By Vivian Curtis
MAY 24, 1999: When I was 18 years old, I was forced to put my first and only horse, Mark, out to pasture. He had gone lame due to a degenerative bone disease and could no longer be ridden. Losing him not only broke my heart, but also soured me on the stable experience as a whole. Although I had spent most of my childhood at Switch Willow Stables, where I had kept and ridden Mark, once he was gone, I quit riding. It would be a long time before I'd visit those stables -- the same stables my parents could not pry me from when I was younger.
This month I returned to Switch Willow to gather information for a Summer Fun article. The stables had not changed at all and, to a certain extent, neither had I. I felt instantly comfortable and confident. I still knew the names of the barn cats and dogs, the stable hands, and most of the horses. I struck up conversations with old instructors as if I had never left. Switch Willow had been my sanctuary while I was growing up, and, more importantly, I found it still could be.
Glenn and Phoebe Craig Johnson own and manage Switch Willow. They live on the 26-acre property in a house with exceptionally high ceilings, doorways, and buttresses that give it an impressive Gothic presence. The house seems enormous despite its one story and modest square footage. Although its many windows are tinted, lending an air of perpetual darkness, the shapes of large, carved banquet tables and numerous wooden busts of snorting horses can be made out from the outside.
I began riding at Switch Willow when I was 10. My riding partner, Ellie, and I would sneak down the road to the house after our lesson and play with the goldfish in the garden pool. We assumed the house was haunted, and when Glenn or Phoebe would poke their heads outside we would run, giggling. We soon outgrew our snooping and began to focus on our favorite school horses, Cy and Boo. It would be a couple of years before I began riding with Glenn and Phoebe or was allowed to enter their house.
Ellie and I first took lessons from a woman appropriately named Bay (the term "bay" refers to a chocolately equine coat color). Bay's three children ran amok while she schooled us. She was sweet and motherly, which, unfortunately didn't make my first lesson any less humiliating. She had put me on a very slow, very old pony named Velvet. Velvet would only move when she damn well pleased -- an attitude she probably cultivated over years of enduring the annoying and inevitable leg flapping and mouth pulling of beginners. Even for my first lesson, plodding along at a walk was not my idea of true riding. I had watched The Man From Snowy River obsessively. I wanted to jump fallen logs, run the cavalry gauntlet, careen down almost vertical cliffs at full gallop while cracking a bullwhip, and, most of all, I wanted to yell.
What I did not know, but soon inferred, as Bay almost collapsed in laughter, is that I was riding in an English saddle in the hunter/jumper style. Any sound besides a low, warning "whoa" or encouraging "cluck" was prohibited. There were no cliffs, no bullwhips. There were jumps, but they were orderly, logical poll-and-standard affairs. The reins were held in both hands with fingers arranged just so, shoulders pulled back stiffly, head straight not jiggly, heels pointed to the ground. Inner thighs -- not knees -- were used to stay firm and still in the saddle, and, finally, one did not kick one's mount, one almost imperceptibly squeezed. Ignorant of all of this, I mounted Velvet, promptly took a vicious hold of her mouth, jammed my little heels into her side and let out an exceptionally loud "Hee-yaw!" Velvet did not move an inch, she coiled her head and neck to the right, then took a chunk out of my shin. I still have a scar. Bay is still chuckling.
Bay quit giving regular lessons, and Ellie and I shuffled between various instructors. We steered Cy and Boo through many a class with Betty, Beverly, Colleen, and, occasionally, Bay. They were all tough as nails but also maternal and encouraging. Damn, could they ride. An experienced rider transforms into something truly pure and right on a horse. The "perfect ride," as most instructors call it, is one in which the rider's actions and plans are imperceptible. Obviously no mistakes are made, but the decisions and signals -- there are very many to be made and carried out during a single loop around the ring -- are well hidden. I witnessed each of my early instructors lapse into that state many times, and it seemed as natural and fluid as the footfalls of their horses. I could not have found better role models. Ellie and I were there to ride, but we were also there to grow up. And we were -- naturally, fluidly, and almost imperceptibly.
