I don’t remember the first time I was on a horse. I remember the first time I was off one. I recall the shape of the rocks in front of my eyes, my scraped cheek pressed to the ground. Those stones come to me in a silhouette of massive, misshapen pebbles. They loom large, like a city skyline gone sideways.
I was two years old. I still can see the stones.
I was perhaps all of three feet tall, that little length of me now stretched out in a rocky field. In the distance was an imposing brick mansion, and on its rolling grounds, horses idly cropped the grass. Perhaps one or two raised their heads from the ryegrass at the commotion, decided the plight of a little child splattered in the dirt wasn’t their problem, and went back to chew. I wouldn’t know: I just lay there on the ground, cold pebbles pressed into my face, rocks turned mountains that close to my pupils—and stayed there.
In truth, I was fine, bruised, with just a tear in my teeny jodhpurs, despite the fact that I had just plopped off the back of a full-sized horse, but I didn’t know that at the time. What I knew was the shock of a perfect day gone upside down. It was my third-ever riding lesson at this imposing, horse-dotted estate in Amagansett, New York. I’d arrived that morning, bold and begging to do more than plod along. I was now regretting it.
The horse was called Guernsey, a tremendous patchwork of white and latte-colored spots like the dairy cow breed after which he was named. I had brushed him to sparkling and watched as the tiny mishmashed contraption I used as a saddle was tethered to his back. At the mounting block, I’d waited patiently for a grown-up to lift me onto his back. Out in the field, my teacher clipped a lead to his bridle, and we began our promenade in a circle.
I was bold on a horse, as tall at last as I felt inside, as powerful and in control as a child is not in any other part of her life. With a kick from my little paddock-booted feet, he jogged into gear. I’d barely mastered the trot by this early point in my equestrian education, but I was sure I was a cowgirl anyhow. I jammed my small heel on the gas—his sides—and he lumbered into a floppy canter. We were off!
But then, suddenly, I was off, grit under my tongue, a rider without a horse. Had I looked up, I would have seen him. My mother, at the fence line in her Hamptons camouflage of pastel-popped collar and white jeans, did. I knew that because she was screaming. That’s because the horse, ever so obediently, was still cantering around the circle. I lay in his path. He was barreling down on me.
I began riding at age two, and the family lore is that it was because I would never sit still. Car rides from Manhattan’s Upper East Side where we lived out to East Hampton where my family had a summer home were apparently torture for my parents. A Ford Taurus filled with my old dad, fifty-five years of age with no time for the antics of a fourth and final child, and my mom, thirty-eight years old and overwhelmed by kinetic little me. My father was a psychiatrist, and I arrived late in his life. Born in Poland in 1930, he was old enough that he was a Holocaust survivor who had evaded Hitler’s grip as a nine-year-old boy. Dad had two sons from his previous marriage, and by the time it was my turn with him as a father, his days of babbling at babies and humoring toddlers were long gone by. Although he was a renowned child psychiatrist, he was better at relating to little ones as patients than as his progeny eager for him to get down on the floor and finger-paint.
My parents met when my mom was an assistant elementary school teacher and my father had been called in to diagnose a diabetic student of hers who seemed suicidal: he was refusing his insulin. My father cracked the case with his discovery that the child had absorbed the messages of back-to-school specials a little too well; the child told Dad he was afraid that if he injected the lifesaving drug into his veins, he would become “a druggie.”
My mother was impressed. Detecting in the visiting doctor’s voice the lilt of an Israeli accent, she ran down the school staircase after him as he left the session, shouting the formal Hebrew-school Hebrew she knew. “Adoni!” she called out, thinking it just meant “sir!” (In fact, the nuanced translation is more like “my liege.”) My father, then forty-two years old, bald, mustachioed, with teeth snaggled by the wartime blight of his childhood in Poland, stopped in his tracks. He looked up the staircase and saw a green-eyed, twenty-five-year-old woman with waist-length blond hair.
And she had called him her lord.
