Monday, October 29, 2012

Horse Sense

When I was thirteen years old it was my conceit that I was a pretty good horseback rider. I thought I was pretty good at math too. Both opinions were based on ignorance, which is not an uncommon basis for the opinions of thirteen-year-olds – and not just of thirteen-year-olds. While I was aware higher math existed, I had no reason to suspect it would be any more difficult to learn than the algebra and geometry I already had encountered. My thoughts about riding were comparable. I was aware formal and highly competitive varieties of it existed, though if asked to define dressage I might have answered something about wardrobe. The first step to knowledge is said to be recognizing our own ignorance. Sometimes the step is a doozy.

Riding was part of the sports program at St. Bernard’s School in 1966. It was the only high school sport in which I ever had any interest.

On a warm and sunny cloudless afternoon in the late spring of that year, I rounded a bend in the riding ring on the school grounds. For reasons I don’t remember, I was the only one in the ring, though several of my friends relaxed in the reviewing stand out of the sun. The horse was a pretty 16-hand mare named Butterscotch. Her mane, tail, and boots were black. The rest of her was indeed the color of butterscotch. She was not my most frequent ride in those days, but we knew each other well enough.

Turning into the straightaway, I aimed Butterscotch toward a three foot jump at a canter. Several feet from the jump I knew she wasn’t going to make it. Her stride was off. This should have been no problem. Jump-rails simply fall off when they are struck. Typically, horse and rider proceed on their merry way. Someone on the ground then resets the rail for another try. Butterscotch had struck jump-rails in this way a hundred times before without any noticeable distress. For some reason known only to herself, this occasion was different.

Butterscotch mistimed her leap and clipped the rail with her forelegs. She panicked. Her four legs went every which way and she collapsed on top of the jump, toppling both standards. I retained momentum and sailed forward. I still recall somersaulting through the air. I landed hard flat on my back with feet forward, and skidded to a halt in an enveloping cloud of dust. My helmet rocked on the ground another ten feet in front of me. I sat up and wheezed as the dust cleared. Behind me, Butterscotch got back on her feet and stood quietly amid the wreckage of the jump.

My friends in the reviewing stand were hooting, laughing, and clapping. They shouted “Encore!” Neither I nor the horse was hurt, but my friends could not yet have known that.

I stood up (stiffly), bowed to the audience, and climbed back on Butterscotch. Lest she was hurt more than she showed, I didn’t want to take her over a challenging jump, but just on principle I figured she should go over something. It is not good for a horse to learn she can get to quit work by missing a jump. At my request, my friends reset the jump at 1.5 feet. Butterscotch had no trouble clearing that one.

I walked her out before returning to the stable, and in that time reviewed a few lessons that just had made it through even my 13-year-old skull. Among them:

1) Don’t prematurely assume you are pretty good at anything.

2) Just because you’re in the saddle doesn’t mean you’re in control.

3) Wherever there is another mind, there is another vote about what happens.

4) You can trip on hurdles you’ve cleared easily before.

5) Expect Schadenfreude from your friends when it happens.

The lessons have been of use ever since. My worst mistakes in life have come from forgetting them.

My self-reevaluation with regard to math in those pre-calculator days arrived a few years later while facing logarithms of trigonometric functions. By then it was no shock.

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