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.