In 1980, nearly a decade into what ended up being a forty-one-year marriage, they were two doctors seeking to climb a ladder of affluence. To do so, they had bought a 900-square-foot shack in East Hampton, in an unfashionable area of fishermen and mechanics called the Springs, far from the glamorous hordes. The floors of the shack were covered in rust-colored shag carpet and peeling linoleum, but it was set on a glorious cliff overlooking Gardiner’s Bay. Over the years, as they ascended the ranks of success and prestige, the house grew. Toddler me didn’t notice the cramped quarters because I was almost never inside. My little life was with the hermit crabs that played out funny pageants only they could understand in the tide pools that eddied out back. And with the horses I sought out endlessly in the woods and fields between the shingle-style mansions.
It was a quainter time when such things like a beach house and even our Park Avenue apartment were somewhat accessible to those who were working but not well-off. My parents bought the sprawling Upper East Side home where I grew up in the late 1970s for $45,000, less than some cars costs today. It was a time when New York City was teetering toward bankruptcy, and people were fleeing their Classic Sixes in droves. So many people had defaulted on purchasing this apartment before them—scared of the harbingers of a city spiraling toward decline: an economic recession, the blackout riot the summer of ’77 and spiking murder rates—that they had to pay with a Mr. Monopoly–style bag of cash. They borrowed $10,000 from my maternal grandmother, Frieda, a secretary, the apartment a rope they climbed into the middle class.
Inlaid in the parquet floor under the dining room table when they purchased the resplendent apartment was a tiny buzzer. Scrabbling up from working-class roots, my family needed the doorman to explain what it was for: the lady of the house pressed it with her toe, where it would ring in the kitchen and summon her staff.
The first thing my mother did when she moved in was rip out the wiring.
On weekends, we went to the beach. Driving down Old Stone Highway in Amagansett, the next town over, in the Taurus one afternoon, we passed a spotted pony. She was nut-brown and splotched with white, a pattern that is known in the horse world as a pinto, and stood in a small pen by the side of the road. The pen was overgrown with vines of trumpet creeper so that she stood chest deep in pink petals. That’s when the epiphany hit my parents: putting me on a moving horse would be the secret to getting me to sit still. That is, I’d be moving but seated, rooted to where they could see me. On a horse, I could be as hyper as I itched to be but unable to skitter out of sight. They turned up the vine-laced drive.
They had no idea what their clever plan would set in motion.
The barn was on a private estate owned, I was told, by a textile magnate, who had converted the rooms in the mansion into “showrooms” for various rugs. He had three horses of his own that he barely rode, except to jump on their backs every so often, startling them out of semiretirement to prove to himself he was a gentleman farmer. Occasionally I’d see him puttering past the paddocks on a farm vehicle, back and forth, for no discernible purpose, but with all the ceremony of the pope in his popemobile.
I didn’t ride the horse called Guernsey at first, or the spotted pony, either. Technically, no riding lessons were offered on the estate, on which a handful of privately owned horses and ponies were boarded. But the owner of the pony, which had the swoon-inducing name Cutie, let my mom leave me there for an hour or so some days to play with her waist-high pet. Like all other personality-packed ponies, Cutie was the paradigmatic example of what I’ll call Sarah’s Axiom of Ponyness: a pony’s troublesomeness is in equal proportion to how sugar-sweet adorable it looks and in inverse relation to its height. In plain-speak, the teenier the pony, the ruder. A bite-sized one named Cutie? Watch out.
Cutie’s owner had decided the pony was either too opinionated or, more likely, too tiny to ride, so my first equine experience was not riding but clip-clopping down Town Lane with her owner as the pony towed us in a tiny wagon. Grandma Frieda took me to be with Cutie daily. She and I lived together out at the beach all summer while my parents saw patients and plays in the city. They left me Out East, as Manhattanites refer to the eastern end of Long Island, with my maternal grandmother. Grandma tried to be both mom and dad for me while I pined for parents who had little time for someone as yet too young to make cocktail conversation.
Grandma was barely five feet tall, her skin speckled with vitiligo, an ebbing of the pigmentation that made her hands as bone-white as they were soft. She never married after Grandpa David died of a heart attack when Mom was twenty-five. Her sole pleasure of the flesh, it seemed to me, was a small bowl of coffee ice cream each night while mooning after Alex Trebek on Jeopardy!
