Ms. Adventure: Queasy Rider

Can our writer stay mounted in her first time on a horse since she was 4?

BY December 7, 2015















In an ancient photo album I inherited from my grandmother, there’s a faded 5-by-7 black and white photograph of your very own Ms. Adventure sitting on the back of the sweetest-looking little pony in our family’s front yard. There I am, at 4 years old, wearing a darling little cowgirl hat and tiny leather chaps, smiling from ear to ear and holding on tightly to the pony’s saddle horn.

Having no memory of my cowgirl days, I once asked my mother about the photo. She told me that back in 1969 a fellow with a pony was making the rounds in our little hometown near Dayton, Ohio, one day, charging parents $5 a pop to let their little ones wear the chaps and hat and sit on the little pony while he took a photo. Mom said that every family in the neighborhood took the photographer/pony owner up on it. These days, some dude walking down the street with a camera and a wee pony, knocking on doors, would probably be arrested for soliciting—or at least fined for strolling around in a residential neighborhood with a live pony and no license.

Fast-forward a couple (OK, a handful) of decades when I’m on the phone with Jean Kaske at Pennington Farms arranging my horseback riding adventure at the Fort Myers farm and training facility.

“When’s the last time you rode a horse?” Jean asks pleasantly.

“Well, when I was 4 years old, there was a man with a horse…” and I proceed to tell her about my one and only horseback riding experience.

She laughs, “That’s not really going to count; you’re definitely a first-timer.”

Well, there goes all my experience. Sigh.

I ask Jean what I should wear to ride on a horse. She suggests jeans and mentions that I should make sure my boots have a very low heel.


I live on the Gulf coast of Florida. I don’t own a single pair of boots—not even Uggs. While I realize there are lots of fabulous boot styles out there and Southwest Florida fashionistas really want to rock them, the truth is that boots—like coats—are cold-weather fashion, and other than around three days in February when temperatures plunge into the frigid 60s, there’s just no good excuse to wear them. In fact, when I see women sporting knee-high boots with jeans in the sizzling Southwest Florida heat, I start to sympathy-sweat for them. Sure, they look good, but unless they’re walking the runway in the freezer section of Costco, they have to be sweltering.

But, I digress. When I tell Jean that I do not own boots and in fact every shoe in my closet is open-toed, she offers to let me borrow a pair of hers.

Even better, when I arrived the next Saturday morning, Jean even had knee-high chaps courtesy of farm owner Ann Pennington for me—I was so ready to recreate my little pony picture from days gone by. Except my little pony turned out to be a 950-pound, 15-hand (in horse talk that’s about almost 6 feet tall to the shoulder, apparently) man-horse with enormous teeth named Vegas.

As a teen, I was never a horse girl, but I had plenty of friends who were. They carried around tattered copies of Black Beauty and aspired to be just like Tatum O’Neal in International Velvet. They wore their hair in long ponytails and spent their weekends riding and grooming their horses—and happily cleaning out their stables. I, on the other hand, was at my most content when lying lazily by a pool, slathered in baby oil, reading Cosmopolitan and daydreaming about boys. Horse girls weren’t interested in fashion or boys; horse girls loved horses, period.

As I watched Jean’s teenage daughter, Kendall, galloping around one of Pennington Farms’ large training corrals on a sunny Saturday morning on her horse named Spruce, her ponytail flying, her body moving instinctively in the saddle with Spruce’s movements as she gently guided him through his jumps, a happy smile on her face, I was reminded that I’ll never be a horse girl.

Leading up to my horseback riding adventure, that scene from Gone with the Wind where poor, little Bonnie Blue Butler’s pony jumps a fence—and, well, you remember the tragic rest of the story—kept running through my mind.

But, like everyone at Pennington Farms, Jean is an expert equestrian and assured me that Vegas wouldn’t try to jump a fence with me on his back, nor would he get spooked and go galloping off to a busy road while I screamed, “WHOA, BOY!” (or whatever you say to get a horse to stop).

And while the hugeness of Vegas was rather off-putting and the idea of riding him was a little terrifying, I must say, I did feel pretty jaunty in my loaner riding boots and half-chaps. Add a cool-looking riding helmet to the ensemble and I felt just like Linda Evans in Dallas.

Before riding Vegas, I was taught how to brush him, which was a good way for us to get to know each other. Having seen the film The Horse Whisperer, I decided it couldn’t hurt to whisper sweet nothings to Vegas while brushing him, which went kind of like this: “You’re very handsome, Vegas. Thank you so much for letting me ride you, Vegas. Please don’t bite me, Vegas, or throw me and then trample me to death, Vegas. Thanks, Vegas.”

When it was time to actually get on Vegas, I kept flashing back to a previous adventure in this column last spring when I braved paddleboarding and fell off the first time I tried to get on. But, back then I simply splashed into 3 feet of water. Falling off a horse would be a lot less graceful and could result in a broken bone and a very annoyed horse; I had to get it right the first time. Luckily, Ann has a handy-dandy mounting block on the farm, so getting onto Vegas was a breeze.

My first thought while up there was that I felt extremely high in the air, so I told myself not to look down. Meanwhile, another trainer, Amanda Hart, showed me how to control Vegas by holding his reins firmly but gently—and told me if I wanted him to move forward, I should just give his massive torso a squeeze with my legs. So I did.

Vegas didn’t move. So I squeezed again. Vegas may have actually yawned. Amanda laughed: “Horses can tell when they’ve got a beginner.”

Amanda and Jean led Vegas and me around the ring with just a slow and steady walk, but seeing Kendall and Spruce galloping and leaping in the distance made me at least want to trot; besides, I didn’t want to bore Vegas.

“Are you sure?” asked Jean.

“Giddyup,” I said.

So, Vegas treated me to a little speed and it was actually fun. I tried to lift my derriere up off the saddle to the rhythm of movement like Kendall did, but that move proved to be harder than it looked—which explains why horse girls are always in such good shape. Go figure.

After my hourlong lesson in horseback riding, I got to feed Vegas peppermint candies as his reward for putting up with such a nervous newbie.

Maybe there’s hope for me to be a horse girl yet; it was fun and I loved the fashion accessories. And besides, I have photographic evidence that I was in the saddle as early as 4 years old—and I still think it counts.

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