Amy (but not Jane) Learns to Ride
By: Amy Satterthwaite Pappas
Back in those days, most girls at the Belfield School in Charlottesville learned to ride horses whether or not they lived in the country. We’d unfasten our wool skirts and cotton blouses after school, then shimmy into slim pants, knit tops and riding boots. Our mothers dropped us off at one of several barns offering lessons, vanishing back into their station wagons and dramas while leaving small daughters to wrangle animals close to 1,000 pounds under the weary eyes of instructors who didn’t seem to enjoy children, or horses for that matter. My sister Jane refused the whole affair, but I’m older by 18 months and was thus expected to uphold community standards. Any firstborn knows what I’m saying.
My father grew up riding and showing ponies in Charlottesville in the late 1930s, as did his mother before him in middle of the first World War. My riding teacher—not much larger in her 60s than I was at eight when my lessons began—had been a national equestrian in my grandmother’s day. Her stables were in walking distance of my grandmother’s house near University grounds, which meant my grandmother could sashay down Rugby Avenue and watch me struggle in the saddle. I remember her leaning against the fence in her pleated khakis and pale oxford shirts, her Virginia Slim wafting in among the smells of dung and sweaty horseflesh. She’d paid for my lessons and riding boots, and she wanted a look at her investment. Whether proud or embarrassed, she never said. This same grandmother would drive right past me hitchhiking in town as a teenager with nary a wave.
My mother spent the free hour and a half during my riding lessons at the library, while other mothers gossiped in the shade or drove down the hill to Leggett’s department store. She made an awkward figure in 1969 among the Charlottesville ladies. She was a Roman Catholic Yankee whose own Italian parents hadn’t even gone to high school. Here she was, captive and lonely without her family or newspaper job, among women who wore no lipstick and had first names like Elliewood, Kingsley and Strothers. We were at Belfield with their children because my mother considered the public schools barbaric. They were segregated when I first enrolled. Children were legally paddled. Doubtless, she foresaw her oldest turned over some angry headmaster’s knee.
My father was an only child who hadn’t evolved a great deal, according to his friends, from his partying days as a St. Elmo frat bro at Virginia. He eloped with my mother on a tipsy adventure they both soon regretted. Ten years into the marriage, they quietly hated each other but saw no reason not to get on with things. They were the only parents I knew who slept in their own twin beds. They never exchanged gifts, nor did they scream and fight. He was gone a lot. And if he’d packed up and left in 1969, rather than waiting until the same weekend I left for college, my sister and I would have returned to our own worlds soon enough.
Like countless girls before me, I’d devoured Black Beauty and Misty of Chincoteague, but it was a lesser-known book, called Susan and Jane Learn to Ride, that I treasured. Two best friends take riding lessons together and are rewarded at the end when they wake up Christmas morning to find ponies of their very own. A fairy tale. And, as children sense instinctively, fairy tales are fraught with peril.
My riding teacher assigned me to a coal-black gelding named Alley-Oop. I pretended he was all mine, drawing him on my school books and figuring him into paragraph writing. But he rather owned me, and felt free to halt mid-canter just to nibble something tasty growing under the fence. Whenever someone’s mother spun gravel coming up the stable drive, or god forbid touched their horn to signal a child, Alley-Oop would rear on his hind legs and stampede around the ring, pretending he hadn’t carried children on his back for years and didn’t know a car when he heard one. I’d fall forward, somersaulting over his coal black head. I’d fall backward over his fuzzy rump onto my feet. I’d slip sideways out of the saddle and sprain my wrist braking the fall. We all did. “Get right back up, now, you aren’t hurt,” my teacher would call from her wicker chair in the ring’s center. “Don’t let him think he’s won.” A child hitting the ground was no reason to get up. I wondered how it would be if my mother found me in the dusty ring some day quite dead, unmourned and unpitied.
Months passed before I earned a small compliment from my teacher for managing to stay astride during one of the pony’s hysterics. Adult praise was stingier overall in those days, so I recall it even now, though the memory lacks joy. I didn’t like my teacher. She was a meanie who barked at me to use the leather crop against Alley-Oop. I couldn’t, wouldn’t—yet I’d seen her use one against every mount in her stable; just the sight of it in her hand would make ponies behave. Other girls used their crops, especially those preening for a chance to ride in horse shows. I wasn’t among them. I wanted to just ride off on adventures. Thomas Jefferson was allowed to roam all over creation on his horse when he was a boy. I’d read a book about it. He’d cross paths with Native Americans on horseback up in Shadwell. I was putting up with these riding lessons for a chance like that. I needed a pony of my own in the backyard.
