Some girls are horse-crazy the way others are boy-crazy. Actually, I don't think those inclinations are mutually exclusive, because I remember being intrigued by both horses and boys when I was 10. But my passion for horses was probably purer because my early exposure to them was limited to Walter Farley's novels (The Black Stallion, Son of the Black Stallion, etc.) and films like National Velvet. Boys' charms, on the other hand, usually paled as soon as they engaged in belching contests or began flicking spitballs.
But closer contact with horses didn't dispel my fantasies. When my father finally took me to a riding stable, the feel of real horseflesh merely fueled the fire. And at age 13, when I was sent to a girls' summer camp in Nova Scotia, the smell of the stable—of hay, horses and manure—seemed sweeter than Chanel.
The five horses at Camp Arcadie were an odd lot. Blossom was an old, white nag whose sole ambition seemed to be to stuff her mouth full of grass. Only the sissies wanted to ride her because she never went faster than a loose-gaited canter. But small, sturdy Doll was a real devil. She pulled her ears back and nipped the other horses whenever she got a chance, and she often played nasty tricks, like coming to an abrupt stop in mid-gallop, pitching the rider off her back. Then she'd emit a strange bray that sounded suspiciously like a snigger. Doll was strange in other ways, and it was whispered that she wasn't really a horse but a mule. This disqualified her in my eyes; riding a mule couldn't be compared with riding a real horse, and I always felt cheated when I was forced to take her.
There was Maggie, a sweet chestnut mare with a white diamond on her face and particularly liquid eyes. And the two geldings, Prince and Silver, were stunners. Prince was jet black and part Arabian, and Silver was as white as milk.
Learning to post to Blossom's languid trot was easy, and I quickly advanced from beginner to junior. But then I ran into an obstacle. My progress seemed hopelessly thwarted by a dour riding counselor from Newfoundland who taught all the classes from junior on up.
At Arcadie, when campers addressed counselors, first names were supposed to be preceded by "Miss." Some counselors didn't care if you bothered with this formality, but Miss Sheila—a robust young woman with the bowlegged stance of a true equestrienne and a temper to match her cropped, carroty hair—clearly did. If you didn't say Miss, she'd either pretend she hadn't heard a word you'd said, or she'd fix you with a stare so fierce you'd instantly become the center of everyone's fascinated attention.
The first time she leveled her gaze at me, the animosity it held was as readable as a stop sign. This was due, I discovered, to the pin curls I was wearing beneath my scarf. To her that meant I must be a boy-crazy, giddy, unathletic type. Miss Sheila was the oldest of the handful of Newfoundlanders at camp—a roughhewn, boisterous lot with the same regional pride as Texans. Known for its severe winters, Newfoundland is an inhospitable place, and the "Newfies," as they called themselves, considered everyone else—especially Americans—pampered and soft.
When it came my turn to ride, Miss Sheila watched me approach, a sneer on her freckled face. "Well," she said in her most sarcastic drawl, "I'm glad you managed to find time between the beauty parlor and your manicure for a little ride," a remark that elicited titters. "But the next time you show up like that, you can count yourself out of this class!"
There was a get-together with a nearby boys' camp that night, and I wasn't the only Arcadie camper in pin curls. But I was the one she singled out. And the bad impression I'd made seemed to be indelible, for from that day on she remained bristlingly hostile, and turned a blind eye to my efforts to advance from junior to intermediate. No matter how well I rode, Miss Sheila never-seemed to notice—unless I did something wrong.
Class convened at the foot of a hill. We'd mount and then ride up a dirt road and over the crest, which took us out of Miss Sheila's sight. Some 25 yards beyond that, we'd turn at a road mark and then trot back down the hill. Miss Sheila usually saw to it that I ended up riding boring Blossom or ill-tempered Doll, so I never seemed to get a chance to show off my skills.
The road bordered a dairy farm on the right and a wood on the left. One time when I was riding Prince—a rare treat—I'd just come over the crest when he suddenly reared and then bolted sharply to the right, jumping a wire fence and galloping into a field where a huge black bull was tied to a rickety post. Miraculously secure in the saddle, I struggled to get control of the skittish horse as we sped toward the bull, coming within inches of its horns. With a surge of strength that surprised me, I managed to turn Prince around, jump him back over the fence and start down the road, flushed with pride.
