On Ice Skates, Horses, and Three-Piece Cookware

So there I was the other day, driving through the frigid north of Ontario and on my way to a thrift shop while rocking out to “Thrift Shop” (because what else would you listen to?).

I was on a very important mission.

I needed ice skates.

In the Canadian town I virtually grew up in, there’s a new and charming handmade ice rink near the lodge and it’s complete with a little jerry-rigged floodlight that shines all night. This was a golden discovery of mine during my recent stint in Canada, and I was not about to let the opportunity of midnight skating in the fresh Ontario air beneath a starry sky pass me by.

Nevermind that I have never ice skated before in my life.

I thought perhaps I remembered an old pair of my uncle’s skates lying around the family cottage somewhere, but after treasure hunting for an entire afternoon, that only turned out to be wishful thinking. So, I found a thrift shop within an hour’s drive, and if there was anything I could count on these days, it’s that surely a Canadian thrift shop would have ice skates.

And that it did. I expected I’d be coming home with a men’s pair, but this is Canada, and there was a perfectly used pair of off-white ladies’ skates just waiting to be tried on. They fit perfectly.

Or at least, I think they fit perfectly. I can’t say I actually know how ice skates are supposed to fit.

Across from the shoe racks and the cutlery displays, a hearty old man was carefully inspecting a three-piece metal cookware contraption. He managed to successfully drop it three times in a row…each time the three separate pieces clanged and clamored and whirled several times upon the floor before finally settling quiet. And each time, he’d retrieve the pieces in a pitiful hurry, as if he thought that by doing so, the catastrophic noise they had caused could somehow be forgotten. He’d then dutifully reassemble the pieces and give inspecting the whole thing in peace (and in one piece) another go.

He looked up at me with flushed cheeks on the final disastrous run and I could almost see his thoughts pan behind his eyes. Valentine’s Day shopping for his wife always seemed to involve some type of unforeseen commotion, and this year was no different. If only she liked chocolate.

I watched him sadly re-construct the cooking contraption for the fourth time, and I felt like telling him not to worry and that I was sure anything—even this—had to be less awkward than shopping at Victoria’s Secret or wherever it is that well-meaning American men are pressured into or expected to shop on Valentine’s Day.

I mean, let’s face it. How much trouble can you possibly get into shopping in a thrift store? There’s no such thing as buying the wrong size of cookware or ceramic kittens.

I was about to offer something of this nature when the man’s gaze suddenly shifted and he looked up slightly and considerably more optimistic. Perhaps my sentiment had dawned on him. With the ice skates still on trial on my feet, I rocked for a minute (for I was sitting in a rocking chair priced at $12), happy to see the man reconsider the cookware despite its obvious challenges. His concentration was both profound and innate, and his wife would surely know he put a lot of thought into whatever it was he thought she might want to cook with.

That seemed like a pretty good Valentine’s gift to me.

After unlacing the skates, pulling on my boots, and heading towards the cash register, I proudly handed the thrift shop lady a crisp Canadian five dollar bill. I got a looney back. I felt like I was really channeling Macklemore’s frugality at that moment. I finally mastered the Macklemore strut that day, for I knew what it was like to be truly thrifty. To have the finer luxuries of life at an affordable price.

I texted my mom and was like, “what up?…I got…skates.”

No answer.

“Maybe they’re even yo grandma’s.”

Instead of reprimanding me for joining a gang, she simply blamed autocorrect for the cryptic message, and I was left to enjoy the joke myself until I realized I was wearing my grandmother’s coat. For real.

On Saturday afternoon, with my skates proudly displayed in the front seat, I crept up to the rink in my jeep, barely able to contain my excitement. But then I saw there were other skaters there. Real skaters. And the reality of actually knowing nothing about skating really hit me. I would wait until the ice cleared before giving this a go. I’d wait until dark.

In the meantime, I thought about finding a book on skating, or perhaps Googling it. Maybe even YouTubing it. Heaven knows that’s how I learned (and survived) Cornell physics, so I’ve always been pretty optimistic that you can learn anything on the internet, specifically from Wikipedia.

But I mean, heck, Macklemore bought a kneeboard after a broken keyboard, but he never said he knew how to use it (I mean, who actually kneeboards these days?), so I’d learn by doing, too. I’d just jump…or skate…right in.

Instead, I actually stepped…no…crept…onto the ice because I was too wobbly to pull off anything else without wiping out. I was immediately thankful I had chosen to wait for the night and no one was nearby to watch. Even I would have grimaced and shut my own eyes if I wasn’t concentrating on not falling with all my might.

As you can imagine, the first ten minutes were pretty intense, and I’m not really sure you could even call it skating, but little by little, I began to get the hang of it. I’m pretty sure I could have given the little kids in Ice Princess a run for their money.

After another twenty minutes of treachery, I relaxed a little and realized I had a horse’s eye view of an arena. Feeling significantly more steady than when I began, I decided maybe I was thinking too much and I should try running through what I could remember of the third and fourth level dressage tests. I respect dressage—I really do—and Heaven knows I could use more of it in my life, but I’m sorry, skating dressage tests is only slightly more boring than riding them.

