When I was a little girl, I had a bevy of activities that brought me confidence and joy: drawing, tree-climbing, pretending to be a mermaid in my parents’ pool, singing at the top of my lungs in the school van with my girlfriends to Les Misérables, and soaring over cross rails on my feisty pony at the Bedford, NY barn that waited for me at the end of a school day like a castle on a cloud. I was a happy child, a lucky child, buffered and protected in my happy world. Then, my little brother was diagnosed with a rare heart condition, and the strain and stress of his illness tore apart my parents’ already fraying marriage. The feelings of safety and security I’d enjoyed as a more innocent child came to a full stop.
“Ponies are for little girls” is a decision I made as a woken nine-year-old. “I’m not a little girl anymore.” I put on my show hat, jodhpurs garters, and riding gloves into my monogrammed riding trunk; I included my silver award trays and first-place ribbons, too. As my brother’s week-long stay at the Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital turned into a sojourn of several months, it became clear that life was no longer the pleasure garden that I thought it had been. I stopped climbing trees. I stopped singing show tunes. I faced the fact that I was never going to grow a mermaid tail. My beautiful pony was sold to another lucky girl.
I turned to writing for solace—the writing and reading would become my salvation, my confidante, and eventually, my profession. Writing proved a cheaper, safer, and more convenient way to conjure the feelings of freedom and exuberance that horseback riding gave me.
Just as I once felt like I could fly in the air with my leaping pony, I soared through stories of my own creation, completely taken with the fact that I could give my characters any kind of life I wished. Good luck, misfortune, romance, illness, and their adventures were mine to choose. Because I came from a family of non-readers, I eventually wrote away from my own family, first studying comparative literature and translation in college, then moving to France to put my translation skills to work.
I had a lot of things to fall back on as a young child—passions, friends, sports—I came into my adulthood a woman with just one love: creative writing. When my writing became monetized—I published one book, then a second one, then a third—my relationship to the one thing I loved above all others became fraught. There was no proverbial separation between church and state anymore: everything was conflated, my passion with my profession, my sense of self-worth mired with book sales I couldn’t control.
My re-entry into the horse world was cloaked under the cover of journalism: I was researching horse breeders for a story I was working on and had set up interviews with trainers and breeders across the east coast to get that story right. But one step into the sensorium that is a riding stable, and I was done for—or rather, I was brought back to an earlier salvation, one that stood on four legs and clocked in at twelve-hundred pounds and smelled like hay and sun.
There are a lot of different ways to be a horse girl. When I started riding again after thirty years out of the saddle, I didn’t have a Wall Street father footing my barn bill. I had to make my own way, work off my riding lessons, and earn the trust of people who would let me exercise their horses.
The fact that I eventually found my way to arena polo would seem like an anomaly for a forty-year-old whose most strenuous activity up to that point was typing.
But now that I’m four years into my polo adventure, I see why polo saved me — why it was the equestrian discipline I needed above all others. Whereas you can trot and canter around in circles if you’re feeling low, polo needs you present—it is a fast-moving, high-impact sport that demands that you be there. While mindfulness is a necessary attribute in any equestrian discipline, it translated into gratitude in polo because I had to be aware of what was going on around me at all times. So much of it was good.
Polo woke me up and showed me life again. It was a pleasure garden—the enchantments that had thrilled me hadn’t gone away. I’d spent so many decades obsessed over my writing that I’d become blind to the many gifts in front of me: a kind husband, a healthy daughter, and a brother whose heart condition had finally stabilized once a defibrillator was inserted in his chest and the right mix of medication, found.
Polo has released the pressure on my writing to be my life’s catch-all—I have something else to be maniacal about now: learning and perfecting a tricky sport. And while my nearside needs improvement and my ride-offs are ride-awful, what polo has gifted me with is the joy of play.
Polo has returned my appreciation of everything wonderful, strange, and a little dangerous about this world. It has given me back the ability to observe it through the eyes of the child I once was.
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Courtney Maum is the author of three novels and one publishing guide. Her memoir, THE YEAR OF THE HORSES, is forthcoming from Tin House. You can sign up for her newsletter at CourtneyMaum.com.