By Susan Friedland-Smith
Back in July, my husband, Mark, who is now a budding equestrian, purchased a helmet in anticipation of his future riding “career.” I really had no idea he was planning on crossing over to the horse side. He’s more of a beach goer and skier.
I knew something was up when he texted me to ask if my saddle was all-purpose or dressage. I was in Illinois visiting my family and he was flying to meet me and I was poised to pick him up from the airport. I assumed he had met someone on the flight from Orange County to Chicago who was a rider and he was trying to talk shop. Not so. When I met him curbside at O’Hare, he had his briefcase and suitcase next to him with the book Horseback Riding for Dummies in the crook of his arm.
We had been apart for a couple of weeks and, in that time away, he had begun reading up on horses. I was dumbfounded as I scanned through the pages of the yellow book noting underlined passages and comments in the margins. I thought he was trying to impress me (and it worked), but apparently he had decided to begin riding and, before he got on a horse, he wanted to be as knowledgeable as possible.
Mark didn’t want to waste his time learning beginner things during his upcoming lessons. He shared if he could master the knowledge of gaits and proper position out of the saddle, he would then be getting the most bang for his buck during an actual lesson in the saddle. I was amused but didn’t think much of it as we were visiting family and 2,000 miles away from home.
A few days into our trip, we took my 15-year-old niece to her local tack shop for saddle repairs. I lost my husband in the store, and when he surfaced several minutes later, he was wearing riding breeches and being waited on by two female sales clerks. As the women went off to find him different sizes and models of riding pants, he pointed to the white breeches on the rack and asked if he could wear those. I told him he wasn’t ready for that quite yet, and softened my “no” by adding that white shows all the dirt.
“Are you really going to ride?” I was thinking that I should be the one getting new breeches, because I’m the true equestrian in the family.
He said, “I’m not going to ride, I’m going to jump!”
And with that, 20 minutes later he bought the gray Tailored Sportsman breeches. I only bought one item: a sticker of a horse and rider jumping, which I plan to attach to the back window of his car after he jumps his first course. The next day he bought a helmet from another tack shop and ordered paddock boots and half chaps online.
That night around 11 p.m., I found him in my parents’ office watching YouTube videos about how to get the correct diagonal. He watched and replayed, watching again. He then asked about leads and which diagonal to be on when the horse is on the left lead. The earnestness with which he observed the girl posting and changing diagonals overrode my gut instinct to openly laugh. He reminded me of a Boy Scout.
I guess his sudden interest into equestrianism shouldn’t have been a surprise. About two years earlier during Thanksgiving break in Illinois, we “played” polo for about 10 minutes on my niece’s friend’s mom’s Argentine polo ponies. When he dismounted after his brief but successful foray into polo (yes, he cantered past me and swung the mallet, hitting the ball way out of my posting trot reach), the polo pony owner asked, “How long has your husband been riding?”
I responded, “He doesn’t.” I guessed he’s just a natural.
On our return flight to California this summer, Mark brought a small piece of string on board. As he read the section in his Dummies book on how to tie a horse, he practiced the quick-release knot using a pencil as the hitching post and the string as a lead rope. I thought for a second of how crazy we must have looked if anyone on the plane took note of our actions, but then dismissed the embarrassment knowing that hands-on learning is really the kind of learning that sticks regardless if it happens at a barn or on an airplane.
Two or three days after our return flight with the string, it was International Helmet Awareness Day and I noticed on Twitter that six-time Badminton Horse Trials champion and British Olympian Lucinda Green tweeted a selfie sporting a riding helmet and SWIMSUIT! A challenge was issued via retweet for people to start sharing swimsuit/bikini, and Speedo (yes, Speedo) selfies while wearing a riding helmet.
“Mark, some people are tweeting helmet photos in swimsuits and someone has asked for men to pose in their Speedos and helmets. Are you up for it?”
My husband has been Elvis, Michael Jackson, and last year he won a Halloween costume contest as a very compelling version of Richard Simmons. Asking him if he wanted to “dress up” or in this case, undress a bit, I knew he’d be game. He disappeared into the house.
Next, Mark came out to the back yard in his blue bikini Speedo (used only underneath a wetsuit) carrying my old bridle the wrong way in one hand and Horseback Riding for Dummies in the other. The Speedo is ancient and stretched out and I’ve thought of buying him a new one, but I can’t bring myself to that, as I don’t want to be perceived as an advocate for middle aged men wearing Speedos.
So while wearing only his tiny swimsuit and new riding helmet, he pretended to be practicing how to bridle a horse using our Golden Retriever as a horse. Our dog’s head was strategically posed to create for a more modest photo.
I sent out a tweet that said: @susanwordlover All riders from Olympians like @LucindaGreenMBE to newbies like my hubs should wear helmets.
I am pleased to report that in addition to advocating riding with a helmet, I attracted a new Twitter follower: Lucinda Green herself.
Following that excitement, Mark began riding lessons. He caught on quickly to the idea of the ideal position and picked up the steering concept. However, he felt the hour-long lessons ended too quickly, as he wanted a more rigorous workout. He also shared that his balance “sucked.”
In addition to simple equitation, Mark learned how to groom and tack a horse. Before one lesson he did the most thorough job picking a hoof that I have ever seen! I literally think he held up the school horse’s hoof for five minutes brushing away each grain of sand. His fastidiousness put me to shame.
About a month ago as I was getting ready for a lesson, Mark asked, “Do you want me to brush down the horse for you?” It was then I realized a perk for his newfound interest in my hobby: my groom is now my groom! I never would have guessed it could happen. In the midst of the comedy, we have a new camaraderie centering on horses. And I can’t wait until our next trip to the tack store!
About the writer: Susan Friedland-Smith, a middle school history teacher living in North Tustin, California, has been horse-crazy since girlhood. While encouraging her newbie equestrian husband’s riding pursuits, she has been on a quest to find her next equine best friend. Join the quirky adventures by following her blog Saddle Seeks Horse at www.susanfriedlandsmith.com and on Twitter @susanwordlover.