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Henry Miller once said that a hero is a man who has conquered his fears. So watch me, wherever you are now. Perhaps I began to be a heroine when I sat on the back of a horse for the first time in my adult life. She was aptly named Dulcie, having the sweetest of temperaments and reputedly never a bad mood in her 19 years on the planet. Built like a table and standing 14.2 hands high, this sturdy Welsh cob tolerated my uneasy presence with the nobility of a gentle giant. Fearfully, I took in her wide chest, powerful shoulders, and the huge muscles of her chocolate-brown rump. Sitting astride her, I hung on with tense legs and tight hips, my shoulders and hands rigid, jaw locked, and embarked on my first hack ever across the English countryside.
We set off in the sleepy stillness of early afternoon in late August, under a windy sky. My sister rode alongside me on her pony, Tandy, a dainty creature of iron will and uncertain temper who eyed me with disdain as she picked her way along the tracks, conscious of her elegance but also of her strength. Of the two horses, she was the boss even though she was sylphlike in comparison to the bulk of Dulcie. My sister was evidently concerned about the responsibility of taking a novice out into the lanes and tracks, but gave soothing replies to my anxious questions. She showed me how to hold the reins through my fourth and fifth fingers and instructed me to push my heels down and toes up. She had removed my sunglasses gently before we set out.
"But I always wear sunglasses," I protested.
"Not a very good idea," she suggested. She didn't say why, and only later did I realize that she didn't want to mention the subject of accidents. I acquiesced. She was the expert. I was in her hands, on her horse, and she had ridden for most of her life. It's funny: We are twins, but our interests and personalities had diverged at an early age.
We turned off the quiet lane from the paddock where she kept her horses into a tunnel of green that led through to the harvest fields. As Dulcie ambled along, I touched her strong neck with a sense of wonder and privilege that this massive animal would carry me on her back, bearing my weight with no protest. Her thick mane swung loosely to the rhythmic nod of her head as she walked, a fountain of coarse brown hair with auburn and straw-colored lights in it. I inhaled her horse scent, that delicious sweetness that I would come to love. She dropped her head to stretch her neck, and switched her ears sideways. I felt myself relax a little.
A pair of swallows swooped over the field as we emerged from the green lane. I remember a splash of scarlet pimpernel in the verge. As we walked alongside a hedge up a slope, the golden stubble exhaled the smell of harvest. A distant tractor rumbled around collecting bales of straw. The strong afternoon sun bleached the reaped fields, throwing shadows of hedgerow trees over the cut wheat.
At the top of the hill, we stopped to look back. Judith asked me how I was doing. I said I thought I'd gone to heaven: Never having seen the countryside from the back of a horse before, and being an avid walker and botanist, I was in my element. All around us lay expanses of ripened crops and stubble, punctuated only by viridian trees and lines of hedges. Swaths of corn alternated with darkly plowed earth in a far field, in brushstrokes that converged at the crest of the hill. Orange-tip butterflies flickered among rust-colored spikes of dock as Dulcie feigned starvation and made for some juicy leaves hidden in the grasses.
We rode for 2 hours that day (it seemed a much shorter time), walking mostly but with a couple of trots for which Judith prepared me in advance, offering rudimentary advice about how to rise. "You're a natural," she said, at the end of the second one. Kind of her, I thought. Personally, I felt I had been bumping around in the saddle like a sack of potatoes with no control at all. Still, I appreciated her saying it.
My memories of that ride are paradoxically vague yet intense. What I do remember clearly, though, is that the next day, I thought I would never walk again. I was stiff; I was sore; I felt crippled. My sitz bones seemed to have pierced my bottom so painfully that I could only sit with care--and on something soft. I had thought I was a fit woman--an energetic walker, a yoga teacher even. I should be supple if anyone was, but riding had gotten to parts that even the most advanced asanas apparently had not. I felt as though someone had taken my legs, pulled them wide, and tried to split me up the middle.
But even this degree of discomfort did not put me off. That day in August proved to be the beginning of something that I could never have imagined for myself, because from childhood I had had a deep-seated fear of horses. Something woke up in me after that first ride, a dawning realization that the world is only a mirror of ourselves, and like Alice, I decided to walk through the looking glass.