December 15, 2008
The smell of horse poop, hay, and feed overwhelmed me. I breathed in deeply, probably one of the only people who appreciates the natural musk of a stable. Towards the back of the stables, a twenty-something with bleached blonde hair popped out of her plastic seat.

“Hi, I’m Claire,” she said with an Australian accent. Glancing down at her clipboard, she ran her pen along the side of a roster. “Jessie?”

“Nope,” I said; she had confused me with my best camp friend, “Sarah,”

“Welcome, Sarah, and sorry,” she replied cheerfully, “We’re about to get started, but first we’re going to do one of those get-to-know-you games. You’re probably tired of those, but to us Horse Chicks, they never get old,”

I smiled, and took my place on a faded saddle pad.

A few minutes later, after Jessie arrived (greeted with lots of screams, and a running hug-tackle), we began.

“Sarah, Highland, 16, Chicago, seventh, sixth,” I said in one breath. “Oh, and summer.” We were supposed to state name, cabin, age, hometown, year at camp, year riding, and summer/year-round rider.

The group stared at me. My answer was a little different from everybody else’s. First, I generally was too old to be in the cabin Highland. Normally, I should have been an Impala, with Jessie. Second, I was from Chicago. Most of the girls at camp were from New Hampshire, Connecticut, or Massachusetts. Third, seventh year at camp was the longest anyone had yet to mention—the previous girl had been here for three. Same with six years of riding at camp. Finally, there was the issue of summer rider. Since this was the highest riding class, most of them belonged to a stable at home, where they competed on a regular basis. The large majority had their own horses. I didn’t even lease.

“Summer rider, really?” asked Lauren, another one of the Horse Chicks.

“Yep,” I said, growing red, “I quit year-round about… maybe four years ago?”

“Oh,” said Claire, not pressing for details. She probably assumed a horror story or a sad story went along with it—a freak accident, or the death of a loved horse—and asking what happened would probably bring down the mood, not to mention scare the eleven-year-old sitting next to me.

As the little riding princess next to me began her spiel—decked out in chaps, riding pants, a custom-fit helmet, impossibly tiny boots, and even a pink crop—I looked down at my jeans and beat-up boots and thought about why I had quit four years ago……………….

I walked into Palatine Stables, not nearly as nervous as I had been for my first competition. My eyes darted directly to the board that told me what horse I was riding today. I scanned the list for my category, and found out I was riding Sassy that particular day.

“Mom, we have to go, I can’t do this anymore,” I begged, desperate. My mom, who had spent all morning getting ready for this, including french-braiding my hair, and running to Target for a clean, white, button-down shirt, was not going to give up this easily.

I launched into a description of how bad Sassy was. Sassy didn’t trot on command, she would barely get into a canter even when my instructor rode her, and I always needed a crop when I rode her.

Dragging me into the glass office, my mom quieted me and got my number card.

“You’ll be fine,” she assured me, “You’ll be fine.”

I tied my number around my stomach with the deteriorating string and stepped out into the harsh sunlight and swirling dust from the ring. The baby classes were competing right now, four-year-olds who had to be led around the ring on a longe line.

I sat down in the grass, and played with the strings on my boots. My mom chatted with some of the other moms who braved the humidity to watch their daughters ride. Finally, two events before mine, I went to find my horse.

I got into the dark stables, a stark difference from the bright ring outside. Stepping into Sassy’s stall cautiously, I placed my hand on her head so she wouldn’t spook. I ran my hand over her smooth neck, looked her in the eye, and told her exactly how she needed to behave today. Throwing the reins over her head, I pushed her on the shoulder, as hard as I could. After about a minute of coaxing, she grudgingly came out of the stall.

Blinking in the strong sunlight, I led Sassy out to the mounting block. I got on, and my dad (with his dusty equestrian knowledge from college) began surveying her.

“Looks like a nice horse,” he said. With pre-teen attitude, I rolled my eyes.

After kicking her about twenty times and finally resorting to a crop, I made it over to the dusty area where we would wait. My dad took pictures of me on the horse, and tried to reassure me that everything was fine, while my mom fussed over my shirt and hair.

