Beginning the Dance

When I was a toddler, I did gymnastics. When I got to elementary, I played soccer. In middle school, I performed in theatre and in high school, I did ballet.

When I got to college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I quickly learned that you couldn’t just “sign up” for sports. You actually had to be good. Your mom and dad weren’t writing a check for the parks and recreation department in your city so you could chase a ball around a few nights a week. This was the real deal. I never felt super-talented at anything, but still had to make a choice. I loved all of the things I had been involved in, but had always loved something else:

Horses.

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Having fun with equestrian program mascot Ace last winter.

I grew up in Troy, Michigan. No one around me rode but I talked about it all the time. I was known as the “crazy horse girl” at my school. I had horse binders and horse pencil cases. I carried a stuffed horse in my backpack from first until fifth grade and was teased relentlessly for it. Everyone assumed I rode, but I didn’t. It was a cruel joke. I begged my mom for lessons for eighteen years but the answer was always no.

When I was in high school, my grandmother was diagnosed with very advanced lymphoma and given a short time to live. She started chemotherapy; however, this made her start to lose not only hair, but also her mind. She reverted to a state where she thought all of us kids were years younger than we were and went on a relentless search to purchase a horse for me since that was all I talked about when I was little. She actually signed me up to take lessons a month before she died.

I still have the paper she signed, but I never got those lessons.

When I got to college, I saw a posting for the athletic requirements for the Albion College equestrian team. Athletic? Me?

But something made me go. It was at eight in the morning. I lackadisedly ran the mile and did everything required of me. Next, I went to the information meeting. I sat in the back. Girls said hello after a long summer. I heard snippets of their conversations.

“…I looked at that horse, but he was just too green…”

“…he was really loose but then I just had to work with him…”

“…I’m not sure which horse to bring to campus this year…”

I had no idea what they were saying. I felt sick to my stomach, as if I had switched bodies with someone and was taking their AP Calculus exam. The girls were decked out in riding gear and one thing was for sure – I didn’t belong. I shifted in my seat.

Get up, get up, get up, I urged myself. But I couldn’t. This was all I had ever wanted. I listened to the meeting. It was about an hour. They said a lot of things I didn’t understand and said I had to buy a lot of things that I didn’t know where to get or how much they cost.

I felt like crying.

After the meeting, I went to the front where the instructors were and cleared my throat: “Hi…I…uh…I’ve never ridden before and I…”

The women in front of me turned around. I thought they wouldn’t even notice me. I felt like I was showing up for the Olympic swim qualifier in a bathing suit with bright pink ruffles wearing an over-sized rubber duck floatie. According to one woman, however, it was “open season” on people like me.

The hardest spot for a team to fill? The beginner rider spot.

She begged me to show up to tryouts, even if I didn’t join. So I did. But that wasn’t easy, either. When I walked in, I stuck out like a PETA member at a bullfight. I could almost hear the record scratch. I was wearing the most equestrian outfit that I had: blue jeans and a pair of cowboy boots from Urban Outfitters. It looked like a last minute Halloween costume. But I was there!

It felt like everyone was looking at me, eleven of them decked out in these khaki stretchy pants and polos. (I owned a polo – I never thought to wear it!) Most sat in groups, but I didn’t know anyone. When it got to my turn, I didn’t even know how to get on the horse. I heaved myself over and sat there.

Now what?

“Walk on,” the instructor said.

You expect me to know how to make this big brute move?

Of course I didn’t. It wouldn’t budge. I’m sure it was a perfectly good horse, but I just sat there like an idiot. Other girls were walking around. One was doing a faster walk thing where the horses legs rotated from side to side in perfect rhythm.

“I don’t…I can’t…”

I wanted to jump off and run away. My helmet felt too tight and I feared I might collapse. A different instructor stood next to me and asked what I knew how to do.

Basically just this, I told her. I know how to sit while the horse is standing and not fall off. How cool is that?

She urged the horse forward. I was walking on a horse and everyone was watching. There were about twenty people in the gallery and it felt like they all had their noses to the glass watching me. They probably weren’t, but the heat of the moment always makes you think that.

The instructor told me to keep the walk “forward”…so faster…? I gave the horse a kick to the ribs. It was very forward. It was the faster walk thing where the horses legs rotated from side to side.

Bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce.

I did about five seconds of that and then gave up. The other girls had done the faster running thing that’s not quite a racehorse running but I didn’t think I was ready for that. I got off the horse, ready to be written off.

There’s been a mistake, I expected one of them to say. There was probably another Melanie – perfect hair, teeth, been riding since she was in the womb – that they had confused me with. There’s no way they would just let some random person off of the street onto their team! But to my surprise, I was picked.

Next came riding bootcamp. I discovered muscles in my body I didn’t know I had – and they all hurt. I was listening to the horse. Listening to the instructor. Learning, learning, learning. For ten years, I had been pointing my toes in dance. Now I wasn’t supposed to do that? You can’t just un-learn ten years of classical ballet!

My first year of showing was a total bust. I tend to put myself down a lot, but it’s not exaggerating to say I got last place at every show. A girl I befriended my first year showed at the highest level and won a blue ribbon every single time. I congratulated my team members when they did well and consoled them when they did poorly. My positive attitude paid off and I had fun. Being on the team was a blast – I loved the road trips, the late nights, the people.

Everyone is better than you, I thought to myself sometimes. What a motivator! There’s nowhere to go but up.

There were hundreds of people (mostly girls) competing at shows. And every single one of them knew how to ride better than me. As I got older, more people joined my team. All of the newcomers were more experienced than me – which, I will admit, made me feel bad. But it was short-lived, because when I told them I had never been on a horse until college, they commended my bravery.

I told them my tryout story. That took guts, they said. And I started to believe it.

I’m a senior now and consider myself to be an advanced beginner rider. I can walk the walk, trot the trot, canter the canter…and jump…little, miniscule little speed bumps. (I’m not so great at that yet.) But what a blessing riding has been!

In the past four years, I met incredible friends, gained great self-awareness, and had wonderful opportunities. I’m hooked on horses and they will always remain a part of my life. I’ll probably always feel a little behind, but then I wonder…how behind would I feel if I was in my senior year of college and hadn’t tried it at all? How much regret would I have?

When I was in grade school, I was teased for liking horses too much and now at college I’m sometimes made fun of for not knowing enough. (What does “above the bit” mean again?) I guess I just can’t win.

But for now, doing my best is enough. I am happy anytime during my pas de deux (dance for two – see? I know stuff!) and this dancer just got a new partner – a 1,500 pound hairy beast that has bad days, gets scared at practically nothing, and cannot speak my language.

Bring it on. Nothing scares me anymore.

Melanie Fodera is a senior at Albion College who will graduate in May with a degree in communications. She is also a valued member of the IHSA hunt seat team.

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