It started as a personal challenge: I watched Billy Crystal and the "City Slickers" ride roughshod across a movie screen, and decided if they could do it, and still sing afterward, so could I.
A few weeks and half a lesson later, with the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver echoing in my ears, I am trotting around a riding ring in Monkton astride the nice mare Toby.
We are moving together, running in rhythm, heirs to the great frontier tradition. How wonderful it would be to do this often, I think, to have my thighs grow sleek and strong as I gallop along, graceful and self-assured.
I probably won't. Riding is great fun: I loved the wind in my face, the movement in my body, the ego boost I got from doing it. But riding is a high-maintenance sport -- taking care of a horse requires more labor than I am willing to put into recreation. Besides, it hurts, at least in the beginning, and I do not want calluses in essential places.
I found "Camelot Farm" in the phone book, listed under "riding academies." Instructor Celeste Prouty told me over the phone that an hour-long group lesson would cost $15, and I'd learn basic horse care as well as riding.
I'd use an English saddle, she said: "It's flatter than a western saddle. You can get a better feel for the horse, and you can jump with it."
Jump? I just wanted to trot a little. Ms. Prouty promised I'd do that too.
She suggested I wear real shoes, with hard heels, rather than sneakers, and offered to lend me a hard hat. That was not the comfort she might have intended. Did she think I'd fall off and crack my skull?
It's just a precaution, of course. Little kids on tricycles wear helmets these days, and so do medium-sized kids on horses, as I learn when I arrive at Camelot early and watch the end of the children's lesson.
Ms. Prouty sizes me up as we walk to the barn; Toby, she decides, is the right height for me.
Now begins the show and tell: Raising one of Toby's forelegs, she wields a pick against the gunk in a front hoof. I have to stand at the hindquarters, and do the same. It is not a pleasant place to be, and I am relieved when I move forward to brush the horse's coat, even though the stuff I get out of her hair settles immediately into mine.
I buckle a few straps, as Ms. Prouty gets Toby bridled and saddled. Then I grab a strap and try to lead her from the barn to the ring. This proves harder than I expected: Toby leads me off the track and up a hill, and when push comes to shove, I find I am no match for 1,000 pounds of animal.
"You can't muscle a horse," Ms. Prouty declares, as she jollies Toby back to the straight and narrow and takes her to the fenced-in ring, where my only classmate, 11-year-old Paige Anderson, is waiting.
We mount from a block, so that we don't hurt the horses by scrambling up their sides and thumping into the saddle. Ms. Prouty describes the right angles for riding: elbows out and bent, ankles flexed, heels down, toes up, balls of the feet resting in the stirrups, hip angle open.
In other words, I should sit straight and tall in the saddle.
Next I learn my "points." Three-point contact means sitting, with my legs pressed up tight against the horse. Two-point gets me up out of the saddle, in a kind of half squat, while my legs hold on for dear life.
Some beginners are so frightened they try to curl up in fetal position over the horse's neck, says Ms. Prouty, adding that I do not seem scared at all. The truth is I'm not. Toby's a sweetheart and knows what to do, even if I don't. She moves obediently into position at the fence and walks a couple of circuits. A tiny tug on the reins brings her to a halt, and miracle of miracles, she does a smart left turn when I pull the left rein while pressing with my right knee.
Most of the rest of my lesson is devoted to posting: I have to sense Toby's trotting rhythm, rise into two-point position and drop back into three as she runs. There's a leather strap around her neck; I hold onto it for extra security when I come up off the saddle.
In fact, I'm pretty white-knuckled in my grasp, although my sense of accomplishment is overwhelming as we trot around the perimeter of the ring, execute some figure eights in the middle and take our giant steps over a plank.
But when we switch from a trot to a canter, I'm out of my league. I lose my stirrups and then, for one heart-stopping moment, my seat as well. I hold on, get right side up in the saddle and rein Toby to a halt.
And that's enough. The fingers wrapped around the leather neck strap have developed dime-sized holes where the skin has rubbed away from the middle joints. My angled ankles are aching, and cramps are developing in my calves. I'd prefer to just sit quietly and watch Paige jump, I say when Ms. Prouty asks if I want to try cantering again.
Time's almost up anyway, and I still have to learn to dismount. For reasons I don't understand, it's harder than getting on. Somehow I manage to swing my right leg over the horse's haunches and disengage my left from the stirrup while twisting so that I'm belly down across the saddle. Then I slide the long way down to the ground.
Bow Nelson, whose daughter is in the next class, helps me take Toby back to the barn, removes the bridle and saddle, shows me how to wash away the horse's sweat and feed her carrots. She tells me how natural I looked as I rode.
That's nice to hear. I did feel pretty natural on that horse, I think as I drive away from Camelot. I notice I'm even more natural in car now, especially when I go over bumps, and I post rhythmically all the way home.
Get ready to ride
Several riding academies are listed in the Yellow Pages. Prices generally are between $15 and $30 for an hour-long lesson. Ask about the type of saddle used, the average class size, and the time and date of the next beginner's lesson.