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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Thing 33: Ride A Horse

You could probably guess this already, but I'm a city girl. I'm more Urban Dare than Survivor. But every now and then, a girl's gotta leave the confines of the city, get a little dust on her sneakers, and ride a horse.

The Roommate found the Woodland Horse Center in Silver Spring because she is seriously considering taking riding lessons and was researching places to do so. The appeal of Woodland is that they give a free, one hour introductory lesson every Sunday afternoon. The Roommate had never so much as been on a horse before, and before she committed several hundred dollars to the thing she wanted to be sure she liked it. She asked me to come along because she knew I wouldn't say no. And the Boyfriend came too, because he just likes to ride horses.

Which is how we found ourselves speeding out to the suburbs in a zip car Volvo last Sunday. Now, you fellow city dwellers may be like me and think, "Silver Spring? That's not so far." Well, as it happens, Silver Spring goes a lot further north than I had thought, and gets a lot more country. As we drove down on Colesville Road from downtown Silver Spring, apartment high rises gave way to large, single family, suburban homes. Then, once on New Hampshire Avenue going north, the suburban homes gave way to...nothing. Country roads.

The Woodland Horse Center is beautiful. When you turn onto the dirt driveway off of New Hampshire you drive under a huge, drooping willow tree and come up on a large barn. Not surprisingly, horses peek their heads out of the barn windows. A large field extends south of the barn. To the north of the barn is a dusty, fenced in corral, where our practice lesson will be held. Behind the barn there is an idyllic scene behind a wooden fence - green hills, leafy trees and a small stream, two horses quietly grazing on the grass. (I have the distinct impression that I made up the bit about the stream, but I'm pretty sure the rest is accurate and not subject to my fantasy of what "the country" is supposed to look like.)

Woodland Horse Center: Barn
We arrive just a bit late, and the introductory lesson is already underway in the barn. Although Woodland accommodates all ages with its lessons, the vast majority of the dozen people attending the free introductory are under the age of ten. The Roommate, the Boyfriend and I significantly up the average age of those participating.

The lesson begins with a short lecture on staying safe around a horse -- don't walk behind the horse, don't make any sudden movements, don't approach the horse if its ears are flat against its head. Then one of the more advanced students demonstrates how to get on and off the animal, making it look, of course, effortless and easy. Just place the reigns behind the neck, lower the stirrups, grab hold of the mane, and swing your leg over the beast. Easy!

Having been shown the basics, we are ready to ride. Since we'd arrived late, the three of us don't have helmets or horses yet, but the staff gets three horses ready as quickly as it takes for us to read and sign our waivers and pick out helmets.

Woodland Horse Center: Horse
Our three horses are waiting for us in the corral, while the others are already on their horses. They are walking slowly in a circle on the outer edge of the ring while our horses stand in the center, waiting for us. My horse is named Tonka, and she is a white horse with a light caramel color on her ears and the sides of her face. I am entirely too short to mount the horse, which is not quite as simple as they made it look in the introductory lecture. I can't even lift my leg high enough to get my foot in the stirrup and I need to use the step stool and feel like a total wuss. Once I'm actually on the horse, my helper adjusts the stirrups to the proper length, shows me how to hold the reigns, and then walks Tonka, with me on her, to join the group as their horses walk in a circle.

Every person gets a helper who is an experienced rider, who holds the reins while you're on the horse, and gives you tips about your form and technique. My helper turns out to be the manager of Woodland, a middle aged woman named Tammy. I ask her how long she's been riding, and she tells me that it's since she was a little kid. She gave it up when she had children of her own, but came back to it just as soon as she could because she missed it so much. She is very patient with me, giving me good pointers about how to sit correctly and how to interact with the horse.

Once we've gotten the feel for riding the horse while it's walking, we practice "posting," which is the motion one makes while the horse is trotting. This is where it gets hard. You have to thrust your hips forward, basically causing your entire body to rise until you are almost standing in the stirrups, then lower your body back down, all while keeping your knees turned out and without pulling up with the reins. It's hard because the motion is very awkward, and your natural instinct is to lift up with your hands to balance yourself. Unfortunately, that tugs on the reins and pulls the horse's head back, which is uncomfortable for the horse. So you need muscle control and exceptional balance, which anyone who has seen me walk in high heels knows I do not have.

We practiced posting while the horse was still walking, then one at a time we had the chance to actually try it while our horse trotted. In addition to the difficulty of the hip motion and the balance, you have to time it with the rhythm of the horse's trot. If you lose control of your body, it is called "bouncing," which is exactly what it sounds like. Needless to say, I did my fair share of bouncing. But I began to get the hang of it just a bit, and I can see why lessons would be both necessary and fun.

Woodland Horse Center: Rainbow
Our introductory lesson was over after the attempt at posting. The helpers would return the horses to the barn while we returned our helmets to the office...which was coincidentally where you could sign up for lessons! The three of us snuck off without signing up for anything, but the Roommate liked it enough to make some follow up calls regarding pricing and scheduling.

We came back to the city, returned the zip car, and then immediately took naps when we got back to the apartment. Horse back riding is exhausting! But what a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon -- an idyllic country setting, a magnificent animal, fresh air and sunshine.

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