What do Genghis Kahn, William the Conqueror, and Geronimo all have in common? Mighty warriors, they died not in battle, but by falling off horses. The list of historical notables who got killed on horseback includes kings, queens, prime ministers, Pope Urban VI and Emperor Theodosius of Rome.
I’ve long insisted that my plan was to die in a fall from a horse at age 88—suitably remote as to make it a joke. A smug, stupid joke. I’ve also argued—as friends’ broken shoulders and fractured pelvises accumulated—that riding bicycles in traffic is a damn fool thing for mature citizens to do.
Challenged, I’d say I never rode horses in traffic or on pavement. One virtue of our Arkansas farm is that it’s river bottom land. There’s not a rock on the place. Besides I hadn’t been dumped in fifteen years.
Ever the pedant, I’d say that two of my personal heroes, Thomas Jefferson and Jonathan Swift, rode horses into their seventies. Jefferson designed a portico at Monticello allowing him to step down onto a horse’s back after he could no longer mount from the ground. Swift kept fit on rainy Dublin days by running the bell tower steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He built a walled pasture nearby so he could visit his horses every day.
It’s not for nothing that the final voyage of Swift’s masterpiece Gulliver’s Travels was to the Houyhouyhnms, a kingdom of philosophical talking horses. Pronounced “win-ums” it’s the sound horses make deep in their throats when they’re glad to see you.
As my large friend Mount Nebo has always been happy to see me. He hustles into the barn, bobbing his head and nickering. “Houyhouyhnm,” he says. “Got any carrots?” In a joke photograph I made of me in a cowboy hat scowling squint-eyed like Clint Eastwood, Nebo spoils the effect by gazing at me like a lovelorn teenager.
(I’d taken the picture for a French friend who expressed mock disappointment when I showed up in Montpellier sans cowboy hat.)
Ah, but here’s the thing: I’m confident that all of the above—from Genghis Khan to Jefferson—were my superiors as horsemen. I took up riding at age 50, after giving up ball sports. Friends generously offered to stable Rusty, a quarter-horse gelding, in return for help around their barn.
The first time Rusty dumped me wasn’t on purpose. An experienced animal, he could tell I didn’t know what I was doing. Horses are very acute about that. Somebody’s got to be in charge, and if you’re not decisive, it’s every horse for himself.
I had no business riding outside a fenced enclosure. A deer hunter in a tree stand waved, and we were off to the races. I’d lost a stirrup at his first jump, and did an emergency dismount before he really got rolling. It’s one thing falling on your face from a horse’s back—quite another if he’s running 35 mph.
I was lying face down in the dirt taking an inventory of moving parts, when I felt Rusty’s breath on my neck. My instructor said she’d have made me sell him if he hadn’t come back. Rusty was too much horse for a novice, but I was stubborn. We aged into each other. There were fewer hairy moments, no serious injuries.
Besides a degree of athleticism my greatest equestrian skill is a low center of gravity. Unless the horse is trying to buck me, I tend to stay on.
Mount Nebo replaced Rusty five years ago, a well-trained Tennessee walking horse of appropriate maturity. Too well-trained, I fear. One way horses differ from, say, dogs, is that the less work they get, the less they want. As I began to ride less frequently—I blame cow work—Nebo developed avoidance techniques.
If he saw a lead rope, it was nothing doing. To catch him, I had to trick him with baling twine. Then he’d swell up like a toad to keep the cinch loose. Instead of moving forward when I’d try to mount, he’d back up, leaving me with one foot in the stirrup, hopping. He developed strong opinions about when it was time to head home. We bickered. No rough stuff, just stubbornness.
Then last weekend came the parting of the ways. I’m never saw what spooked him, but we were trotting through my neighbor’s pasture—headed toward home actually—when Nebo suddenly jumped sideways, bucked once, and galloped off at a right angle. Totally unprepared, I hit the ground hard.
The ground’s a lot harder twenty years on. Although I could hardly walk for two days, I have no serious injuries except maybe a broken rib or two—painful, but not life threatening.
Well-intentioned friends insist that I need to get back on the horse.
No, I don’t. I’ve had my last rodeo.
Nebo, see, didn’t come back.
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