Sometimes in life you have to get back on the horse.
There’s a horse—an actual four-legged animal with a mane and a tail. You fell off of it, dirt and grass covering the shoulder of your white polo shirt. You’re breathless, having had the wind knocked out of you by a collision with the hard ground. You lie there a moment and catch your breath. You make sure nothing is broken, stand up, and walk over to the horse. You pet her and tell her it’s OK. Then you plant one foot in the stirrup and swing your leg over her back. You get back on the horse.
I’ve been taking polo lessons for two years now. Two weeks ago, I fell off my horse. Suddenly, an old cliché had real-world meaning.
A Family of Riders
I started riding horses when I was a little girl. I come from a long line of riders. My great-grandfather was a traveling shoe salesman who rode a donkey. I have the photo to prove it.
My grandfather and namesake, Karl, was a sergeant on horseback in World War I. He survived Somme, the Third Battle of the Aisne, the Second Battle of the Marne, and the Battle of the Argonne Forest. He died before I was born, already 51 when my dad was born. But I was born on his birthday and inherited his name along with his love of horses.
Karl taught his sons—my dad and uncle—to ride.
They, in turn, taught me.
My uncle, an expert horseman and rodeo rider, had a cattle ranch in North Florida sandwiched between Gainesville and Jacksonville. Every year, my dad would take us to visit along with our annual trek to Walt Disney World. My uncle would plunk me on a sweet horse named Pokey.
Every time I visited I begged my cousins to take me for a ride, and they always obliged. They competed on the rodeo circuit in barrel racing, pole bending and calf roping. We rode all over the ranch’s seemingly endless acres on Western saddles and sometimes bareback. I loved it.
My dad, who grew up in a small Central Florida town sandwiched between Tampa and Orlando, used to joke that his first car was actually a horse named Blackie. My dad was expert at braiding my sister’s and my hair, a skill he learned from keeping horses as a child.
So my dad signed me up for riding lessons back home in Chicago, where I learned dressage and show jumping in an English saddle. I hated dressage, but loved jumping. Clearing higher and harder obstacles was thrilling.
But that’s also when I learned our trusty cliché. During the time I took lessons, I fell twice that I can remember: once when I was being sloppy and lost my stirrup; and once when I was prepping for a jump and my horse stopped short. I went flying over the jump. My horse did not.
I was 8 or 9-years-old at the time and was little more than stunned. I got up, completely uninjured, brushed the dirt from the arena floor off of me and climbed back on my horse.
Eventually, I gave up riding because I just didn’t have the time. I was also a competitive swimmer. As I got older, swim practices got longer and meets started taking up entire weekends. I had to choose: swimming or riding. Riding got the old heave ho.
Getting on a horse was soon relegated to visiting my uncle’s ranch and any other vacation where I was within spitting distance of a horse—at a dude ranch in Wisconsin or in the hills of Hawaii.
Learning To Play Polo
In 2010, my husband Phil and I went to a polo match while on vacation in Newport, Rhode Island. We had a blast. He too had been a rider as a child, but had quit once other sports got in the way. So when we took a 2011 vacation to Argentina, the polo capital of the world, we thought it would be fun to give the sport a try. We went to Estancia La Sofia, a polo resort in the countryside beyond Buenos Aires that specializes in letting beginners try their hand at the sport.
We had so much fun that we decided to try the Newport Polo Club school, affiliated with the Newport International Polo Series, where we’d seen that first polo match. Getting started was surprisingly easy. The school provided the horses and all necessary equipment, including mallets and helmets. Once we knew we wanted to stick with it, we bought helmets and some other riding gear of our own.
Over the last two years, we’ve been going once or twice a month from March to October. All told, we’ve probably had 25 lessons.
Phil is a natural. All of our teachers have commented on his raw talent, how remarkable his progress is, that he has the makings of a fantastic player.
Me? I’ve never played a ball sport in my life—unless you count the one summer I took golf lessons when I was 10, also at my father’s behest. I went from swimming to rowing to running. So my hand eye co-ordination? Not so great.
Most of our polo lessons start with riding drills, then “stick and ball” drills with a polo mallet, before finishing with a friendly scrimmage.
Last summer, we got a new instructor who complimented my riding skills during the drills.
