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Why life is like riding a horse (or at least learning how)

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I always wanted a horse, but my father wore a blue shirt to work, and the city was no place for a 1,200-pound pet.

A goldfish named Mortimer was the closest I got to stewardship of an animal in my childhood. His brief, moist existence, followed by the requisite "burial at sea," did not totally prepare me for the more complex human-animal bond I craved. It was, nevertheless, a beginning and I never gave up trying – even now, 50 years later.

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Summers on my cousin's farm brought me closer to the fragrant combination of freshly mowed hay and manure, but pigs, chickens and cattle were still a far cry from the noble beast I held in such esteem.

I played with model horses and Mr. Ed puppets. I "became" a horse to pull the little red wagon, neighing and snorting in play. When I was about 10, a wily old Shetland pony took up temporary residence on the farm. I have a vague memory of mounting one side and simultaneously dismounting the other.

I never learned to put on the bridle, nor did I know what a saddle felt like under my rear end, but I was getting closer.

Going away to school and work ended in marriage and pregnancy, leaving little chance or money to pursue the dream.

When I sent my daughter off to school, I remember suggesting that it might be fun for her to find a friend with a horse. I immediately bit my tongue. I knew I was flirting with living vicariously.

In my mid-40s, thanks to a neighbouring orchard and petting zoo, we became off-season keepers of a miniature horse and donkey. I didn't own them, but by God they lived in my five-acre backyard. I was getting so close I could taste it.

I became a true livestock owner when the same neighbour gave us a goofy Nubian goat with ridiculously long legs that turned like egg beaters at his knees. This endearing spastic quality and his eerily human behaviour resonated with me, and I let Fred walk untethered by my side like a dog.

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I toyed with the idea of finding a little harness for him, but then the neighbours had the idea of getting a workhorse as an attraction. I jumped at the chance to claim ownership.

Eric was a magnificent beast, an eight-year-old Belgian gelding standing 18 hands high and weighing 2,000 pounds. His pie-plate hooves and naturally curly blond mane were as striking as his nature was kind. Surely this gentle giant was my ticket to ride, even though he could have killed me 10 times over.

I began hanging around tack shops, fingering bits and pieces of leather and metal, wondering what went where. Gradually, I learned to buy bridles and fit saddles and harnesses. I memorized the veterinarian's phone number, and learned that horses were created to provide well for the vet's family.

Then came the predictable decision to get a friend for Eric. Enter Mikey, a 15-year-old Percheron who loved to eat and to follow. It was a match made in heaven.

Straddling their great, broad backs was like riding a couch. At last, I was sitting, literally, high in the saddle. But in horse circles, riding a draft horse makes you the butt of jokes, even if it does make your ass look small.

Eric and Mikey are, sadly, gone now, buried in the same field as Fred the goat.

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In the meantime, my daughter pursued a career in animal sciences, then graduated at the top of her veterinarian school specializing in equine medicine.

Riding became a hobby for her, and Elliot, a Percheron/Paint cross, became her horse. She entered her first dressage event last summer, and though I was envious, I thoroughly enjoyed shopping with her for the trappings.

I guess we all want our children to have what we wanted. It gives us a chance to live again, and also to try again – to add a little bit more to our youthful dreams.

And it finally spurred me to take riding lessons. There I was, a 58-year-old woman on a horse that was also ready to be sent out to pasture, flanked by young riders with little need for sports bras.

I plodded through the mud in spring and marinated in sweat over the stifling summer, my muscles seizing up after every lesson. I was constantly in pain and frequently embarrassed, but I made it until winter without falling off and managed to work my frozen, arthritic fingers to unbuckle the stiff leather tack.

My formal riding career lasted six months and I barely achieved the elusive rhythmic canter. But I finally learned to focus on a chosen path instead of on my horse's ears. Then I sat back to watch my daughter become the well-disciplined shock absorber, marvelling at her energy and still-flexible, pain-free body.

I am down to three miniature horses and a much smaller harness now, but I must be a beggar for punishment as the half-chaps and sports bra still beckon. Pain does have a way of reminding you that you're still alive.

Life isn't much different than learning to ride, whether you choose your path in childhood or take the long, convoluted route as I did. You find the opportunity and hang on for dear life. Keep your eyes on where you want to go and don't stop moving when it hurts.

Sometimes it takes years to learn to relax and enjoy the ride, and then you realize you should have started sooner, you should have laughed louder and you never should have hidden your tears.

Linda Webster lives in Halton Hills, Ont.

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