Thursday, October 4, 2007


G. and E. are taking horseback riding lessons at La Grande Ecurie, the stable with the cafe on the hill and the dashing proprietaire. We are about a month into the lessons, and although I have neither seen the proprietaire again nor set foot inside the cafe, I still hope for both, particularly the cafe. So far, though, the girls have required my presence in the gallery at the lessons.

The stable is enormous, with at least four different barns full of horses, some owned by the stable for lessons, some boarding there, and more rings and paddocks and trails than I can reliably count. The girls' lesson takes place in la grande manege, a really big barn, with horse boxes the long sides and, in the center, a covered dusty ring, perhaps half the size of an American football field. The ring is divided down the center, with a different instructor teaching at each end. Above the horse stalls runs an open concrete-paved gallery where the parents can sit on benches and oversee their chevaliers and chevalieres.

From this gallery, you can either look down at the action in the ring, or look out the open sides, towards assorted other barns and rings where the life of the stable is trotting along. I find it reassuring to notice how tumbledown everything is, everything except the horses themselves and what they require for health and safety and horsey happiness. The gutters on the barns: full of leaves and muck. The eaves: pre-war spiders thriving. Nets hung to catch pigeon droppings before they land on paying customers or, more likely cause for concern, valuable horses: attesting to a vibrant pigeon population. The gallery itself is lined with dirt and pigeon feathers and god knows what else. And yet the stable goes on about its business and if anyone is concerned about the cobwebs they do not seem to be losing sleep over it. It is as if the dashing proprietaire has found out precisely what must be done to keep entropy at bay and sees to it that what must be done, gets done, and the rest be damned. I think about these things when my daughters are riding animals that weigh roughly a ton and have brains the size of walnuts.

The girls started off in the wrong class. For whatever reason--the possibilities for misunderstanding being both cultural and linguistic--they were put with beginners. E. and G. have been riding for five years and although I would hesitate to call them accomplished riders for fear that a teacher would take me at my word and make their jumps higher, they do know their way around most horses. When I saw at the first lesson that the other girls were two or three years younger than they, I suspected that there had been some mistake. And then the girls mounted up: while one child hung on to the saddle with both hands while her horse trotted, another did a passable imitation of Yosemite Sam, frenetically pumping arms and legs as her horse did pretty much as it pleased, and the others sat hunched in their saddles, radiating terror and misery.

Things came to a head on the day that Yosemite was matched up with a nervous pony and, after it shied dramatically early in the lesson, all the other debutantes developed a case of nerves. In the gallery, I watched closely, leaning forward on the splintery bench, trying to guess which child might tumble and when. G. and E. were unaware of the other horses, concentrating on interpreting the French of the monitrice--happily, diagonal, galop, and trot sound about the same in French as in English. The other parents in the gallery were unconcerned. One sat grading papers, while others played games on their cell phones, returned calls, or minded younger children. The monitrice decided to have the girls canter their horses--faster than a trot, slower than a gallop. If it is your child on the horse, it is roughly comparable to watching her be launched in the space shuttle.

It was at this point that I remembered that I had never signed a release form for the girls' riding lessons. At our stable in the States, of course, I had signed a release form that indemnified the stable from everything that could possible take place while the girls were in the vicinity of a horse, from being sneezed on to trodden on. Here, though, no release forms, not ever. French society operates on an assumption of personal responsibility: evidemment, horseback riding is dangerous, you must have been aware of that before. One might think that having released the American stable from legal responsibilities, the American instructors would feel free to push the envelope a bit, to take a few risks with their charges, and that, the French stable not having even discussed responsibilities and damages in the event of a bad fall, the French moniteurs and monitrices would be a bit skittish, and there would be a lot of walking the horses around in a circle.

One would be wrong.

That afternoon, the debutantes' horses continued to nudge each other. They were like siblings: each horse seemed to know the thing that would irritate another horse the most, and continued to do it regardless of how many times he was told to quit it. As is foreordained in these situations, there was an explosion. Just before it--just before Yosemite Sam took her turn at cantering--I leaned down to G. and E. as they came round my side of the gallery and said: Stay away from the other horses. So they were well away when Yosemite was thrown and landed with an audible bump and began to wail. (It is a good sign when the thrown rider wails: people in a great deal of pain usually don't.) And they were well away when her horse bucked and spooked the other horses.

The next week, we moved to a more advanced class, reasoning that fewer debutantes with their horses running wild would mean a safer hour. In this class, the girls are all the same size and seem to have the same approximate capabilities of E. and G. Yesterday, the monitrice began the lesson with cantering. I was in the gallery with assorted friends and relations who were visiting from afar, and alternating between translating the lesson for the non-French speakers and explaining general horseydom for the uninitiated. It began to rain, and the sound of the raindrops reverberated off the roof of the barn. It was like we were going through an automatic car wash: bup bup bup bup bup bup bup.

Years ago my California monitrice told me that horses are simple creatures. French horses, it turns out, are like their Californian cousins. When the rain began a frisson of anxiety went through the horses: mon dieu mon dieu mon dieu what's that did you hear that what could it be mon dieu. Then it was E.'s turn to canter. As I and all of the friends and relations leaned forward on our bench, there was one raindrop too many, and her horse bucked, kicking out his hind legs and tossing his head, and E., into the air.

Later, after E. had taken a hot bath, we talked about it over chocolate eclairs. She told me that after she landed in the dust she had heard footsteps and had said to herself: that must be Mama coming to check on me. And it had been, of course. I had measured my steps across the concrete floor so that they would be quick but not rushed, and waited for her to see me standing at the end of the ring so that we could tell each other that she was all right.

The falls from horses, the ones that aren't bad, those are the easy problems. A hot bath, chocolate, footsteps: those are things I can provide. It may be a while yet before I go up to the cafe.

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