“Wait ’til you see me hit the ball,” I said. “Or not hit the ball. I’m terrible.”
“No, no. To be a good polo player you have to be a good rider,” he said. “Ball skills are only a small part of it.”
When he finally saw me swing a mallet, he laughed. “You weren’t kidding!” he said. “You’re terrible! Let’s fix that.”
That was a full year ago. I’ve finally gotten to the point where I am in the mix during scrimmage and actually feel like an asset, not a hindrance, to my team. I’ve also gotten quite comfortable on a horse again.
My uncle and aunt even gave me my own horse recently. Here she is:
She showed up in the mail one day with a note from my uncle that said, “Thought you might like your own horse!” I sure do. She says “Cowgirls Rule.” I love it so much I put it on my bookshelves next to my desk where I work every day. She makes me smile. My uncle has since given up the cattle ranch, but still keeps a few horses and travels the rodeo circuit. He is a real life cowboy.
Polo is like every other riding discipline: eventually, you might fall. You try your darndest not to, but it still happens. I’ve even seen it happen to pros in matches. And it happened to me two weeks ago.
For non-riders, horses have four natural gaits that increase in speed: walk, trot, canter and gallop. It’s kind of like our walk, jog, run, sprint. In class, we ride at a trot on the slow end and a canter on the fast end. In the middle of scrimmage, my horse got excited and set off into a gallop. It caught me off guard. I tried reining her in—another horse idiom we use colloquially but rarely literally—but she wanted to run. Just as I finally got her to start slowing down, I lost control and fell.
Once I realized what was happening, I tried to fall as smartly as possible. I got my feet clear of the stirrups—the last thing you want is to have a foot caught and get dragged. I let go of the reins and my mallet and rolled off the horse, tucking my arms into my chest—never make the mistake of trying to break a fall with your hands. It’s a surefire way to break a wrist or an arm. I hit the rump of another horse on the way down and finally landed on the grass. My left hip hit first, then my left shoulder, then my head. My eyes instinctively closed. I heard the crunch of my helmet and was very glad to be wearing one.
The impact knocked the wind out of me. The instructor got off his horse and came to check me. I tried to get up right away, saying “I’m OK!” But he made me lie there to get my breath back and to make sure nothing was seriously hurt. My hip, shoulder, and neck were sore but I could still walk and move fine.
So I walked over to my horse, Ginger, and told her it wasn’t her fault. I use the word “my” loosely. I don’t own her. The polo club does. She was just mine for the lesson. But I’ve probably ridden her 15 of the 25 lessons I’ve had. She a fantastic horse who knows what’s she doing a heck of a lot better than I do.
Then I got right back in the saddle and back into the game. I even scored two goals. They were the proudest goals of my life.
Get Back On The Horse
Sometimes you have to get back on the horse.
It’s a cliché in life for a reason. I know if I didn’t get back on the horse right then and there, my last memory of riding would have been falling. It could have easily become a mental block the next time I wanted to ride.
But instead, I think of those goals. Every time my husband tells the story he finishes: “Get this: she got right back on the horse and scored two goals!”
That’s why the cliché to “get back on the horse” has been so enduring. If you fall, you’ve got to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and pick-up right where you left off. It’s as true in running as it is in polo and anything else in life. Even if I never ride another horse in my life, it’s important that I got back on the horse at that moment.
My hip hurt like heck and I couldn’t turn my neck to the left, but I played better after falling than before. In addition to the goals I scored, I played some great defense and my team won the scrimmage. It’s a valuable lesson that I want to always remember.
The fall knocked me out for about a week. I went to the doctor for an x-ray just to be sure that nothing was seriously injured. Nothing was. The doc says I probably have a bruised hipbone and some bursitis in the joint, both of which will go away in a few weeks. My hip is still a bit sore, largely from the bursitis. But after a week of rest and a week of just cycling and swimming, my doctor cleared me to run and to ride again.
I know that I was very lucky to have such a clean fall. It could have been ugly. But it reminds me that life is short and all we can do is live life to the fullest.
And sometimes that means getting back on the horse that threw you.
Karla Bruning is host of On The Run, New York Road Runners’ show about running. She has finished six marathons, two triathlons and trains with the New York Harriers. Follow Karla at RunKarlaRun.com, The Washington Times Communities, Facebook and Twitter@KBruning.