Finally, the announcer up on the hill called my event, and I took a deep breath. One last, pleading glance at my parents, and I was walking into the ring. I caught the eye of my instructor, a somewhat eccentric redhead named Cynthia. I gave her a shaky smile and concentrated on getting Sassy moving.

The whiny judge’s voice came over the speakers, commanding me to pick up a posting trot. This time, I didn’t bother with kicking and went straight to cropping. To my surprise, Sassy picked up a nice trot. I grinned, and looked right at my parents.

“All right ladies,” the announcer whined, “Sitting now.”

I grimaced. Sitting trots were painful for me. It was much easier to go along with the horse’s body and post then stay in the saddle.

After two rounds around the ring, the announcer told us to go into a canter. Nervously, I pushed into Sassy’s side at the corner, leaning in. After two lengths, she finally decided that I was worth listening to. When I looked down, I realized I was on the wrong diagonal, which basically meant that my body wasn’t moving with Sassy. I relaxed and sat down for one stride, intending on picking the right diagonal back up.

And then it hit me.

Or rather, I hit it.

For some reason, Sassy reared up, and I, unprepared, went with her, and flew into the fence. In slow motion, my tailbone came down on the wood connecting the posts of wood. I crumpled, crying.

Cynthia came running over, her red hair out-of-control in the wind.

“OH MY GOD are you okay?” she yelled from ten feet away. Embarrassed, I stood up, and nodded, unsure.

While my parents looked on, horrified, Cynthia came over, and wiped a tear off my cheek.

“You’re fine, you’re fine,” she comforted.
I shook my head. “No, I’m not. I can’t get on.”
“Yes you can,” snapped Cynthia, “they’re waiting for you.”Shaping her hands into a temporary staircase, she lifted me back onto the horse.

“Kick butt out there,” she whispered.

As I made my way back into the flow of horses, people applauded me. The whiny instructor’s voice came on, and I picked up a trot again. Suddenly, Sassy lunged forward, and I went flying over her head. A collective gasp rose from the audience. This time, Cynthia ran into the ring, and hugged me briefly.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“I’m not going on again,” I said, looking her in the eye. She nodded, and handed me Sassy’s reins. All the riders lined up in the center of the ring, our backs to the judges.

Finally, it was over. As was customary, our instructors gave us our ribbons, a congratulations card, and a treat for the horse. Cynthia gave me my white ribbon, a pink card, and a bone-shaped treat for Sassy. She gave me a brief, apologetic smile, and turned away to tend to her other students. My parents came over, worry in their faces. I threw the ribbon and the treat on the ground, and ground them into the dirt with my heel. I ripped the card into pieces. I collapsed into my mom’s arms.

“It’s okay,” she coaxed, “we can go home now.”

“Sarah, why did you get on the horse after you fell off?” asked my dad.

“Because I thought things would be better this time,” I snapped. Because Cynthia told me they would be.

I handed Sassy off to her next rider, and gave her one last shove before I left. Holding my mom, I didn’t see my dad pick up the stained, imperfect ribbon from the ground………………….

I adjusted my position on the faded horse blanket, as blue as the sky on that early summer day. The bruising on my tailbone that must have happened that day still makes it painful to sit in certain positions for an extended time.
That white ribbon, crumpled and dirty, still hangs on the wall in my bedroom, fitting in perfectly with the rest of my purple-and-white room. A picture of me and Sassy is on my bulletin board, along with pictures of me with other horses from camp. That optimistically yellow crop is somewhere in the chest filled with my other memories.
Today, riding during the summer at camp is one of the highlights of my year. The mementos that I kept are constant reminders that bad days will eventually lead to good days, and that, in accordance with the cliché, even if it takes you an entire year, you should always get back on the horse after you fall off (even twice).

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Audrey W. This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
May 18, 2009 at 12:40 am
Is this a true story? I mean, it IS in the nonfiction, so it must be. I love riding horses and I know it is hard to get back on after a hard fall. But at least you got back on the first time. Good luck!
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