| Encounters |


Me? On a horse? What was I thinking?

If you could choose to be an animal, which would it be? Me? I’d be a horse; a huge chestnut one. Every time we pass a farm, my husband slows the car, and I gape at these muscular animals, at that deep brown sheen, the swish of the tail, that head shake.

One Chol Hamoed, after the “there’s nowhere to go” tantrums, one brave warrior suggests horseback riding. I say, “Neigh, neigh.” I’m not going on a horse. This is for the kids. I’ll come along for the ride, to take pictures.

“Mommy is scared,” nine-year-old Simchi announces. No one reacts. I’ll show them. I pull on a flared ankle-length skirt and an old sheitel.

It’s a shaky hour’s ride up north to the stables. I’m going to do this. Ride a horse. The car swallows the road faster than my mind can spew out reasons for or against. It finally stops outside an iron fence. The snow crunches under my feet as the last of my resolve melts. The trees, barren, sway in agreement. Who rides a horse for the first time in their fifth decade of life? I’m staying behind at the stable. Maybe I’ll pat a leathered flank.

I click the helmet strap shut on each kid’s head. How tough they look in black gear against the rustic shed. I snap a picture, look at it. Maybe I should ride?

My husband hands me a helmet. “Just try it on and come out to the horses.”

I pull it on, follow him out. The handlers are leading the horses out of pens, huge hulks with smooth saddles. Jack, the owner, pushes a wooden step close to a beast with deep chestnut skin.

“That one’s for you,” my husband pipes up.

“Noooo.” I shrivel back. “I’m not riding.”

Jack raises his brows. “Daisy is the kindest horse there is. She does well with scared riders.”

Simchi’s eyes are wide with wonder. What choice did I have? I inch onto the steps, put my shoes into the stirrups, drag myself up. The horse shudders.

“I’m going to fall,” I yelp.

Jack tugs at the straps. “It’s tight, see.” I grip the horn of the saddle, my teeth chattering in the cold. Jack is still talking to me, something about leaning forward and backward on the bumps in the path, but I hardly hear him over the thumping in my chest.

The train of horses starts moving. I shift in my saddle, pushing down on the stirrups to steady myself. I’m going to fall.

The handler on the horse in front of me turns around. “Jack said you’re scared. Do you want me to hold on to the reins, to guide your horse?”

I shake my head too quickly. “I… I want to do this on my own.”

She eyes me for a moment before turning back. My hands hurt from clutching the horn and the reins. I shift my weight, pushing on the stirrups to check that it’s holding. Why am I here? Why did I need to show off? I’m going to fall.

Bare branches poke my glasses when I don’t duck fast enough. I clutch and tense as Daisy goes uphill and then down. At a fork, it happens, my greatest fear. Simchi’s horse detours off the path. The handler in front stops the train and rushes after the horse.

“Pull back on the reins, Simchi,” my husband screams. “Pull back.”

Simchi’s horse stops as the handler reaches it, yanks at the reins, and steers the runaway back into line. My jaw hurts as I unclench my teeth. The handler takes over Simchi’s reins.

The train of horses starts trotting again. A slow rumble resounds among the trees. “I want to hold my own reins,” Simchi grumbles.


“Can he?” my husband asks.

“He’s young,” the handler says. “The horse needs to be guided.”

Simchi grumbles more. My husband tries again. “My son wants to try one more time.”

The handler doesn’t answer. I know I’ll be hearing from Simchi how he was babied for the rest of the week, but he needs the help. There’s only so much nine-year-olds can do.

Snow crunches under the heavy treads of hoofs, tossing me like a floppy doll. How much longer on this path? I don’t dare check my watch lest I lose my grip on the horn. The horses trot on and on, the stirrups digging into my shin. I shift in my saddle, wiggle it to make sure it’s holding. And then I feel it, as if in slow motion: the saddle, it’s slipping, and I free fall to the snow below.

I sit up, dazed, back up to get out of the horse’s way, the ground under me hard and unrelenting. I hear my husband’s voice asking if I’m okay. The handler, her forehead furrowed, helps me up. I reassure both of them that I’m alright. Physically, I am, aside from the goosebumps traveling my spine.

The handler works on the saddle, tightening the straps as the branches rattle in the wind. I search out each of my children, eyes roving over their saddles as if I can, with sheer will, keep them safe. Finally, the handler cups her hands and motions me to step up onto the horse.

I gulp. “I… I’ll walk.”

“It’s too far, you can get lost.” Her tone is tense.

I look up at the massive monster who let me down and shake my head. At the far end of the line, a small horse neighs and the handler mounted on it pats its mane. “I’ll switch with that small horse and your friend can take this one.”

“That one’s not good with strangers. Daisy here is tough and gentle.”

I stare at her for a long moment to make place in my brain for her words. Finally, I draw myself up. The horse is still, as if nothing happened.

The handler mounts her horse, turns to me. “Do you want me to hold the reins now?”

Do I? I slowly nod. Give over control. Did I even have control in the first place? The handler takes the reins and the horses trot. A sense of calm cascades over me.

I settle back into the soft saddle, my hands loose on the horn. The trees on either side of the path part as we pass through, this giant of a horse holding me. Jack’s instructions crystalize in the calm air. As Daisy goes up an incline, I lean forward, as she goes down, I lean back.

There’s an expanse before me, buds on branches, wisps of cloud overhead. A refrain is singing in my head, I can do this, I can. I can control my emotions by allowing Someone else to be in charge. Experience inner peace in a world of turmoil when I let go and let be.

Too soon, we reach the clearing near the stable again. The handler gives me the reins, the leather smooth in my hands. I watch the kids dismount as I stay rooted on Daisy’s sturdy back for a little longer, savoring the paradox that to gain control I needed to give it up first.

Jack pushes the steps next to my horse. “I’ll get Nan to help you down,” he says.

“It’s okay. I’m good now.” And I swing off in one graceful swoop.

Simchi cheers.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 769)

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