My daughter loves horses. Up until a year or so ago, she loved every single aspect of horsehood. More recently however she has been focused like a laser on riding them. We try to get her on a horse as often as we realistically can, considering we live in the suburbs and aren’t independently wealthy. One of the major highlights of the vacation this year was a horseback ride for her and Mrs. Agent on the beach. And this year, so as not to feel left out, the Boy would go on a trailride. And so as not to leave the boy unsupervised, I would go along.

What IS this fixation some women have for horses? I know when men discuss it amongst themselves, phrases like ‘1,000 lb organic vibrator’ get tossed around, but in speaking to female riders they generally ascribe it to having a sense of control. There is some strong female resonance with controlling a large dumb animal. This may explain not only why women enjoy horseback riding, but also why they get married. But I digress.

We arrived at the stables in time to sign multiple waivers and disclaimers. Basically, I think that the horse could do anything, up to and including eating our livers, and the stable would have no responsibility. When the time came to start the beach ride, the womenfolk went off to the corral, got assigned horses, saddled up, and hit the trail.

The boy and I cooled our heels for another hour or so. I went over the rules with him to make sure he understood them. The most important rule was that no rider could abuse the horses. I didn’t think this was going to be an issue, but I made sure the boy understood that if he hit the horse in any way, the ride would be over. Especially, the rules stipulated that under no circumstances would anyone be permitted to strike a horse with the saddle strings. Seemed reasonable. I could think of no reason why I would ever want to strike a horse.

The boy began to get more and more nervous, and started asking me how he was supposed to steer the horse, and how he was supposed to stop it. I assured him that the guides would give us all the instruction we needed. Finally, with a fairly large group gathered, it was time to be assigned to horses.

Contrary to popular belief, I was not overly concerned about getting tossed off the horse. I was concerned about being too heavy for some poor horse to haul me around. The guides must have thought I was nervous, though, since after a few moments of thought they told me to go stand by Dusty’s stall.

I walked across the corral. Dusty was standing motionless, and his wrinkled muzzle had a grizzled look about it. He stood there with eyes closed, and when I said “Hello, Dusty” he only lifted one eyelid long enough to look me up and down, then promptly went back to sleep. This was clearly a horse of considerable experience. Which is another way of saying he was geriatric. Okay. I figured there was nothing that was going to happen on this ride that was going to surprise this horse. I mean, even if a rattlesnake were to jump out of the bushes, I could see Dusty calmly looking down at it with one eye, and then methodically placing a hoof on its head and squashing it into paste. This was not a horse that got overly excited.

When it came time to mount, the guides told me that Dusty had a sore shoulder, and they wanted me to use a mounting block rather than swing up using the stirrup. That sounded fine. Of course it wasn’t until later that I realized they were probably lying through their teeth, and just didn’t want the fat man to look like a fool when he couldn’t get off the ground, since they also told Mrs. Agent to use the mounting block. Oh well.

Once everybody was on horseback, the guides did go through basic horsemanship, and then we set off. I was told that Dusty would be at the rear of the line. We began to file out the corral and head down the trail.

Almost immediately, one of the young women acting as guides called out to me. “Sir! Sir! Dusty is kind of a special case. He’s really lazy, so if you want him to keep up with the other horses, you’ll have to smack him on the rear with the saddle strings.”

Say what?

“Sir, it’s completely OK. He’s just old and lazy, and he doesn’t want to keep up with the other horses. But if he falls behind it means we’ll waste time waiting for him, so you have to keep him moving. Just squeeze with your heels and whip him with the saddle strings.”

I squeezed with my heels and tapped Dusty’s flank with the saddle string. There was no perceptible change in Dusty’s gait.

“No sir. You’re going to have to hit him harder than that. Are you afraid he’s going to bolt and run down the trail?”

Uh, no. This was not a horse that was going to bolt anywhere. I told her I just wasn’t that comfortable striking a horse.

“No, no. It’s the only way to get him to keep up. Keep swatting him and squeezing your heels until he steps up the pace a bit. Whenever he slows down, you’ll have to keep hitting him until he speeds up.”

I asked her how old Dusty was.

“Oh, he’s twenty-one. He’s a good old guy.”

Judas Priest. I was whipping a horsey senior citizen.

The rest of the ride was a bit stressful, as I was trying to keep Dusty moving along without hitting him, and also without incurring the wrath of the guide. The worst part was when we were climbing up and over some sandy hills. The poor horses were fetlock-deep in sand, and climbing uphill. Dusty was laboriously taking one step at a time, and I became acutely aware of every pound of fat on my body. I began to feel tremendously guilty. Then Dusty began to blow out through his lips violently. Then, I swear to God, he began to groan from deep in his chest. I asked the guide if this was normal.

“Oh, the trail is just dusty and it gets in his nose.”

Okay, this was NOT a ‘clearing-the nose’ noise, this was a ‘Oh-God-I’m-going-to-die’ noise. By this point I was pretty sure that Dusty and I were on completely the same wavelength. I was busily thinking ‘Please don’t let this horse die under me!’ while he was thinking ‘Please don’t let me die under this lummox!’ That’s all I needed, for this poor ancient steed to go down to his knees, heart bursting from the exertion, and croak in the middle of the trail.

“Sir? Sir? You need to hit him some more. You’re falling behind!”

And that’s pretty much how the whole ride went. Dusty and I tagged along at the rear, me furiously smacking him on the butt with a leather strap and pleading for him to step it up, while he grumbled and plodded along as slowly as he could. When we returned to the corral I was actually profoundly grateful that the old boy hadn’t dropped dead under me. I hope he got the rest of the day off, because he certainly earned it.

In between the smacking of the horse, and the lecturing from the guide, and worrying about horse mortality, I did enjoy the ride. It’s a lot like biking, except you don’t actually have to pay much attention at all to where you are going. I can certainly see the attraction.

Maybe once I’ve lost more weight, I’ll try it again. Say, on a Clydesdale.