Her softness belied a hard life. She had given birth to two children who died just hours into this world. Yet she seemed to see her suffering as trials on the path to joy. Through that loss, she found my mother and my uncle, she would remind me, whom she adopted as newborns. The only time it dawned on me that she and I were not blood-related was when as a teenager, I shot up to five feet eight, towering over all my petite family at bar and bat mitzvahs.
“Thank God you’re not a shrimp like the rest of our family!” Grandma said when I told her I felt out of place. “Shrimp aren’t kosher!”
She was so tolerant, so genial, that it became an absurdist family joke on long car rides: we would break up the tedium of the drive by warning my silent, smiling grandma that we would have no choice but to tow her behind the car to East Hampton on roller skates if she didn’t stop bellyaching.
In the city, Grandma wore skirt suits of the Golden Girls variety, purchased at a proper store for women of a certain age. Out East, as close as she ever got to casual wear or trousers, was a skort my mom gave her in an effort to make her hip. Even so, when I became a tween, she was the first to take me shopping for tube tops and miniskirts, applauding as I modeled postage-stamp-sized outfits for her in the dressing room.
Grandma wasn’t old-fashioned or retro (she wore a rainbow gay pride pin on her pocketbook when I asked her to in support of my best childhood friend); she was just a grandma to her core—so much so that the doormen at my family home in New York City called her “Grandma” too, and she wouldn’t respond to anything else.
Once, when I was just over a year old and we were together alone in East Hampton, I crept between the railings of the porch and tumbled off. Grandma drove me to Southampton Hospital shoeless, in her nightgown. I loved hearing the story. Later, I realized why: the image of my tiny, dignified grandma so undone, braless and barefoot, and heedless of anything other than the need to protect me was the first time I felt important to anyone in my life.
Grandma Frieda was my confidante and chauffeur, driving me to the barn each morning. At bedtime, she tunelessly sang me nursery rhymes without cease, holding one of my hands as I sucked the other’s thumb, and not minding when I swapped a sticky hand for a fresh one. I felt so alone I could only fall asleep gripping her to make sure she couldn’t leave me too.
I always made her repeat one song in particular until I fell asleep.
I had a little pony, her name was Dapple Gray,
I lent her to a Lady, to ride a mile away
She whipped her and she lashed her!
And she rode her through the mire!
I will not lend my pony, for a lady’s hire.
Sometimes in the pony cart, Cutie’s owner would allow me to steer, but at first, we didn’t get far. I’d taken a personal oath to never whip and lash Cutie like the lady in the poem, and I refused to so much as flap the reins over her spotted rump, so of course we did not move. Instead, I learned to click my tongue. At the sound, Cutie would tug at the traces and march us down the road.
But idyllic as it was, it wasn’t riding. Across the street was another barn, a commercial riding operation, and I begged my mother to take me there one afternoon after clopping down the roads with Cutie, so I could sit on an actual horse and ride. Unfortunately, you had to be five years old to take a riding lesson, they said; two was far too small. It was an agonizing fact that I bawled over as we left, hammering at the window of our station wagon and begging whomever was up there listening for three years to pass by the time we drove home.
To silence the squall, my mother pulled back into Cutie’s estate, and accosted a willowy woman she found there astride a huge pinto horse; that was when I met Guernsey. His owner’s name was Diana Zadarla, and she was a babe and a bohemian rhapsody—a white woman who wore her hair in Indonesian wraps. She was a thirty-something artist who worked at a local gallery to afford her other art, riding, and ducked out on her lunch break to teach me on her horse. She had a heart-shaped face and soft eyes that crinkled, and some part of me knew instantly she loved horses with a fierceness that I was finding in myself. Diana didn’t give lessons, but somehow that afternoon, my brash New Yorker mother tawked Diana into setting me astride her full-sized horse. That day and every day after.
Guernsey was the first animal I ever sat on. I reveled in attempting to brush his white patches until they shone and polishing his candy-striped hooves. I didn’t know it then, but he was common and coarse. Instead, I saw just his two starry blue eyes. Beneath his divine eyes, he had a porcine, pigment-less pink snout; Diana would let me rub sunblock on it whenever we rode, lest it fry.
