Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Get Back on the Horse

By Stuart Prestidge

MAY 24, 1999:  From as far back as memory allows, I have had a fear of horses. The birth of this fear is steeped in mystery. There has never been the obvious "bad experience." Indeed, as horse exposure goes, mine has been very limited: I had never rid one, and had only seldom stroked one. I grew up on a farm, so a general fear of large animals transposed solely upon the innocent horse is also a non-starter. I did, however, once go to France, where I saw a horse's brain for sale in a small-town butcher shop. Putting two and two together, the obvious conclusion is that this phobia is really a manifestation of the very sensible fear we all harbor of knife-wielding, animal-murdering Frenchmen. Only psychologists know the true answer.

More distressing than the phobia itself has been the ridicule I endure from people I confide in. A horse is a big animal, very able to end a person's life with a single, well-placed kick to the head. My respect for the horse's ability to quite easily cause physical damage beyond all human thresholds was magnified tenfold with the waylaying of Superman at the hooves of such a beast. If a horse can relegate Superman to a wheelchair, what chance has a mere mortal like myself against such a trained killing machine? Yet still, I am ridiculed.

Having lived for many years with this phobia with no adverse effects, I wasn't expecting to confront it anytime soon ... until one fateful day in April. My editor wondered if I had the inclination to profile a horse riding facility in town. Immediately the rusty, but trustworthy, warning bells of horse phobia began to ring with newfound vigor.

"Will I have to ride a horse?" I inquired, slowly, but steadily revealing my secret revulsion of all that is equine. Foolish move. Words were spoken, holes I could not escape were dug, and the gauntlet was laid down -- I was to ride a horse. This sick twist of fate was to be played out at a horse riding facility just north of Austin called the Double D Ranch. At first my fear was doused by the soothing thought that maybe, just maybe, this was an establishment run exclusively for big-breasted women with a fetish for horses, but alas, no. As I later learned the two "D"s refer to the co-owners grandmothers' names, Dorothy and Dorothy respectively, and did not in any way intimate a healthy reverence for the full-figured lady. In preparation for such an undertaking I had diligently watched a number of John Wayne films hoping to pick up the subtitles of horse control. Unable to detect any useful techniques, I swiftly replaced Stagecoach with Blazing Saddles in order to perfect my "Mungo Horse KO Punch," in case things got a little out of control. I also dutifully mastered the cries of "Giddy up!" and "Yee-haaw!" and, whenever the opportunity would present itself, would straddle my 55lb pit bull in order to become acclimatized to the sensation of having a large, vicious animal between my legs.

As I drove north on 183, it struck me that despite these measures I was still woefully underprepared for such an undertaking. This sense of foreboding was heightened when a Ford Bronco emerged in front of me as I homed in on the DD Ranch. There, upon the spare wheel cover, staring me in the face like a depraved portent of events to come, was the disturbing image of a bucking horse. First it was the O.J. chase and now this; have these vehicles no limit to the evil they cast?

Situated upon 10 acres of land, the DD Ranch was in sight. Its location epitomizes one of the great aspects of Austin living: Barely 10 minutes and a few miles earlier, I was on a major highway, breathing the sweet smell of unleaded gas fumes while being psychologically tormented by a Ford Bronco. Now, I was seemingly in the middle of nowhere; nothing but lush greenery and wide-open space surrounded me, the only noise being generated by Mother Nature herself. If I were to be hideously mutilated by some feral beast, then I could think of no nicer place to have it happen.

My mentor, and one to tell my wife of her newfound status of widower, was to be DD co-owner Randee Fox. Having moved to Austin from Seattle two years ago, she traded in her one-and-a-half-acre ranch in the Northwest for co-ownership in the DD. Fox seems to live and breathe horses. When she's not providing her 10 students with riding lessons on one of her three horses, Tawny, Foxy, and Leah, Fox dips into her impressive background in graphic and fine art to produce various horse-inspired pieces. She also finds time to write articles for the horse community in order to further educate people in respect to horse matters, which was comforting, as I knew nothing about them whatsoever.

The lesson, I had been informed, was to be roughly two hours long, consisting predominantly of educational-type preparation in order to shatter the myths that we horsephobics have about our four-legged enemies, instilling confidence and understanding in preparation for the big ride. Much to my surprise, Tawny, the horse that had the unenviable task of having me on its back, was already loose in the back garden. She was roughly 6'5" tall, 8' long, weighed approximately 1,000lbs, and had muscle definition most dedicated, musclebound steroid freaks can only dream about. It occurred to me that the beauty of the horse and the romanticism of riding could motivate most horsephobics to overcome their fears.

We were led into the outdoor training arena where the lesson was to be held and Fox was to convince me of Tawny's heightened level of obedience. Apparently a horse has four speeds, and depending upon your geographical preference, they can be referred to as different things. First comes the walk, next the jog, or if you're English, the trot, then the lope or canter, and finally the gallop. I was hoping I wouldn't have to take Tawny out of neutral, but, as I learned, due to the nature of the stride pattern, the faster the horse goes, the smoother the ride. Tawny demonstrated her adeptness at the first three strides by passing from one to another with nothing more than a vocal command.

It was my turn to become interactive with Tawny. I was to take hold of her leash and walk her around the arena jogging or walking, as I pleased. This was the first time I had taken a horse for a walk and I was cursing myself for not commissioning the construction of a specially made horsey choke chain. But things went well: I was running and Tawny was running, I would stop and Tawny would stop. Fox was right; this mammoth animal was more obedient than my dogs.