Ellie and I began to compete in local horseshows. I loved the competition, Ellie despised it. As I grew fascinated with the intricate actions and myopic focus of a truly good hunter/jumper ride, Ellie resented the complex rules and judging. She quit riding at Switch Willow soon after our first show. If ribbons and cheap, silver-plated dishes from local competitions are any indication, I was at the height of my game from age 12 to 13. I was still rather inexperienced, but my cowgirl days were over. I began to make good decisions in the ring, sometimes intentionally, sometimes by accident. Whether the attention was captured by luck or merit, Glenn and Phoebe took notice, and I began to ride with them almost exclusively.
Phoebe, like most of my former instructors, is kind and incredibly strong. She had been granted an alternate position on the United States Equestrian Team in 1969, but in my five years at Switch Willow, I never saw her on the back of a horse. Glenn was also granted an alternate position for the Pan American Games in 1973 and spent many years clearing seven-foot jumps in numerous national Puissance (high jump) classes. Glenn is a bizarre character, absolutely fearless on a professional horse and yet not above running an unruly Shetland pony ragged.
Upon this recent nostalgic return to Switch Willow, I asked Glenn if he remembered any stories from my time spent in training. He didn't. Instead, he offered a bit of the indelicate reproof I had eventually grown to understand.
"Well, Viv, you tried really hard and were pretty good," he jeered. "But, like every other teenage girl out here, once you reached that age, you started to think about penises and rode like such an airhead I thought you had an air hose up your ass." It's easy to remember why he scared me senseless for the first few months. With time I learned that if I could defend the mistakes I made on a horse, could articulate a reason, Glenn would soften and not hold these blunders against me. Like any good teacher, Glenn forced me to think hard and quick, a skill that would continue to serve well even after my training. Glenn also found Mark.
When I was 13 years old, Glenn and Phoebe somehow convinced my parents that I needed a horse to progress any further. We looked for months and did not come close to finding a match. One cold day in December, my parents and I met the couple in San Antonio. They had found a few horses. I rode four others before they brought Mark into the ring. Somehow, before I even rode him I knew he was the right one. Mark, then called "Pleasure Little Treasure" after some obscure Depeche Mode song, dragged me around the ring, and yet I was never less scared of a horse. Gary, one of Glenn's friends, advised me against Mark. My mother was petrified of him and, in a few days, refused to watch me ride altogether. But my father knew and Glenn knew and, more importantly, I knew.
Once I brought him home, we were not allowed to do anything but walk, trot, and canter for an entire month until I got a firmer hold of his mouth. I became stronger and more confident. Mark relaxed with me more each day. We fell in love with each other during those first few months. We were both bored by our slow progress but began to trust each other. I suppose that was Glenn and Phoebe's plan all along.
Regardless of what Glenn thinks, my teenage years were difficult and not spent consumed by thoughts of penises. In fact, I seem to remember I had a particular aversion to the things. Although I grew up a bit too quickly, I could still drive for 10 minutes and arrive at a place where I was judged on my riding ability and nothing more. I could visit Mark at any hour, sit in his stall, and let him try to take the rubber band out of my hair, very gently, with his lips -- his favorite game -- until I felt better.
As I began filling out college applications, Mark began to go lame. His heels were deteriorating and there was little we could do to ameliorate the effects. We gave him painkillers. Then we gave him blood thinners to increase the circulation to his legs. Eventually, the drugs turned him into an equine hemophiliac, and I was too frightened to continue them. The vets offered one final solution; we could sever the nerves in his heels and he would not feel pain. The disease did not affect the rest of his body, and his heels would grow worse no matter what we did, so I agreed. I regret that decision more than any other I have ever made. It was too desperate, and it did not work. The nerves grew back. Through all of this, Mark still wanted to perform. I could not ride him, but when I would turn him out for exercise he would run, as well as he could, around the ring and even jump the occasional obstacle.
A few weeks before I left for college, as I watched him attempt to run, he fell, hard, and scraped the hair off of both of his knees. He did not trip; there was nothing in his way. Running simply hurt him too much, and his legs refused to support him. I knew then it was time to let him go.
He would not walk into the trailer at first. I had to sit and stroke him for a while before he would load. I never truly said goodbye. It would have made me cry, and Mark would have sensed that I was terrified and crushed. I just shut the door behind him and cleaned out my locker. When Mark went away, I thought I had forever lost that sanctuary, and I looked for another one. I never found one as good as Switch Willow. Perhaps I never needed to.
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