Throw Your Heart Over

The year is 1981, I'm 15 years old and still completely crazy for horses. I don't know it at the time, but it's the last year of my long childhood. Always a late bloomer, it will be another 9 months before I discover punk rock and boys, and abandon my childhood dreams of being on the United States Equestrian Team.

 At this very moment I'm almost living the dream - I'm riding a golden Tennessee Walker horse named Magic over 3' foot jumps, in a small arena tucked away in the Eugene foothills. The place is Scarborough Fair Acres, and I'm a student there - under the watchful (and often baleful) eye of my riding teacher, known to everyone simply as "Teach".

 I'm desperate to do well, and I work hard. This is my passion - and to me it's everything. It's extremely difficult, but it's not work in my opinion, it's pure pleasure. When I was very small I was afraid of horses, mostly because my mom and I lived for a time in a tipi right in the middle of a huge horse pasture, and they would thunder around our fragile, cloth tent in the early dawn, free and wild, and I was so small - and they so big - I was terrified of being trampled by them. But once I added a couple of years and a few inches to my self, I became obsessed with them. I saw horses as the ultimate in grace, beauty, and exciting adventures. Also, they represented a lifestyle that was the complete opposite of my own - the dream life of a prosperous stable, shining saddles and bridles, creamy riding jodhpurs and brilliant scarlet jackets, neat hairdos and gold pins at your throat. At eight years old, that seemed like paradise on earth to me.

Instead, I spent a good part of my childhood with my eyes peeled for horses. Being a hippie kid that lived in a traveling house truck meant I found horses all over the place. You never knew what would be living next to the campground or friend's house your parents chose to stay at for the night, week, or month. Sometimes it was just people living there, or sometimes it was a huge forest with magical creeks and trails to explore. Sometimes it was the McKenzie River, ice-cold and fast, and dangerous, but with most musical sound. Sometimes it was goats, rabbits in hutches, or dogs. And sometimes it was horses.

I don't know what warrior spirit possessed me in those early days. I was very young - eight years old, maybe ten at the end of that period - and small. I didn't hit my growth spurt for another two years, and being a hippie kid I was also skinny. But somehow I found the courage and strength and downright foolishness to go look for, find, and often even RIDE the horses in our vicinity. Wherever that might be.

One memorable time we were parked in the woods, I have no idea what state - along the river, and I went looking for horses as usual. Not far away I found some. Half a dozen two or three year old horses - I was already an expert on age, breed, and conformation - were penned in a corral, and there was no house in sight. It was a corral in the middle of the woods, with a barn, but no people, anywhere. I spent time with the horses, I made friends with them, fed them clover I picked, and then I looked around for something to make a bridle with. In my mind, I was already riding them. There didn't seem to be any reason why I couldn't - it didn't matter to me if they were broken to ride or not, surely they wouldn't hurt me if I was kind, and careful.

I found some baling twine half-buried in the dirt. (I was always finding bits of harness and halters and old curry combs in the dirt!) I pulled it out, and tied it together fashioning a rudimentary hack-a-more, or a bridle without a bit. I slipped it over the head of the friendliest horse, and led him around for a while. He did what I wanted, and was only a little bit nervous. Eventually I led him over to the fence, and slipped on his back, bareback of course. He danced around a bit, but didn't throw me and I was able to - rather awkwardly I admit - guide him around the corral with my hand-made bridle. It was exhilarating. I never made him do anything more than walk. But he was very young and untrained, and I'm lucky he didn't throw me, all alone in the woods. It was a very dangerous situation, but I was oblivious to anything but the joy of it. After a little while I slipped off, removed the baling twine, and let him go. My heart was pounding with happiness and adventure, and I sat on the grass for awhile, watching the horses snuffle under the fence for more clover. Then I thanked them - and went back to the campground, and my parents.
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That was the past. In 1981 I was riding in earnest. I wanted to be on the United States Equestrian Team. Scarborough Fair Acres was a unique academy for such a rural place as the Eugene foothills, and I felt lucky to go there. Teach had come from somewhere in California, and had been classically trained as a rider in the Podaphski riding tradition. Podaphski is the guy who trained the Vienna Lipizzaner Stallions, and he means business. Riding, according to him, is invisible. No movements can be seen. Commands are given to the horse solely through weight cues and hidden leg and hand cues - and let me tell you, in order to accomplish this you have to TRAIN your a** off. It's like the Olympics, learning this method, and Teach was a formidable coach. I trained there for three years, and was very successful. I jumped five foot fences, rode a saddle bred mare at a racking trot in full gear, and was kind of one of the darlings of the stable, for a little while. It was hard, so hard - but I loved it.

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Teach was a character - intimidating, with a big voice, and not afraid to insult you if you weren't doing your best. I always did my best - I hated it when she was disappointed in me - and I lived for her praise. She had a LOT of stories - one of them I'll never forget - she took me into her bedroom once to show me a jewelry box that when opened, held an amazing emerald necklace and matching earrings. She told me that Errol Flynn had given her those when they dated. When she was 16 years old. I believed her - you just can't make that stuff up.

There was another, and much more important, thing Teach said to me that I'll never forget. When she was down in the arena with me - I'm on horseback, she's standing at my stirrup - she looks up at me says, "Diane - when you're riding at the jump, don't look down. Don't even look at the jump - look beyond it. Throw your heart over. If you throw your heart over first, your horse will always follow."

She was totally right. Magic and I took every fence in perfect stride when I remembered that advice. It's something about already having done it in your mind, and your body just finishing up the job. Something about committing - about loving something enough to do it without hesitation, even though it's scary. And, it's about a kind of surrender - that leads to victory.

That's pretty good advice, even beyond the arena. And it's something I've instinctively known since those childhood days of riding horses in the woods.

Right now it's about my book. We've just finished the very final edits - and it has been an emotional roller coaster. You think you've done your best, you've combed through the manuscript so many times, with other editors even - and you still find errors, or clunky passages, or repeated words. So frustrating! I get choked up when this happens - it's like a black fear that I'm just totally incompetent and the book is crap, and it just rises up in my throat and chokes me - it's really the worst. Then I have to breathe and council myself - calm down, calm down, it's not the whole book, it's just that particular word, or passage, and you can still fix it, so breathe. Fix it.

I have to let it go. I am committed - I've done the work, it's all turned in, the pages are designed - and it's going to the printers for the first "galleys" or "Advanced Readers Copies". So now - it's time to look beyond the jump. I have thrown my heart over, just like I did when I rode those horses in the woods, and amazingly, tellingly - there is a horse on the cover rearing on its hind legs as if it's already soaring.

Happy Monday!
xoxoxo Diane