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Lifelong Pursuits: Musing on the Triple Crown

by Joan L. Cannon

The Kentucky Derby is always a bittersweet experience for me. Most people enjoy the excitement and glamour and real beauty of the contest. In ages to come, horse races should become as iconic as the athletics depicted on Greek amphorae. These events have tradition, color, suspense, amazing beauty everything to make them aesthetically almost perfect. But seeing these spectacles on a hostess's television screen comes close to spoiling it for me. It's one of those cases of too much information, I suppose. That and an admitted emotional connection to the horses.

I was younger than ten when I first sat on a horse with a retired cavalry officer as instructor, walking along a woodland trail so cushioned with old leaves and moss that most of the sounds we heard came from creaking leather, chinks of curb chains, and an occasional snort from a mount. Full summer shade kept us cool, scents of flowers on a wild raspberry bush, crushed green stems of undergrowth, the faint musk of clean horses came in whiffs as the air moved around us. We rode through an environment that seemed to have been extracted from fantasy. It was entirely different from following the same route on our own feet.

Like many girls, I can't remember when I became enamored of horses, but the passion has yet to dissipate in spite of the fact that I'm more than old enough to have outgrown it.

With astonishing good fortune, I married a man who found the animals as appealing as I did. We met a marvelous old lady who gave riding lessons and who found us two of our horses (yes, we came to own them), and taught us how to train and love them in suitably adult ways.

It's been a while since I have had the unique pleasure of sitting above the common order of humanity, to become a part of the grace and strength of the horse under me. We communicated through my fingers on the reins, the nervous ears in front of my face, and the sensation of leashed energy of half a ton of controlled power on which I perched like a paper monarch on sufferance. Anyone on horseback becomes a new person somehow more important, who exists until her feet touch the ground again.

However perfect the training and ideal the temperament of the mount, a rider must be always vigilant, always sensitized. You must not forget that riding is completely different from driving a car, that is. There is another brain, another heart, another set of emotions, agendas, fears, and determination controlled only by your legs and voice and fingers.

This sense of your own fragility and weakness ought to prevent the subtle, pervasive pleasure of riding a spirited horse. It does not. Like fresh ground pepper on ripe strawberries, something about the contradiction makes the experience true recreation. No mundane concerns have room in the rider's mind.

The landscape on a 'trail ride' becomes more vivid than it is for a hiker. Even the fences of an exercise ring when training take on a new appearance, as if to release you and your mount to concentrate, if not on "airs above the ground," then just to help the two of you to learn how to seem to be welded together with a common purpose. Dressage is the best example of the skills and athleticism required to achieve this. That is what I love to watch, not racing or even stadium jumping.

Unlike dogs, horses tend never to forget anything. As you work with a young dog, it is necessary to repeat previous lessons before beginning to work on new ones. When training a horse, a week between sessions makes the next step as easy as a day between them. This characteristic is, of course, a double-edged sword. A bad experience or a mistake takes an enormous amount of time and patience to eradicate and teach the animal to re-learn.

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©2010 Joan L. Cannon for SeniorWomen.com