But there had been no witness to my feat, and as I cantered into the home stretch Miss Sheila gave me a look of disdain. "Don't you ever come barreling down the hill like that again!" she snapped. "Your horse is all lathered up. It's a disgrace!"
I knew there was no point trying to explain. Miss Sheila obviously wasn't interested in what I had to say. Even when I volunteered for stable duty, she managed to be on the spot when I was at my worst. One time when I was saddling Doll, the feisty little mule spitefully stomped on my foot. When I let out a cry, Miss Sheila shot me a look that read, Oh, you big sissy! "You're going to frighten the horses," she said contemptuously. "You should watch where you step."
At this point you might find yourself wondering what I ever saw in horses. But anyone who shares this consuming passion knows that getting thrown or stomped on is just part of the game. The palpable tension between horse and rider is what makes the sport so thrilling. And to gain a worthy horse's respect—to ride with your mount at your command and the wind whistling in your hair—is worth any number of bruises, even to your pride.
Though my passion for riding grew that summer, I remained a junior. This meant I couldn't go on overnight rides or have the privilege of trotting to town to pick up the mail. It meant not being allowed to ride along the half-moon shoreline of the Bay of Fundy when the tide was out. It did mean always being consigned to the same boring uphill road.
Then one day when Silver, whom I'd never ridden, was in a wicked mood—he had thrown three fair riders in quick succession—I saw Miss Sheila dart a mean, thoughtful glance in my direction. When she beckoned me toward the fuming horse my heart pounded, but I saw my chance. I was sure she intended to humiliate me yet again. Or maybe I was wrong and her intentions were entirely benign—but I doubt it.
"All right," she said as I approached. "If you can get him up the hill and bring him back at less than a canter, I'll make you an intermediate." Smiling thinly, I nodded. As soon as I was in the saddle, the big gelding reared. He was Western-trained, and that was new to me. I'd no sooner gotten my feet into the stirrups than he veered to the left and bolted toward the stable, about 200 yards away.
I knew he was planning to gallop straight through the low doorway and scrape me off his back, and I was afraid he was going to succeed. I gathered the confusing mass of reins and pulled his head around. Silver reared again, and I'm sure he was surprised that he couldn't get such an apparently inoffensive creature off his back. So was I. For a while we wrangled as he bucked and pulled in one direction, and I kicked and pulled in the other. But then something happened—that moment when a horse recognizes he isn't going to win and agrees to be ridden, when horse and rider move as one, in gracious harmony.
Let me digress. Because I was a very small person, horses seemed to think I'd be easy to outwit, that I was insignificant, not to be taken seriously. So it was a matter of always proving to them that I could handle them, be worthy of their respect. In the case of Silver and me, once he realized I was in charge, he didn't so much surrender as make a deal: Now that I had shown him I could fulfill my function, he would fulfill his.
And so, with dignified acceptance,' Silver trotted back down to the foot of the hill and let me urge him up the trail. I was too caught up with the task to notice Miss Sheila's reaction. But when I came back down the hill at the same smooth trot, she smiled at me. It was a genuine smile, without a single trace of rancor.
"O.K., you're on," she said as I slid out of the saddle, legs still shaking. "The intermediate class meets at three. Be there tomorrow."
After that, my relationship with Miss Sheila reverted to what it had been, and that brief friendly moment never reoccurred. But despite her hostility toward the frivolous, boy-crazy type I apparently represented, when I was able to excel at the sport she loved, Miss Sheila forgot her prejudice—for a moment. I realized then that real accomplishment transcends the limits of personality, and that no matter what anyone thought of me, what counted was how well I performed.
Later that summer, I ran into Miss Sheila just before a big dance with the boys' camp. My hair was curled and I was wearing lipstick, and although Miss Sheila nodded a curt hello, her eyes made it clear that she thought my efforts were futile and ridiculous. For her, it seems, there were serious sportswomen and then there was another breed of females who were nothing but twits. But I'd like to believe that, at least for a few seconds one summer, I gave Miss Sheila something to think about.