My mother said a subdivision like ours wasn’t meant to be a farm and that we didn’t even have a garage for the car, so where did I think we were going to keep a horse? And look what happened with the rabbits. My father had built a hutch for two bunnies, one for me and one for Jane. The hutch was under the willow tree in the shade. We ran out to feed them one morning and found the floor of their cage peeled back and the bunnies gone. I might have believed my parents when they told me the rabbits had broken out to freedom and if we kept our eyes open we might see their whole rabbit family one day. But since I’d already seen my tomcat tear a guinea pig to pieces, I understood all too well how things actually worked. Grown-ups were liars and secret keepers, and way too silly if they thought children didn’t know.
My father was not a practical man, so my chances were better with him. I don’t even know how I pulled it off, and I wouldn’t tell you anyway because then word would get around and there’d be ponies on every street where little girls live today. I remember wishing on stars and walking in circles around pictures of ponies while chanting “So mote it be” like the witches in books. I promised my life and time away. And one day, my father came home and told me a friend of his had a daughter who’d gotten too big for her pony. They would sell it to us for $50, including the saddle and bridle. He and my grandfather set up a corral and put together a three-sided shelter while I got in the way and my mother muttered maledictions against hasty decisions.
My pony (the very idea!) was a Welsh mix breed and as stout, sturdy and brown as a barrel of whiskey. He came with a name, Sahmi, and luxurious pale mane. He stood low enough that I could vault onto his broad back. He was fuzzy, lazy, and a terrible tyrant. Perfect, in other words, to challenge a girl on the verge of growing up.
Sahmi and I were everywhere that year. The far end of our neighborhood bordered the Rivanna River. I’d ride Sahmi down the middle of the street or through people’s yards and other places I had no business being and right into the river itself. Sahmi stepped on people’s flowers and wrenched apples off their trees with me sitting cross legged on his back, scanning the woods for Native children and their spotted ponies. Plain old neighbor kids begged me for rides and I chose like a haughty queen who could ride and who had to watch. My mother got phone calls about my attitude and lack of respect for boundaries. She’d warned my father but he didn’t listen and now here she was.
One day Sahmi refused to return to his stall. He stood eating things in the front yard, not budging for anyone until we all gave up and tethered him to the lamp post. Intractable, he stood for seven hours. My father finally came home from work and led the pony back to his stable in the dark. “Use your crop for chrissakes,” he hissed at my door.
I continued my riding lessons on Alley-Oop, and though I never asked to show, I did learn to jump small fences and do beginner dressage. My mother sometimes stayed now, to watch me at lessons, and even laughed with the other mothers about the obsessions of girls and the upkeep of horses. Sahmi and I roamed as always but I was getting a bit long-legged for him and had given up on seeing any Natives. One day, as we rode far from home along the edges of front yards, a stranger’s dog ran at us. It sank its teeth into my bare calf and pulled me to the ground, sending Sahmi riderless and buck wild for a couple of days. I’d never gotten him to run that fast for me.
The corral my father built didn’t hold. I had to be nagged to pick up after Sahmi. My mother couldn’t swallow her I Told You Sos. And none of it mattered in the end, because in 1971 the CIA transferred my father away from Charlottesville. We all packed up and moved to Gibson Island, Md., in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. Jane and I were to learn to sail. Our father had already enrolled us in the Junior Fleet. And wasn’t that exciting, girls?
We sold Sahmi before we moved, to a little girl in our own neighborhood who’d had plenty of rides on him and knew what she was up against. My father got $100 for him, doubling his investment, and therefore considered the whole experiment a grand success.
(I still have my books from back then. They smell like 4th grade and freedom.)
Amy Satterthwaite Pappas lived and wrote and raised two children in Fredericksburg, VA before moving back home to the Charlottesville area in 2010. She fools around with writing and painting when she’s not fighting the wild woods from taking over her Crozet property or entertaining a captive heavily-medicated audience at her father’s Memory Care facility.