I mean, maybe it’s because I skipped the extended trot and X-halt-salute, but that was only because I haven’t figured out how to stop yet.

I will say I probably could have landed a solid 60% if ice skating dressage tests was a thing, though my geometry is much better from the back of a horse, and even making 20 meter ovals in the ice and crossing the diagonal soon gets a bit…redundant.

Similar to the way I think when stuck inside a riding arena, I began to wonder if there were any cross-country skating events. Surely, if Olympic skaters can jump and twirl elegantly through the air (which, right then on the ice in my wobbly skates seemed to be a miraculous feat and I almost fell over just thinking about it), one could learn to jump over open water and downed snowmen or maybe even skip between strategically placed glaciers or whatever creative winter hazards you might come across on a real pond or lake. I think it’d be really fun. Of course, I’d need to learn how to stop first. And probably jump, for that matter, but I’d totally do it.

Anyway, I had a hundred questions. Are my ankles supposed to be straight, or do I let them naturally lean in a bit…or am I just bow legged from riding? Where should I cast my gaze? Do I look up and forward or at the ground?…or through the corners as I make my turn (which is what horse trainers tell you to do)? What’s the best way to stay balanced? What’s my posture supposed to be like? Do I press into the ice from my calves or my ankles?

Oh yeah, and how do I stop?

If riding a horse for the first time as an adult is anything like skating on ice for the first time as an almost-adult, then I fully understand why old ladies are not very brave and it takes them 3 years to learn the posting trot and loosen their elbows and not pull on their horses’ mouths.

Because I was a hot nervous tense mess on that ice last night.

But I can’t imagine that’s what it’s really like. Truly, ice skating feels nothing like riding a horse, even just starting out.

A horse’s back is forgiving and the ice and the skates have no give. There’s nothing to sink into like there is when you’re sitting properly on your horse. Plus, the ice seems like an awfully hard place to fall. I tried to remind myself that I’m a lot closer to the ground on ice skates than I am when I’m on a horse, but we don’t take horses on ice. At least, not on purpose. And when a horse bucks you off or refuses a fence or bolts or rears or both, you usually have a little time to plan…even while flying through the air.

We also wear helmets on horses.

I probably should have been wearing a helmet last night.

Falling just seems considerably more painful when ice and metal blades are involved. When you get thrown from a horse and she gallops miles back to the barn, just leaving you where she threw you, which is a giant tangle of dense thorny bushes…any pain from that is typically masked by the fury for your ex-best friend and the dip in cowboy pride as you make the long walk back to the barn….especially if any of this happens in the show ring or in the middle of a cattle drive. But ice just plain stings.

But of course, it’s more than all that. Skating is fun and energizing, of course, but there’s nothing like being on a horse.

Skating, or anything else, for that matter, is nothing like riding.

There’s no heartbeat beneath you. No flying mane. No gleaming muscles laced with pulsing veins. No methodical breathing or the rhythmic thunder of striding hooves.

There’s no horse.

There’s no friend there. The one you’re mystically joined to and together launched into freedom and flight.

There’s just you.

And ice. And metal.

I guess that must be the real (and obvious) difference. That there’s no horse.

That’s a very lonely place to be.

When there’s no horse.

I’ve never missed my horses more than right then on that ice. Acquiring the perspective of an ice skater is one I could have, in fact, quite readily done without.

But I guess the rink will have to do until I’m home again. At least it’s a way to get out and move into the fresh air of the night.

Maybe I’ll try speed skating tonight. That’s kind of like show jumping.

…If only there was a jump-off. And a wholesome use for the sugar cubes and remnants of hay I found in my pocket.

There’s no place like the back of a horse. It’s better than being home.


My Grandmother’s Granddaughters


Written one year ago, on February 8th, 2013

Tonight, my sister and I lost our grandmother.

When the phone call came, I wished for one more time sitting at her feet and hearing her stories about the time my baby sister escaped out of her crib and what it was like during the Great Depression—when a loaf of bread was 10 cents—and the time she went camping with two toddlers in the middle of the woods, and how she met her beloved husband, Dave, and all the times they rented horses for an afternoon to go riding, only for her mother to launder her riding outfit three times successively because she could not deal with the scent of horses. My grandmother said that anyone who cannot appreciate the smell of horses was bad news, mother or not.

I have more memories of my grandmother than anyone else. She taught me to tie my shoes and play cribbage and knit and that grilled cheese is best with bread-and-butter pickles. We probably ate at least 5568 grilled cheeses together. And 7000 packages of lemon drops.

She let me pour the cream in her coffee when we went out to breakfast and she said a little chocolate with every meal never hurt anyone. She lived to be 94, so I guess this must be true.

Unlike our parents, she was always early picking my sister and I up from school, which is a great comfort to a girl who was always anxious to escape from people—even school kids—to spend the afternoon recovering from an entire day’s worth of people—especially school kids—among her animals and in her box forts and from underneath the pine tree in the backyard, which she was once certain was a great and vast wilderness. She had a kind, compassionate grandmother who never bothered to correct her.

