My father used to recite the tale of how he first put me on a horse’s back when I was two, calling me “a natural” at riding. Every Sunday morning a small troupe of ponies would circle a path at St Kilda Beach, and I was one of the faithful attendees. I don’t know if I really was a natural, but according to my recollection, a gentleman approached him in those early years, saying that he worked in the industry and recommended I start training professionally. My father never followed it up, but boasted proudly of it forever more – for some reason, being a capable horse-rider was a source of pride for him. Together, we went to a specialist store that sold equestrian gear, and I picked out an olive-green riding helmet, velvet and smooth. It lived in the cupboard at our hallway entrance, and I would see it, tucked in its box, whenever I put on a coat to go outside. It made me feel special, accomplished, and singled-out. Sometimes, I would pull it down just to stroke its soft fabric, playing with the large button on the very top.
I loved horses, and I loved my father, and the two became intertwined from the start. My father loved animals, and I picked up his fearlessness and kindness, the gentle way he would pat a horse. It gave me confidence to approach this enormous – to my child’s perspective – beast with my friends in tow, and pat it squarely above its muzzle, offering it a sugar lump or piece of apple, while my friends watched on in amazement.
“My father loved animals, and I picked up his fearlessness and kindness, the gentle way he would pat a horse.”
For my childhood birthday parties I’d have pony rides at my house, and after my pals had been led with a rein by a horse by the handler, I’d go for a solo canter in front of my house, to the “ooohs” and “ahhhhs” of the primary-school onlookers. It was a heady time: a moment where I was keenly aware of being the best at something, and loving both the recognition and performance in one. I’d dismount, and my father would be there, beaming.
Unlike so many pre-teen girls, I wasn’t otherwise so horse-y. I didn’t have a legion of chapter books about girls and their horses, and I never begged for a horse of my own. It was enough that my father would take me to horse-riding lessons as I got older, a half-hour car drive where I learnt how to sit correctly in the saddle, and where – when the riding group was allowed to gallop – I’d try to go the fastest of all. For me, that was enough: to have something that my father and I shared alone, and that made me feel good about myself as I was negotiating the tricky territory of being a kid. At school I was a slow runner and a terrible ball-catcher. But, riding on the back of a horse, I knew this was one physical thing I could do better than anyone in my class. That was enough.
I had stopped riding regularly by the time I was 12, when other things took precedence: boys, parties, reading, learning radio songs by heart, sleeping in. But, right before that age, I did one, last horse-centric thing, when a group of my friends asked me to join them at a horse-riding camp. I still have no idea why they chose that particular camp, since as far as I knew, none of them much liked riding.
“I loved horses, and I loved my father, and the two became intertwined from the start.”
There were perhaps half-a-dozen of my circle, joining other girls at a log cabin where our mornings were spent in riding lessons. When we first arrived, some of the country girls scoffed: there was no way that this group, with their hair just-so and their jeans to match, would be any good at riding. I think I shocked them when I was put into one of the more advanced groups, and it was there that I crossed another milestone – being able to form tight friendships with a bunch of people whose background was different to mine. It didn’t matter. We had horse-riding in common, and that went a long way.
At the end of the week, my father came to watch for the official demonstration for parents, when we literally trotted out our skills for our families to see. I don’t think he would’ve clapped the hardest, because he was the kind of man who tried to be humble in all circumstances. But he most definitely smiled the widest, and looked the proudest, not only because I had learnt to ride a horse so well, but because of all that came with it: the fact that I had shown determination, effort, discipline and passion. He, and the horses, had taught me well.