“It’s going to snow this winter,” my mother said.
“That’s what it does in New Jersey,” I replied.
“Don’t you think it would be better to wait to get your driver’s license?”
“It’s only September.”
“But I worry,” she said.
“Okay, I’ll wait,” I replied, secretly relieved.
I waited until July and then promised not to drive outside the square mile limits of my small town. I didn’t really want to drive over the river bridge anyway.
Where was my sense of adventure? I’m not sure it ever existed. In third grade, the instability of a bicycle without training wheels made me wait two years for a second attempt. One skinned knee while roller skating and I retired my skate key.
“Sorry, but I can’t make it,” was my reply to a high school ski trip invitation. I couldn’t imagine racing down a slippery slope.
There are many ways of building confidence. Mine came from falling off of two horses.
College came with the promise of new beginnings. I wrote for the school newspaper and made the Dean’s List, but that was like what I’d always done. How could I break out of my cycle of wariness? I decided to take a chance.
I applied to be an exchange student in England and was accepted. On my first airplane trip, I flew across the ocean unaccompanied. I found the train that took me to Worcester College. I tapped into a reserve of courage I hadn’t known existed.
I loved sightseeing and having cultural experiences. Could a spirit of adventure overcome my reticence? I hoped so. I said yes when asked to horseback ride with other exchange students.
There were no lessons at the stable. It was assumed we knew how to ride. I planned to cover up my inexperience by carefully watching those with more.
We were escorted to our horses. What magnificent animals! Thoroughbreds. I was drawn to a cream-in-coffee-colored mount.
“Hi buddy,” I said holding my hand for him to smell. “What’s your name?”
Then I saw the nameplate on his stable. George.
“Hello George, I’m Judy. Do you think that means we’ll be friends? I hope so.”
“You picked a calm one, you did miss,” said the groom as he helped us lead the horses to the trail.
I smiled at this revelation. George had an intelligent face and a long stately neck. He hadn’t yet committed to friendship but was not resisting my approach. I knew to mount from the left side and was soon sitting in the saddle.
“Relax Judy, you look like you’re sitting in a chair,” said my roommate, Barbara, who had promised to keep an eye on me.
I relaxed my knees and tried to align my legs, mimicking the others. Curved shoulders of insecurity kept me from sitting tall in the saddle.
We followed each other on a trail through a lightly wooded area. George seemed to know the way. Soon we were trotting. I tried to learn to post and match my rhythm to George’s. The next day’s sore muscles told me I didn’t quite succeed.
I was drawn to George and made the mistake of looking at him instead of where we were going. Startled by a low branch, I reacted. I could have reined in the horse. I could have leaned forward and hugged his neck. Instead, I leaned backward losing my equilibrium.
I felt like I was falling in slow motion: a sideways somersault followed by a rump first landing. I was shaken but not hurt. Barbara said my fall looked like a ballet move.
George trotted off to the side and stood there watching me warily. Some say animals can’t express emotion but I know George was embarrassed. He lowered his head and warily watched my approach.
“It’s okay George. You didn’t do anything wrong,” I said soothingly.
We bonded over my mistake.
As the weeks went by, I started to look more like a rider. I developed the ability to sit tall. I’d like to think George looked forward to our jaunts. Sore muscles and pride didn’t deter me from riding. I learned how to trust myself and to move in sync with the horse.
The circus came to town and no one wanted to go with me. I wanted to see a British circus. Embracing my sense of adventure, I decided to go alone.
Once inside, I bought a large stick of cotton candy and looked for a safe place to sit. Next to a father with two small boys seemed like a good choice. The boys had never seen cotton candy. I shared.
“Look,” I said. “You can pull off a piece. It’s just spun sugar.”
“Why do you talk so funny?” one of them wanted to know.
“I’m American,” I answered
“Really? Do you have a horse? Do you know any cowboys?”
“No. It’s not like that. I don’t know any cowboys.”
“Aren’t they all over America? I’ve seen them on the telly.”
“There are cowboys out west but not where I live.”
“Our policemen are Bobbies. They carry sticks. Policemen in America have guns. Did you ever see anyone get shot?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“But they shoot people, don’t they?”
“They try not to.”
“Wouldn’t sticks be better?”
“Maybe,” I said glad that the show had started and stopped the questions.
Midway through the show a majestic white stallion entered the ring.
“Is there someone in the audience brave enough to ride this stately steed?” asked the ringmaster.
British reserve was in full force. No one volunteered.
“Surely someone dares to accept this challenge.”
“You can. You know cowboys,” said one of the little boys.
“I told you I’ve never met one.”
“But you can ride a horse,” he continued.
“Well yes,” I began but was cut short by the boys jumping to their feet.
“She can, she can, she rides horses,” they chanted pointing at me.
“No, don’t, sit down,” I whispered, temporally losing my sense of adventure.
My objections were ignored. Two clowns grabbed my hands and pulled me into the ring. One of them removed my glasses. Everything was a soft blur. A belt was secured around my waist. It was tethered to the top of the tent. Before I knew it, I was on a bareback galloping horse. There was nothing to hold. Forgetting form, I hugged the horse with my knees, amazed that I had stayed on for several seconds.
“Kneel,” someone ordered.
Adrenalin took over. I knelt and bounced.
“Now stand,” I was told.
I did, falling off immediately. I was airborne. The clowns lifted me with by the belt pulley. I flew to the top of the tent spinning like a starfish with my limbs forming an x. I continued to spin as I was lowered. Dizzy and blind, I couldn’t control any of my appendages.
I kicked a clown. His yelp told me it hurt despite the comical fall that elicited audience laughter.
Two others dredged up courage to follow my example but the little boys insisted.
“You were the best.”
Years later, I told my high school students about my horse riding escapades.
“Mrs. Sal, you’re not afraid of anything,” one of them said.
About the Author
Judith Salcewicz, a retired teacher and writer, lives, gardens, and volunteers in Lawrence, NJ. Her work has been published in The Kelsey Review, several Chicken Soup for the Soul, US 1 Fiction, and other publications. She writes book reviews for Lawrence Historical Society’s newsletter and participates in two writing groups.