I grew up horseback riding starting at about age 6. I road at summer camp, and then at a couple different stables, but settled primarily at one stable at the age of 10 under the tutelage of Shirley Clement. She was a 5th grade teacher by day, corraler of horses and kids hopped up on sugar by evening. By the time I was a teenager, I was seeing her almost daily, which made her kind of like a second mom. Today is the anniversary of her death (or, as I call it, her deathiversary), so I wanted to take a second to tell you about her. Here is what Shirley taught me:
– Not to smoke. She was a chain smoker, and not the most attractive person. She had a horrific smoker’s cough, nice and phlegmy and old Buick-y sounding. On cold days, she’d crack the car window and smoke out of the crack even if she had a load of us in there with her. On hot days, she’d open the window all the way (her cars never had A/C) and the ashes from her cigarette would blow out of her window and immediately back into the passenger’s window behind her, collecting in a little pile in the passenger’s lap. Periodically, she’d say she needed to cut down (I now suspect this was for financial reasons, not health reasons), so she’d tell us to ask her when we saw her reaching for a cigarette, “Do you really want that?” She laugh, each and every time, and say, “Yes, I do.” Anyway, the habit was pretty damn disgusting, and stopped me from ever taking it up myself, though a couple of us kids did try to roll and smoke some cigarettes out of leaves and hay one time in the barn. I don’t recommend it.
– Punch buggies and pididdles are to be embraced, but please keep the volume under control and stop banging the hell out of the top of the car.
– Iced coffee was a thing. This was back before Starbucks was a thing (in our town). I didn’t know anyone else in the world who drank iced coffee, so when I saw it on the menu at Starbucks as an adult, my mind was blown. Who knew that that was a perfectly normal thing to drink?
– Magic exists. Shirley, being not so attractive, refused to let us take pictures of her. On multiple occasions, we tried to sneak pictures of her, and she’d curse the camera, and, I shit you not, the camera would break or the roll of film wouldn’t develop. I’m telling you, magic.
– Polyester pants are good for any weather. If you have an event that requires you to dress up, you can wear the ones without the horseshit stains. Or you can not go to the event that requires you to dress up. The important thing is to be comfortable at all costs. If comfort requires you to cut holes in your sneakers for ventilation, so be it.
– Hair need only be washed once a week or so if you want that nice slicked back ponytail look that you see a lot of old hippie men wear. In my entire life, I never saw her without a ponytail low and at the base of her head. I asked her to give me a French braid one time, and she complained that my hair was too clean to stay in the braid. I tried using that argument with my parents when it was bath time, but they didn’t fall for it. She also taught me that the best way to get shiny hair was to wash it with beer. So 3 of us went to my parents and asked them for beer and they looked at us like we were crazy, but did eventually consent and let all of us split a can of beer to pour over our heads (and secretly take one sip each). As you can imagine, our hair shone and had that nice freshly washed hobo smell.
– A large vocabulary is a good thing. As I’d pass by on my horse, she’d say something like, “You look pensive.” I’d ask what it meant and she’d tell me to go look it up. When I argued that I was on a damn horse, she’d just laugh at me and say, “Now you look petulant.” But she’d write the words down for me on the edge of her daily crossword puzzle so I could take it home to look them up.
– Horseshit is nothing to be afraid of. In fact, one should feel free to chuck it at one’s friends when they least expect it. Horses themselves are also not to be feared. You establish who’s boss and be tough when necessary, and you baby them when they need it. Feeding them moon pies and butterscotch candies as treats is perfectly acceptable. Barn hours suck. The care of your horses comes above all else, regardless of the weather or your own health. You will fall off. You will get back on. You will fall off. You will get back on. You will fall off. You will get back on. When your friends fall off, it’s okay to laugh, but you can’t get mad at them when they laugh at you. Falling asleep while sitting bareback on your favorite horse under a shady tree is to be expected.
– Everybody is worth loving, no matter what they look like or what their capabilities are. Our stable was at Camp Holiday Trails, a camp for kids with medical issues. So each summer, we’d spend our days walking sick kids around the riding ring and teaching them how to develop a relationship with and guide a 1000 pound animal. And we learned how to cheer each and every conquered fear and accomplishment. We learned how to be gentle, and playful, and encouraging. We learned that hugs should be given freely. We learned that kids die, but that you have to love them as fiercely as you can while they’re here and not be afraid of our hearts breaking when they go.
Shirley was flawed, and fun, and challenging, and could drive me batshit fucking crazy, and I loved her.