tried to give me a boost.
He has had multiple sclerosis for six years and spends much of his time teaching handicapped people how to ride.
"It's one cripple trying to help another," he grunted in grim humor.
I finally maneuvered Bojangles to some barrels, hauled myself up on a barrel and then on Bo. But not for long. The squeeze was gone from my kness.
I went home, showered, dressed and called my editor. "I'll be late to pick you up, Pete. I fell off a horse."
"How's the horse?" he asked. It was not the last time I heard that attempt at comedy.
When my thigh swelled so much I couldn't get both feet on the bathroom scale, I went to an orthopedist. Nothing was broken, but I had ripped some important muscle in my inner thigh. He ordered me off horses for a month and gave me some medicine to reduce the swelling.
Ah, the ignominy of it all. The drug was butazolidin, the same medication they give the nags at Bowie and Laurel to keep them running.
When the month was up, I was back.Slowly at first. But as the muscle healed, my enthusiasm grew. So did the amount of time I spent at the stables.
Bob, Leonard Stover (another instructor), and Bob's brother Fred, the manager, became my personal friends.
I rode Saturday and Sunday mornings. I rode Tuesday and Thursday nights. I squeezed in some private wekend lessons. I became an editor's dream, finishing stories before deadline to get to the stables.
I took trail rides. I groomed a few horses. I bought a helmet. I even looked for stables when I was on out-of-town assignments. What started out as a lark had become an obseession.
One bitter cold Thursday night, I was the only one to show up for group lesson. Leonard stayed. The night before Thanksgiving Fred Douglas hung around an otherwise deserted stable so I could practice alone.
I rode Wendy, Bojangles, Satan, Buster, Sampson, JTS and Sandcastle. I mastered posting and the sitting trot. I learned to canter. I began to understand some of the subtleties of horsemanship. I found out there were a lot of grown-up riders, too.
It wasn't long after my return that Leonard, the eternal optimist, told me, "Jim, you're progressing, learning to ride tight. I'll have you jumping in a month." I didn't believe him.
A month later I joined a Sunday morning class with three nine-year-old girls.
I felt good that day.Bu then I knew I was improving.
In the individual exercises at the end of the lesson, each of the three little girls jumped barrels. When my turn came, I expected to canter, as I had before in similar classes with students of differing abilities.
I prepared to give Bojangles the command to canter (a smooth three-beat gait).
"Hey, do you want to jump?" Lonard asked.
I thought a second.
"What the hell," I said.
I did the same thing the tots did, I posted halfway around the ring, turned toward the center and trotted over some foot-high stakes, with my rear out of the saddle and my body thurst forward. Jumpring position.
I posted again for 20 yeards, and guided Bojangles toward the center of the barrels.
He leaped. We landed. I saayed on.
"Bravo," Leonard called out. "Bravo." jumped twice more that day.
I see a fox-hunt in my future.