I started riding at age 40, almost twelve years ago. Vandy was the first Windy Ridge horse I leased. The first I rode in Drill Team. The first I ever bought tack for. The first I ever thought of as “my horse.” With help from Mark, Vandy taught me how to ride.
There are two kinds of horses — the kind you push and the kind you hold back. I like the kind you hold back. I loved Vandy. She was always ready to go. Not excited or frantic or nervous. Just ready to go. Not even eager, exactly. I think of Jackpot, with the energy of youth, as eager to go. Vandy, by the time I met her, had acquired some of the wisdom of age and so was always just ready to go. If you’ve seen her trotting in for her mash, just subtract ten years and you pretty much have what Vandy was like for me all the time.
Vandy was very affectionate, but kind of the way a Queen Mother might be affectionate. “You may pet me now, my subjects. Because I like you and am a good-hearted horse, I will allow you to pet me now. As a special reward to you, I will rest my head against your shoulder now for a while.”
My First State
Not long after starting my lease with Vandy, I became the first member of my family to join the Drill Team. The best part about riding Vandy as a Drill Team alternate was that she knew everything that I didn’t. Vandy knew the language of whistles long before I had deciphered its code. Mark would blow three whistles and Vandy’d be off at a lope. Two whistles and we were instantly down to a trot. Four and Vandy would screech to a halt, leaving me to pick myself up off her neck. Vandy also learned the Drill Team pattern long before I did. As each whistle signaled a new maneuver, she’d smartly head off to our next position, while I’d dumbly sit there, wondering where we were off to now. That year, Vandy taught me one of the first laws of horsemanship: Riding is a partnership between human and horse. And in any good partnership, at least one of you should know what the heck you’re doing.
The highlight of that first year was, of course, the State Fair. Not that we actually rode in the State Fair performance – I was just an alternate. But Vandy and I did get to ride in the Coliseum, at the 6 AM practice, and I don’t know which one of us was more keyed up about it. Hand galloping around the biggest ring I’d ever been in. What fun!
I remember how excited Freya was to get up at 4 AM to go with me out to the fairgrounds (Freya was 8 years old then; now you need a cannon to get her up in the morning). I remember our whole family pitching in to bathe and groom Vandy (hint to future Drill Team members: think about the rigors of bathing a horse before you pick a white one). I remember Freya standing in Vandy’s stall afterwards, brushing Vandy’s tail over and over and over, until all the hairs glowed like fiber-optic cables. Then we got to dress up in our fancy tack and ride down to the Coliseum entrance. Vandy and I were both younger then, and I must say, we both looked pretty spiffy in our spangled polyester splendor. “Ooohh, look! A parade!” one little girl shouted, and our outfits didn’t seem silly any more.
Classes with Vandy were always fun, but sometimes challenging. The toughest nights were when we worked on transitions. Vandy was expert at walk-to-trot and trot-to-canter. But downward transitions were another story. To Vandy, trot-to-walk meant trot-to-trot. Canter-to-trot meant canter-to-canter – to be distinguished from the canter-to-canter that was Vandy’s version of canter-to-walk. More leg, Paul, more leg.
The Night I’ll
Never Forget (or Anatomy Is Destiny)
Our first Fall Overnighter. Eager to join in the Windy Ridge Overnighter Traditions and be One of the Guys, I made a mistake that almost kept me from ever being one of the guys again. I went on the Moonlight Bareback Ride. Bareback. On Vandy.
Vandy was wonderful on trail rides, but her high withers and years spent as a brood mare combined to provide a seat that only someone as inexperienced as I was then would consider ride-able without a saddle or pad. “Boney” just doesn’t begin to describe it.
The longest trail ride of my life began calmly enough, until the slinky effect set in. Vandy would trot to catch up, and I would urge her to slow back down to a walk. With no stirrups to lean on or saddle to cushion Vandy’s motion, my repertoire of riding aids was soon reduced to whimpering pleas, delivered in an ever-higher, ever-shakier voice. “Plea-eas-sse Vaa-aan-ddy, wall-llkkk. Sllo-ooww doo-oown giii-irrrlll. Plea-eas-sse.”
On the other hand, daytime rides (or, more importantly, fully-tacked rides) were wonderful. Peg got to ride Vandy once too that year, and we both remember one trail in particular, with winding switchback turns through the woods you could take at a canter. Vandy would motorcycle her way through the curves, leaning heavily into each turn, delivering flying lead changes long before I even knew what they were. What a thrill!
The Night I’ll
1993 was the last year I rode Vandy in Drill Team. I have many memories of that year, but none of one evening’s practice. I can only tell you what was told to me.
Practice was almost over. It was late in the summer and almost dark, but we decided to try one more full-speed run-through of our trickiest maneuver – “Ovalteam,” in which two giant ovals of riders form a huge “X.” Each rider’s oval intersects with the other oval twice in each direction, all at a lope. Four intersections per loop. Four chances for disaster.
Larry Moskiewicz was on the team back then. Normally Larry rode Buck, but this evening he was riding a big spotted app named Fiver, short for Five Alarm Fire. To look at Fiver, you’d think he got his name for being spotted just like a firehouse Dalmatian. Actually, he earned it by being as easy to steer or stop as a hook-and-ladder firetruck.
Anyhow, at one intersection Fiver earned his name again by plowing right into Vandy’s side, knocking us over. Vandy and I hit the ground, then my head hit it a few more times. Thanks to my helmet, the only real damage was an evening spent riding a 30-second short-term memory-loss loop. As in Ovalteam, I kept going round and round over the same territory:
Me: What happened?
Peg: Fiver crashed into Vandy and knocked you down.
Me: Is Vandy all right?
Peg: Vandy is fine.
Me: Are Larry and Fiver all right?
Peg: They’re fine. No one got hurt but you.
Me: Oh…. What happened?
After a while, Peg got tired of repeating her answers and just wrote her part down on paper, pointing to the top of the page again each time I returned to the start of the loop. At the next practice I wondered whether I’d be scared when we got to Ovalteam. But, since I had absolutely no memory of the accident, I had nothing to be nervous about. I don’t know how much of it Vandy remembered, but she never hesitated and seemed to hold no grudges. So I like to think of Vandy out in the pasture that night:
Vandy: What happened?
Buck: Fiver crashed into you.
Vandy: Is Fiver hurt?
Candy: No. He’s fine.
Vandy: The guy who gives me carrots…is he hurt?
Flash: No, he’s fine.
Vandy: Oh… What happened?
After that year, I stopped riding Vandy in Drill Team. I had nightmare visions of her keeling over right in the middle of the State Fair performance. I knew she would never tell us that she was getting too tired to perform. Vandy would always be ready to go. Of course, the joke was on me – Vandy kept performing for years in Jets after I had stopped riding her in Drill Team.
I’ve always believed that you spend time with animals to learn how to be a human being. Vandy has taught me a lot, not least about aging gracefully. Don’t make a fuss about it. Ignore the little aches and pains. Have fun. Don’t hold back. And be sure to find someone who loves you enough to feed you really well.
Vandy. Outstanding mother. Successful career-woman. Vibrant senior citizen. Wotta gal!