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A YOUNG GIRL'S RIDING LESSONS LEAD TO SOME LESSONS ABOUT PEOPLE, TOO
Katharine Merlin
April 09, 1984
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.
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April 09, 1984

A Young Girl's Riding Lessons Lead To Some Lessons About People, Too

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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.

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