Of late, my columns have been rather serious, dealing with difficult and challenging issues. This month, I’m taking a breather and doing something lighter.
I love horses. I have always loved horses. One of my earliest memories is of walking with my grandfather in a field on Mr. Sobol’s farm in Ellenville, New York, and being totally captivated by these wonderful creatures that were nuzzling my hand, wrapped in the hand of my grandfather. The warm, summer smells of the field, the horses and my grandfather’s strong presence are all combined in my mind and have stayed with me in the 72 years since that beautiful day. Since that moment, horses have occupied a special place in the universe of my mind. I cannot imagine a more beautiful creature in G-d’s creation than a horse.
Back in 1976, I was on a business trip to Frankfort, Kentucky. I had some time to spare so I took the 40 mile ride to Claiborne Farm, in Paris, Ky. for the opportunity to see Secretariat in the flesh. He was kept alone in a huge paddock. When I first glimpsed him, he was grazing directly opposite me on the other side. I was alone. He lifted his head up, saw me and it was show time. He started to prance. He trotted. He cantered. He wheeled. He tossed his neck up and down and side to side. It was as if the footlights had come on and he was center stage. This horse knew how magnificent he was and he wanted to demonstrate it.
As for me, I was transfixed. I was and still am, convinced that at that moment, I was in the presence of the closest thing to perfection that G-d has ever made. But although Secretariat was the highest example of beauty in a horse, I see Secretariat in just about every horse that I see.
Did I say that I love horses?
While I was in law school in Washington, I found a stable in Maryland where I would ride once a week. I wanted to show off, so I took my esteemed girlfriend (now my esteemed wife) out to watch me ride. She had ridden extensively as a child. After watching me, she told me that if I insisted on continuing to ride, I must immediately begin proper riding lessons or she would not be responsible for the dire consequences. After saying “yes, dear,” I found a riding school in then rural Great Falls, Virginia and enrolled. As usual, she was correct. Every Sunday for years, I would take the ride out to Great Falls for a riding lesson. After completing the basics, I became part of a class. Throughout the years, I moved up in the school. We would do some basic equitation and ride work (riding in unison, doing a variety of drills) and we would then go over a course of fences (jumps). No golfer could possibly look forward to a day of golf more than I looked forward to a day at the stables. After class, I would muck out stalls, repair fences in the field, hang out at the barn — anything to prolong my proximity to horses! Get the picture?
As an aside, I can say without hesitation that a horse barn is without question the best place for a boy of high school age to hang out. Think of it. How many high school boys go out for basketball or football? They are innumerable. How many get scholarships to play college basketball or football? The percentage is miniscule. However, since there are so few boys competing in equestrian sports, the chances of a young man winning an equestrian scholarship are infinitely greater than winning one for basketball or football. Furthermore, horse barns are chock full of teenage girls and there are so few boys around that any smart teenage male would realize that hanging around a horse barn, he would have just about zero competition. Were I a high school boy, I would head for the local barn as fast as my legs could carry me.
But as I am not a high school boy, back to the story. The woman who owned the stables had two main businesses: first, the school; second, buying and selling horses. The two businesses were interrelated. My class was the most advanced, so we would be given “green broke horses” (rudimentarily trained) and we would school them. As they were ready, the newly trained horses would then be sold and/or moved down to the less advanced classes. It was wonderful. I cannot imagine anyone who has enjoyed participating in anything more than I did at that riding school. Winter, spring, summer, fall — I would be at the barn whenever I could.
But I digress.
One Sunday morning, I arrived at the barn and I found that I would be riding a new horse called “Wedding.” Wedding was a four-year old. She was big — about 16-1/2 hands high. She was beautiful — black, with a white blaze on her face and four white socks. I saddled and bridled her without the slightest amount of resistance and I climbed on her back without any adverse reaction from her whatsoever. I then proceeded to warm her up: walk, trot, canter — she was a pleasure, with a rocking horse gait that was a pleasure to sit. I congratulated myself on my good luck in drawing this wonderful horse for the next few weeks.
The class formed up and we did some ride work — walking, trotting and cantering in unison. Wedding responded to the reins and my legs with complete aplomb and I was in heaven. I started thinking “maybe this is the horse that I will finally buy.” It was then time to go over fences. The way it worked, we would line up and then each of us, in turn, would ride a complete small circle before approaching and taking the first fence. Thereafter, we would jump multiple fences in formation, etc.
By chance, I was the first one to go that particular morning. I took my place, made a circle and approached the fence at a slow canter. One step before we reached the fence, Wedding suddenly veered sharply to the left! I came out of the saddle on the right, landing rather heavily in the dirt. I stood up and brushed myself off, trying to ignore the muffled sniggers of the others. I collected Wedding’s reins (she had returned to my side and was waiting patiently and quietly for me to climb back aboard). Okay, these things happen. So, I climbed back into the saddle, did a circle and one step before we reached the fence, Wedding suddenly veered sharply, this time to the right! I came out of the saddle on the left. I checked myself for any broken bones, stood up and brushed myself off, trying to ignore the not-as-muffled-as-before sniggers of the others. Wedding had once again returned directly to my side. I thought that I detected a wry, snarky smile on her horse lips, but I knew that was absurd.
Okay, these things happen. So I once again collected Wedding’s reins and climbed back in the saddle. This time, I was ready for her to veer away at the last second. We did our circle and one step before we reached the fence, Wedding suddenly dug her forelegs in the sand and I went headlong over the fence (sans Wedding) and landed on the other side! By this time, the members of the class had given up all pretense of hiding their guffaws. They thought that it was hysterical. I once again stood up, brushed myself off and walked around to the other side of the fence, where Wedding was patiently waiting for me to do it yet again. And I did — again and again and again!
Suffice it to say that on that fateful Sunday morning, I came out of the saddle 13 times before I finally got Wedding over the jump (I think I picked her up and threw her over). Yes, that’s right, 13 times. It became a legend at the stables. Not one other person in the class on that fateful day took a fence; they were laughing too hard.
About 20 years thereafter, having long since moved from Virginia to New York, we made our traditional Christmas/New Year’s visit to our dear friends, Joan and Jay, in Great Falls. Joan was my esteemed wife’s closest friend. It was her custom to throw a gala annual holiday party and we were always in attendance. Joan, also a rider and horse lover, had been in the class with me that fateful “Wedding” day. Many of the other guests also rode at the stables where my ignominious unhorsing had taken place; however, most of them had started riding there long after I had gone. On this particular evening, Joan took me over to a young man in his early 20s and said: “May I introduce you to Stuart Kaufman?” He looked at me for a moment and then asked in a high-pitched, almost incredulous tone of voice: “Are you the guy who came off Wedding?”
More than two decades after the incident, a young man who could have been no more than a toddler when it happened not only knew the story of my multiple sudden ejections off Wedding, but he recognized my name!
I suppose that I should gain comfort in the knowledge that the memory of my adventure has lived on long after Wedding has shuffled off her mortal coil and will perhaps live on after my own exit from the paddock of life. At least I will be remembered for something.
I can say one thing without hesitation. I can never hear the word “Wedding” without memories that painfully echo on my posterior.
This article was originally published in The Charleston Mercury.