As I grew in confidence and relaxed ever so slightly, the inevitable had to happen. Tawny moved. Not just any old move but a sudden violent movement that revved my heart to a dangerous new level. A friend had told me that in all his miles of horseback experience the only thing his horse was afraid of was a pig. I asked if Tawny, too, had a loathing for swine, but apparently Tawny's bugbear was emus. A quick glance revealed that this reaction was due to neither errant emu nor pig, so I concluded she had decided to kill me for fun.

Sensing my complete and utter fear at this aberration, my coach yelled some comforting words. "It's okay!" she shouted. "It's just the flies bothering her."

My God, I thought, a fly can cause this reaction? A 1,000lb twitch is a terrifying thing to behold, especially when you are standing no more than a foot away and have a very real fear of such unexpected behavior. Apologizing for my total overreaction, I was comforted to learn that Fox has much experience dealing with phobics like myself. Why? I wondered. After all, it is a dread not cultivated in everyday urban living. Rarely do I see an unexpected horse scurry under my fridge during midnight excursions to the kitchen, and seldom do I have to wash one down the plughole before I bathe.

It was hot, Tawny was tired, and The Ride was approaching, so it was time for loving preparation and grooming. With Tawny as an adult-sized version of "My Little Pony," I brushed and rubbed as best I could. This grooming session served many purposes, not least of which being to provide more injury-free time around Tawny so that I might to get to know her better and become more at ease in her immediate presence.

To stand near a horse's hindquarter is to stare death in its ... well, hindquarter. As the grooming spread to that particular area, once again my heart made its presence felt. Fox advised me to keep a hand on Tawny's rump at all times in order to alert her to my presence. But no matter how hard I tried to convince myself that this was, in fact, sound advice, it still felt alarmingly suicidal. My main concern was that not only was I alerting Tawny to my presence, but I was also acting as a guide for her laser-sighted hooves in the event that she decided to kick. I hypothesized that if I were to, instead, walk 20 feet behind her she would not see me, and if she did see me, it would be physically impossible for a kick to land. When Fox wasn't looking, this became my mode of operation.

Next we were to clean Tawny's hooves -- not a particularly pleasant experience but one for which Tawny once again behaved outstandingly. A tickle on her leg and the production of a weird noise by Fox, and Tawny would instantly raise the desired foot. Remarkably, she repeated this feat for me despite my obvious reticence and inability to create the required noise. I cleaned the front foot, scraping out sand and dirt until it was spotless. The back foot was cleaned until Tawny made the mistake of breathing out or maybe it was in, a movement I equated with instant death as I was currently holding onto 150lbs of muscular back leg. Suffice to say, Ms. Fox finished it off.

Like a snowball tumbling down a hill, the momentum of the lesson was sufficient enough by now to warrant the production of the saddle. There was simply no going back. The saddle was for riding, that much I knew. Still, I was holding out hope that I wouldn't be allowed to ride. Maybe I would be too heavy for her, the saddle wouldn't fit, or my nerves would render me incapacitated upon the floor due to intense cardiac complications. Despite being in Tawny's close proximity for the last 90 minutes with a considerable reduction in the stress that this adventure was causing, the thought of being placed on top of her was terrifying. I could no longer run away.

The saddle, a Western saddle to those in the know, was buckled up, and Fox jumped aboard. There looked nothing to it: Jump on and sit there while Tawny runs around. Fox took time again to demonstrate how well-controlled Tawny was. I was startled to learn that, like a Honda Goldwing, horses also have a reverse gear. I was to ride Tawny initially with Fox holding her leash, and although she was no match for a 1,000lb horse, I was comforted by this scenario.

I approached Tawny, placed my left foot on the stirrup, jumped up, hooked my right leg over, and was on. The first thought that popped into my head was how high up I was. Fox instructed me as to the correct position, and then gave the command to walk. The grace and beauty of a horse in motion is miraculously lost when you are atop one. With hardly three steps taken, a four-legged earthquake ensued. This chaos was, in part, due to my lack of technique.

"Sit tall with your head and low with your hips," Fox told me in an effort to ease the ride. It worked: instant calm. It is a strange combination of movements that is required for the perfect riding experience, but when they did come together, I felt like a high-class porno star. Back straight, head up, shoulders back, and hips moving back and forth -- the sexual nuance could not be ignored. Tawny was stepped up a gear, and so were the number of instructions needed to keep me from falling off.

"Keep tall, and stop looking at the horse, look forward," I was told, which was sound advise, for if there were any offending pigs, emus, or flies in the immediate vicinity, I would have otherwise been ignorant to the ensuing pandemonium they may have caused. According to my instructor, I "sat a horse well" -- well enough to propel me to the next level of horseback riding: the solo ride.

Tawny was equipped with a lariat riding ring, a sturdy ring of rope that circles the horse's neck and provides the rider with the equivalent of reins but eliminates the need for the horse to have an uncomfortable bit in its mouth. Fox demonstrated the finer points of lariat riding with a confidence and grace I no longer took for granted. I hopped on and gave Tawny the command to walk. We rode around the arena numerous times, moving from first to second gear and back again with relative smoothness, finally reaching a canter before bringing her to a stop.

My riding experience was safely over.

Although still not a huge fan of horses, I certainly am less wary and now have a very healthy respect toward them. With regard to Tawny, I have to admit that after two hours in her company, I began to feel some affection toward her, although I suspect that was due to the lack of injuries she inflicted upon me rather than the direct result of a loving bond. Nevertheless, she was a very nice horse. And as for Ms. Fox, her endless patience and obvious knowledge were priceless in convincing me that these animals are really our friends and that I should trust my life to this huge strange beast called Tawny. This was the first time I had confronted a real fear, and overall the experience was a very positive one -- so much so that if the Chronicle is willing to pony up the dough, I would relish the opportunity to confront my other two fears: strip clubs and bourbon -- preferably at the same time and preferably 10 minutes after my next encounter with one of our equine chums.

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