Our grandmother came to every school program, every horse show, every Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and every living room show that typically followed. She used phrases like “Two-ton-Betsy” and “kaniption fit” and “gosh-by-golly-gee-whiz” and “ohhh-la-la” and I never knew what they all meant, but I always knew what she was saying when she used them.

She was there when I fell on a cactus in Arizona and had prickles in the most uncomfortable of places. As she fixed me up, she never said a word or told a soul or even laughed, which must have been a feat. Somehow, she knew modesty is everything to a serious 10-year-old horsewoman.

After my first adventure to the Canadian side of Lake Huron, in which I proceeded to gather every single shore rock I found, as they all appeared to be more precious than jewels or pirate treasure, she sat with me the whole day after, as I washed them and showed her each one, one-by-one. She handled and inspected and admired them as intently as I did. She relived the whole adventure with me and seemed to find the same awe in found, ordinary, wet lake rocks as I did. That means the world to an adventurer.

She claimed to be too dumb to help me with my elementary school homework (which wasn’t true), but she sat there with me while I figured it out for both of us. She used to worry I spent too much time reading books, but she’d keep my little sister especially occupied while I hid out in one of my many “secret” forts to read for hours, happy and on my own. And sure enough, if I was in there long enough, she’d slide a grilled cheese and a glass of milk under the trap door. She never blew my cover on the days I was a cowgirl, a Cherokee Warrior, a power ranger, a pioneer on the Oregon trail, a runaway, an astronaut, a Bedouin, a mermaid, a bird, or Anne…with an “E.”

When I got a little older, she drove me to my riding lessons and on one, particularly memorable winter day, she stayed with me in the freezing barn while I desperately tried to soak my stubborn horse’s tender sole in a bucket of water and Epsom salts in -10 degree weather. She never complained or hurried me along. And then, to soothe my worries and my grumbling stomach after a 6-hour escapade, she took me out for hamburgers and hot chocolate with whip cream. It was that day that I was first aware that grandmothers are old, and maybe 6 hour days out in the cold aren’t good for them.

Yet, she still followed me to riding clinics in the summer and served as my chaperone. I ate fish on Fridays because she ate fish on Fridays, because she was Catholic.

She cheered me on in college, even though she could never pronounce what I was studying. She asked about the horses. She sent me birthday cards in Montana and California. The last time I saw her, which was just two weeks ago, she wanted to know if I was warm enough and if I had a boyfriend. I could even speak for her, based on what her eyes told me, once the Alzheimer’s took away some of her words.

She always said she wasn’t afraid to die. And that the good Lord was indeed a good Lord.

Maybe these just seem like little things. But it’s the little things that can mean everything.

But the really big thing is that she introduced me to horses. My whole life, since the age of ten, has been defined and guided and determined and scheduled around horses, which is a life and a life passion started and inspired by no one else but her. I do not know who I would be without horses. I wouldn’t be writing this from a farmhouse. I wouldn’t be a cowboy or a sailor or an actor. I wouldn’t be a PhD student. I wouldn’t have a zebra in the barn or anything to write about or take pictures of or have the very best of friends…horses.

I think every true horsewoman passes on her gift and love and ability and passion for horses to one person, and for some reason, she chose me.

You might say that I had the best grandmother that ever lived, but the truth is, she wasn’t really my grandmother, at least, not by blood. And for some reason, that doesn’t count the same in everyone else’s eyes, although everyone thinks it’s very funny and sweet of you, when you tell them you adopted a grandmother. Little do they know the profound gift of love you are given when a grandmother adopts you.

Blood is thicker than water, and in this way, everyone is given grandmothers who are obligated to be. Instead, I had one who wanted to be, and she gave me everything. She loved me and my sister and my parents as her own and with everything she had. And she sent me on my way a long time ago, knowing I’d be okay, because in the ways people couldn’t relate or help or guide or teach or befriend me, horses could and always would. She knew before anyone, and in this way, she set me right…she set my heart to galloping hoof beats and streamed my blood to independence, adventure, and open space, as under no other circumstances, do horses run wild and free, as God created them to be.

I have always defended her as my grandmother, my benefactress, and my true blood. I always will.

I just wish I could have told her so, before she died.

Until the news of her death settles and the real tears come, and I realize I’ll never eat another of her grilled cheeses or receive another card signed “Grandma Shirley” or laugh with her about that blasted day soaking a horse hoof in sub-zero temperatures, I think I shall take to the night and find solace on the back of my horse.

God Made A Horse

Away in Canada and missing my horses. Longing for big sky, mono to be over with (it almost is), and the long, warm days of summer.

Melancholy is in the air, and then I am reminded that

God Made A Horse: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Fk1pgkEwyY

I have five of them waiting on me back at home (plus a pony and a zebra). And that is solace enough.

Every horse is an extraordinary spirit…a living gift…a soul set free and wild with strength, bravery, gentleness, and heart. God made a horse.