Being a Hamptons horse, housed on the grounds of a redbrick mansion, Guernsey would later have singular distinction of teaching at least one celebrity how to ride. Michael J. Fox mounted up to prepare for an iteration of Back to the Future, where he travels back in time to the American West, something Diana was proud to share with anyone who would listen. As a child, I thought an actual fox had ridden Guernsey. The horse was so tolerant that it made total sense, and so I never questioned my misunderstanding of the boast.
Even if he had never been sprinkled with stardom, Guernsey looms in my mind. In fact, he was mammoth. Unlike people, horse height is not measured to the top of their head, which will bob up to the barn rafters at a rustle in the hay or dip low for clover in a gully, and is thus an unreliable read on just how tall they are. They are measured instead to their withers, the bony spot formed by the meeting of their shoulder blades at the base of the neck.
The withers is a useful point of reference because no matter how the horse moves across the ground, this measurement does not change. And in a way, it never has.
There is a wooden rod that is at least 3,350 years old that rests in a temperature-controlled case in the Louvre museum in Paris. Thin and beveled along one side, the circa 1136 BCE doodad belonged to an ancient Egyptian bureaucrat named Maya, a treasurer under Tutankhamun. Etched all along the side are teeny hieroglyphic images of fingers, palms, and hands. It is a ruler that, luckily for archaeologists, bears along its length a glossary of ancient units of measurement. Like the Rosetta Stone was for language, this code-cracking cubit rod is for metrics. In that ancient Egyptian metric system, a finger correlates roughly to an inch. Put your fingers side by side together and measure them across, and you get about four inches, a hand’s span. That four-inch “hand” is a unit of measurement long slammed in a sarcophagus and left to history.
And yet, that antique unit is still used to measure all horses, on racetracks, in fields, or in show jumping barns today, just as it was in the kingdom of King Tut. (It is not the only ancient esoterica that persists; a dusty attic full of relics lives on among horses and their people. The convention of mounting on the left side is another example: it comes from cavalry, who got on their horses from the left so as not to accidentally stab them with their sword.)
Hands are used to splice equines into categories by height. Ponies like the not-so-Cutie, are generally the animals that come in under fourteen and a half hands from their hoof to the bony peak of their shoulders. Horses are anything higher.
In the pink-creeper-covered stables in Amagansett, Guernsey seemed a thousand hands high.
Guernsey was as big as I was small, so we had a problem: there was no saddle simultaneously large enough for him and teensy enough for me. Diana’s artistic creativity came to the rescue. She took a square of cloth and sewed on tiny steel stirrups. With a jerry-rigged system of breastplates and girth, she affixed the patch of cotton to his back and me atop it.
Blame the patchwork “saddle,” blame the fact that truly, two years old is too small to start an extreme sport, or blame the fact that my cow-colored behemoth was just too large, but the first time Guernsey picked up that lumbering canter, I pitched headlong into the dirt.
And so, back to where we began this story: two-year-old me, the ground, the rocks, and Guernsey barreling down on me while everyone gasped.
And, ludicrously, I just lay there, looking at the gravel. That is my first memory of horses.
And of the grown-ups screaming. That afternoon, I had been riding Guernsey as he was affixed to what is called a longe line, a long lead tethered to the bridle and held by a trainer who stands at the center of a circle, commanding the horse in a roundelay on the perimeter. It’s a useful training tool for a beginner, allowing the rider to focus on balance and pace and not worry about steering. Restrained, the animal loops on a track as certain as the carousel horse bobbing on a painted pole.
But the nature of a circle is, of course, that it circles back around. And so as I lay flopped there, Guernsey completed the revolution, and he swung back full blast toward me. Unburdened of his rider, dutiful, trusty, gigantic Guernsey kept doing his job; he kept thundering toward me. My mother shrieked. I was about to be equine roadkill. But shouts don’t often make a horse stop. More often, a loud yelp will startle a horse into charging harder. Right at me.
Then, with a whoosh, the little lump of two-year-old on the dirt that afternoon lived. Guernsey had jumped over me.
