Horseback-Riding Hitchhikers

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic
An inexperienced rider almost falls off her horse.

Submitted: March 01, 2008

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Submitted: March 01, 2008



Years ago, before I met my husband, my father was given a diplomatic assignment to Mogadishu, Somalia, East Africa. I made many friends there. There was a deep sense of community among the Americans and the natives. I even worked as the Personnel Assistant at the American Consulate. Mogadishu was an exotic desert paradise, boasting a beautiful golf club, an apartment complex complete with a shaded Olympic-sized swimming pool, and gardens designed to look like Eden. 
What Mogadishu DIDN’T have was a high school. Since I was about seventeen and didn’t have a way of attending school locally, I was sent to a boarding school in Madrid, Spain.
Torrejon High School was located on the Air Force Base. Not far from the school was the dormitory where the students who lived on the base stayed. Most students were paired with roommates to make full use of the dorm rooms. 
I was blessed to be paired with a sweet girl named “Marion”. Marion was taller than I was. She was pretty and blonde and had sparkling blue eyes. She made me laugh…a lot. (One time, we laughed together for so long while getting ready to go on a field trip that we missed the bus. The other “dormies” left without us, and we were placed on room restriction for a whole week. Even though we were technically “in trouble”, we laughed almost the whole time. She was my best friend, and it didn’t matter that we were on room restriction, as long as we were together.)
Marion had a western flair. She loved cowboy hats, boots, and vests. Her enthusiasm rubbed off on me, and I soon found myself wearing similar clothes. Above all, my roommate had a deep love for horses. She had raised a few and was an expert rider. My experience with horses was limited to the kiddie rides outside of Wal Mart in California. Still, I was curious, and Marion promised me a few riding lessons.
There were no horses on the base, but there was a gypsy camp about fifteen miles away where we could rent horses for the Spanish equivalent of ten dollars per hour. Neither of us spoke Spanish well enough to use public buses, and the gypsy camp was too far away to get there by walking. Marion and I were not aware of an established bus system. Still, we had ONE option if we wanted to ride horses at the gypsy camp: we could hitchhike. One Friday after school, we decided to try it. We checked in at the front desk of the dorm, and were on our way. 
At various places on Torrejon Air Force Base, there were terminals that looked like public transit bus stops. Hitchhikers would sit on seats under these covered areas, and people driving by would know that they wanted a ride somewhere. Oftentimes, a kind driver would stop and offer the hitchhikers a lift. 
Marion and I sat inside a hitchhiker terminal on this particular Friday afternoon. The sun smiled warmly on Madrid. The weather was perfect for horseback riding. There wasn’t a lot of wind, either. There was simply a light summer breeze blowing kisses through the leaves that majestically clothed the Spanish trees. Marion and I hoped that somebody would stop.
We waited about fifteen minutes, with our pesetas burning a hole in our pockets. We were becoming anxious because we had to be back in a few hours to “check in” at the front desk of the dorm again. That’s one way that the staff kept track of the “dormies”. (Students who DIDN’T live in the dormitory were called “day-sies”.)
After about fifteen minutes, a car pulled over. The driver was a nice-looking middle-aged man with a beard. He spoke English.
“Where you kids going?” he inquired pleasantly.
Marion did the majority of the talking. “We’re trying to get to the gypsy camp to go horseback riding.”
“Oh, I know where that is,” said the driver. “Hop in, girls.”
Marion eased into the front seat of the car and chatted comfortably with the stranger as we rode. I sat stiffly in the back seat. I was NOT relaxed at all. We didn’t know the guy from Adam. He could have planned to harm us in some way. After all, we were hitchhiking at our own risk, and it was potentially dangerous. I prayed for protection and hoped that the miles would melt away quickly. I just wanted to reach the gypsy camp and get OUT of that stranger’s car.
Soon, the driver pulled into the entrance of the gypsy camp, and I began to relax. Marion and I got out of the car and thanked the driver, who said he had been happy to help.
An attendant saw us and asked if he could be of service. He spoke English, too. (Perhaps the gypsy camp gets tourists from time to time.) We negotiated to rent two horses for one hour for the Spanish equivalent of twenty dollars, and the attendant led us away to the stables.
Marion was confident as she chose our horses. She selected a gentle white mare and, since I was a first-time rider, she picked a docile, cinnamon-colored gelding for me. (A gelding is a male horse who has been surgically altered. A gelding has only one testicle. Geldings are gentle creatures, perfect for young children or inexperienced riders.)
The horses knew the trail by heart, so there was no need for a guide. They were trained to circuit the whole course before heading back to the stables.
Excitement rose rapidly in my spirit as I mounted my magnificent gelding. The view was amazing.
