Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

Someone I hadn’t met before bought my two books yesterday and when she handed me her check, she said something that made me snort with laughter.

After a reverent pause of holding the books I labored five years to write and publish in her outstretched arms, she remarked, “Wow, you must be, like, really famous.”

Famous by whose calculation?, I wanted to know. First of all, unless you’re Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates, writing a book doesn’t instantly land you amongst the glittering rich and famous. You can count on this being especially true when you write a book for a microscopic niche industry like horses.

Sure, my books have sold far and wide within the horse world, but I’m not sure that qualifies for fame. I can tell you that Oprah has not called yet. Nor has Ellen, Letterman, or the Today Show. That’s the reality of being at the pinnacle of an activity that attracts only a few other folks, gets zero media coverage, and rarely makes the conversation list at parties and dinner tables nationwide.

In terms of mass market appeal, I might as well have written The Guide for Cartographers Under 30. Even if every single U.S. equestrian bought my book, the royalties wouldn’t add up to owning a fancy address here in California, that’s for sure. In fact, they wouldn’t even add up to buy a mobile home in a nice park. Since the release of my second book, I’m still sitting here in my cottage listening to the termites chew apart its sagging roof. I still shop at Goodwill. I still drive a second-hand economy car. In other words, being a two-time author in the equine industry hasn’t changed my life or bank account one iota.

Before I sound like a curmudgeon, though, let me admit that there has been some notoriety to come my way. It may be the type you measure in your own diary rather than the New York Times, but it’s a small dose of acknowledgement nonetheless. Among my friends, I’m a celebrity, bless their souls. To them, a published book is unfathomably impressive. It doesn’t matter if the book contains the Great American Novel, knock-knock jokes, or your mother’s recipes. A book is a book ad to friends, it makes me as credible as Gatsby or Nabokov. Frankly, my pals can’t figure out why Oprah hasn’t called yet. One volunteered to make sure she had my phone number. I assured him that failing to have my number wasn’t the reason that Oprah hasn’t planned a show for authors of horse training manuals. Unless she intended to cut her interested viewers to a teeny fraction of its current size, I doubt I’ll hear from her soon. But my friends don’t understand this. A book is a book, right?

Notoriety also came from my hometown where the newspaper ran a feature story about me and my books. The front page story included a flattering photograph and no shortage of words. In fact, the article sought to make me a celebrity in more ways than one. It dug up every minor accomplishment from my life to date. It mentioned poetry contests, basketball championships, bike races, college honors awards. Basically, it provided the fanfare and retrospective my friends were hoping for from Oprah.

**I should mention that my Vermont hometown has a population around 5,000 and the weekly newspaper that featured me comes in the form of six pages of pancake breakfast announcements and fundraisers for the fire station.

It might not count as actual fame, but I plan to take it wherever I can get it. The adage of being a big fish in a little pond doesn’t bother me. I will take big fish status any day because, let’s face it, the horse world will always be a tiny pond. Heck, I may not be able to afford a Rolls Royce just yet, but you better believe I’m laminating that front page story from the Randolph Herald and hanging it on my wall unless the termites chew it down beforehand.

Because I Said So

Teaching is a funny business, especially when one endeavors to teach something as elusive as horsemanship. It’s a cruel pursuit of seeing students achieve success for a few seconds and then fall apart just as quickly. I find myself too often saying “Oh! That was it– you had it! Did you feel it?” just as the scene before me unravels and the student’s face pinches up in frustration. It’s akin to asking someone if she felt the urge to blink her eyes right before her eyelids moved. Of course she didn’t. And if her learning is supposed to be built upon these teachable nanoseconds, you can see how it gets discouraging.

And then it’s my job as instructor to channel that frustration into something productive and uplifting. Aside from the Dali Lama, I think most of us cannot achieve such a feat. Yes, any learning curve involves setbacks, but with horses the setbacks outnumber the triumphs by a large margin. Feigning a thin smile and reminding students day after day that their relentless sense of failure is actually an enriching part of the process sometimes just feels awkward to me. Some days, when trying to disseminate motivation that will help them stay the course, I feel as though I’m attempting to convince them of the values of masochistic hobbies. Maybe in reality I am. Maybe that’s part of being a riding instructor.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because the very act of learning to ride a horse contrasts the high-paced- instant- gratification-information-overload world we live in at the moment. During a time when folks can get the answer to any question or quandary or quest within seconds by looking into the palm of their hands at a cell phone, it’s absurd to expect that they will savor the painstakingly slow pace of learning horsemanship. We humans are pleasure seekers. We want instant results. We want to win the lottery without putting in effort. We want robotic vacuum cleaners, pills that solve our health issues, cars driven by auto pilot. What we do NOT want are hobbies that demand excessive toil and sweat and, in return, give us a feeling of slamming our heads against a wall.

The necessity of me remaining employed begs the question: With internet and texting and space- age cell phones, why would anyone elect to take up a sport that requires hours of sitting in a saddle before they can get their legs in the right place, never mind influence the horse?

Lucky for me, though, folks still do take up horsemanship and riding, which keeps me employed. I have yet to figure out what draws them, but I’ve concluded there’s something about all that toiling and frustration that must appeal to them. It’s a rare breed, these folks. They’re the ones who wake up in the morning, slip on their shoes, and then say to themselves “oh goody, maybe I’ll go do something really futile today” and head off to the barn.

And generally what keeps them coming back is the fact that these hardy souls are movers and shakers in other areas of their lives. Commonly, they’re CEOs and founders of ground-breaking companies, inventors, scholars. Basically, they’re the type of people who can do anything really, really well. But horses present a humbling detour in their otherwise highly accomplished, talented, and successful lives. And, truthfully, I think this is what keeps them coming back to the barn every day. I believe that they are boggled, as am I even after all these years, how a seemingly simple four-legged nonverbal beast can be so, well, not simple. They say to themselves “I can run companies, save lives, build communities, raise a family,…so why the HELL can’t I master this less intelligent creature?” It’s that humbling question that puzzles them, which in turn causes them to enlist in the daily progress of learning to ride: two steps forward and two-and-a-half steps backwards.

I, for one, applaud the effort. Horses have been humbling me for 28 years and I have come to accept that I possess flawed psychological wiring that keeps me attracted to these beasts. But I can’t wish that flaw on others, can I? This is the metaphysical question facing us riding instructors. I would prefer to believe that I could offer some solace to students in the throes of frustration and angst, to think I could say something inspiring and sensible, rather than just nodding in their direction and saying “Hey, it appears you’re masochistic just like the rest of us.”

For now, when students turn to me in their desperate hour to express all the woes and emotions and inadequacies that horses bring out in us, the best I can do is rely on an empty childhood maxim, as devoid of inspiration and clarity as it may be. When they are struggling to learn the elusive art of horsemanship and ask “But how can this be right?” or “why should I keep doing this?,” I reply: BECAUSE I SAID SO.