And that’s it really. That’s the whole thing of horses, the ones who leap over you and spare you and indelibly print their silhouette against the sun. Those who remain forever the hawklike shadow suspended overhead that afternoon. Even the ones who break and bruise you, but so, so beautifully. That’s the gift of a horse, the thing we take from them and never really return. We take pleasure in their life, find freedom in their hoofbeats. They stir me, but I often wonder, Do we do more than succor them in return? Does anything make a horse feel the way a horse makes me feel?
“Guernsey,” I remember saying as I rolled over and stood up. “Good horse.”
On a morning after a thirty-two-year absence, I emailed Diana, his owner. I had ridden Guernsey for a few more summers until I was old enough to make the cut for a local pony camp. We had lost touch beyond the occasional carrot I stopped by to deliver to my old mount. She was nearly seventy and a sculptor with a whimsical business, scraping three-dimensional horse portraits out of clay for a living. Her batik-wrapped hair (still, I imagined as I read her emailed response, and I don’t want to know if it isn’t—some things just aren’t allowed to change), she told me, is now silvered in waves.
She responded to my emailed hello with a picture. In un-Instagrammed sepia—the actual color of 1985—there is Guernsey, sensitive blue eyes closed gingerly against bright summer sun. There is Diana, her hair piled under swirled cloth. And there, high on his back, am I. Memory had not failed. I was, it turns out, roughly as big as Guernsey’s head.
Diana’s phone number in East Hampton was in the email. “Sarah! I’ve been waiting for your call, just a moment!” Diana set the receiver down in her house on Red Dirt Road, and I could hear the rustling of paper. “I’ve kept it all these years,” she said when she picked up the line again. In her hands was a preserved slip of yellowed newsprint that she had long kept in a manila file in her home and thumbed through from time to time. It was a clipping from the local newspaper, the East Hampton Star, saved since 1995: Guernsey’s obituary.
“Guernsey could be a strong ride for an adult, but he possessed a rare and wonderful personality that made him, despite his formidable strength, the gentlest and kindest of creatures with children,” Diana read in a clear voice that I remembered from when it commanded me to put my heels down and eyes up across the courtyard of the creeper-covered stables so long ago.
“?‘Guernsey’ is one of the first words several generations of children have learned to utter,” Diana read. Guernsey, I thought. Good horse.
He wasn’t always so gentle, Diana told me. He began life roughly, somewhere out West. But he had softened with time and, perhaps, cushy Hamptons living, a town he arrived at as a tumbledown three-year-old in 1973. “He bore the scars of a wild western youth—a pierced nose, knife-slashed tongue, and a brand,” the obituary continued. “As he traveled along the roadsides of Amagansett, people would pass in automobiles and call his name.”
She read to me the last line. It doubled as his epitaph—and perhaps that of all the horses I have ever known: “That a single animal could give so many people and other animals so much pleasure over the course of his lifetime is a blessing to us all.”
We sat quietly, me in New York City, Diana on the small farm where she lived. Then she continued, not reading now. “I’m sixty-eight now, and I’m still galloping through the woods, and people are horrified when they hear this,” Diana said. The receiver to her ear, she was watching her two draft-crosses as they sniffed through scattered fall leaves. Jefferson is mostly Suffolk Punch, an English breed, with a stippled brown hide of silver dollar–sized dapples across a rump like a wine cask. Sir Oliver is a silvered part Percheron. In the evenings, she lets the huge, lumbering horses out of their paddock to trim the grass in her front lawn, nipping the edges of her driveway under the cover of dusk. Two jiggly basset hounds run low around their heels.
“Twelve. That’s my age with horses,” Diana continued. “That was when I had the fantasy that they would take care of me, even though I know now that’s not true—I’ve suffered enough for me to know better now.” She sighed. I heard the newsprint clipping of Guernsey’s obituary crinkle in her hands.
“But that kind of free, fearless thing that I used to have at that age—which God knows I don’t have now—it clicks in every once in a while,” Diana continued, her voice brightening to that same sunny tone that told me to brush off the dirt and get back on her giant Guernsey that summer day when I was two years old. To mount once again her two-toned beast with the blue blue eyes.
“I feel it only one way,” she said. “When I’m on them.”