The gypsy camp horses didn’t wear western saddles. A western saddle has a “horn” on the front that a rider can hold. These were English saddles. English saddles have a small pocket at the front so that a rider can grip it if she feels insecure. I slipped my right hand into the little pocket and gripped it tightly. Even though I was excited, this was new territory for me.
Marion taught me how to squeeze the horse’s flanks to make him walk; and how to pull gently on the reins to steer the horse. I kept my hand in the front pocket of the English saddle, with the reins held in each hand. If I needed to steer the horse, all I had to do was release one hand and pull ever so slightly.
As we started on the trail at a relaxed walk, I noticed that steering was hardly necessary. The tree-lined trail was a well-worn dirt path and the horses had it memorized, so Marion and I were able to talk and enjoy the warm sunshine. I marveled at the rippling muscles beneath my legs. My horse was a rare combination of gentleness and raw power. I found myself in awe of the magnificent beast on which I rode.
I also noticed that my horse and Marion’s kept perfect step with one another as they walked side by side, and I shared my observation with Marion. 
“Didn’t I tell you?” she asked. “These aren’t ordinary horses. These are retired circus horses. They’re trained to be synchronized with one another. If one horse walks, they ALL walk. If one horse breaks into a canter, they ALL break into a canter. Pretty cool, huh?”
“Uh, WE don’t be doing any cantering today, will we?” I asked nervously.
“Not right away,” she replied. “You need to get used to walking first.”
“Oh, good,” I said. “I don’t think I’m ready yet.”
Just then, to Marion’s left side, a group of seven horses galloped by outside the line of trees, still following the general direction of the trail. They were being ridden by experienced riders with a good sense of balance, and they were all having a fabulous time!
I was NOT having a fabulous time. As soon as our retired circus horses saw the other group gallop past us, THEY went from a gentle walk to a full gallop!
“Hang on!” Marion instructed quickly as I bounced hard up and down in the saddle. I didn’t have a clue how to gallop a horse!
“What do we do?” I hollered. “Do these horses come with anti-lock brakes?”
Marion, who was very experienced, kept a cool head.
“You’re doing fine,” she assured me. “See if you can take your right hand and pull back firmly on the reins.”
Even though I felt like I was going to fall off at any second, she and I both pulled back firmly on the reins of our horses and they came to a complete stop, side by side. The “Gunsmoke” extras were already far ahead of us on the trail, so our horses didn’t need to synchronize with any other animals.
“Are you okay?” Marion asked, laughing. “You were doing well for a beginner. Next time, try standing up a little in the stirrups and leaning forward with your body.It’ll keep you from bouncing too hard.”
“I’ll be okay once my brains unscramble,” I assured her. “Let’s try again, at a walk.”
“Remember how to get your horse started?” she quizzed.
“Squeeze his flanks with my legs?” I asked tentatively.
“That’s right,” she replied. “I’ll make a rider out of you yet,” she promised.
We started at a gentle walk again. I wasn’t ready yet for a canter, trot, or gallop. Yet, I had to admire my roommate. Horseback riding was a skill that obviously took a lot of practice to learn, and having Marion with me on the trail that day probably saved me from falling off my horse.
We walked along for about an hour, enjoying the sunshine and the gentle breezes. It was a wonderful, relaxing trail ride, right up until ALMOST the end of the trail.
Our horses stopped in front of a dry creek bed. They had to gallop to get to the top of a hill. On the other side of the hill, the path continued a short way before leading to the stables.
Marion went first, squeezing hard on the flanks of her magnificent animal as it easily mounted the hill at a full gallop. She turned her horse around to face me.
“Okay, now YOU try!” she invited.
If I were the long hand on an analog clock, I would have been pointing at “12”. I squeezed hard on the flanks and my horse took off like a bolt of lightning. By the time I reached about a third of the way up the hill, I had gone from “12” to “10”, and by the time we reached the crest of the hill where Marion was, I was at “9”. I hung on for dear life with my right foot clinging to the inside of the stirrup. There wasn’t a whole lot holding me on that saddle, and I suddenly wished with all my might that saddles came with seat belts.
Marion quickly dismounted her pretty mare and ran to me to push me back up into my saddle. I thank God that she was there, and that she never panicked. She continued to keep a cool head.
She pushed me upright in my saddle, and soon we were on our way to the stables. While an attendant led our horses away to be bathed and brushed, Marion and I chatted with a classmate’s family that we recognized, and negotiated a ride back to the dorm.
“What did you think?” Marion asked when we reached our dorm room. 
“I thought it was fun!” I told her. “I’m sure glad ONE of us knew what we were doing!”
We both laughed, thinking about how funny I looked sitting sideways on my horse. We still had the weekend ahead of us, and we enjoyed it together. We just AVOIDED dry creek beds and steep hills!

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