My seven-year-old daughter grabbed my hand as our teacher Jessica Lang of Three Fox Farm in Blythewood opened the door of the barn. As Lang led Baby, a chestnut pony, Mary Frances leaned against me and squeezed my hand tighter. When Lang asked her to come over and help brush Baby, my daughter's eyes opened wider, and she stepped back. "She's so big," she whispered.
"She's very gentle," Lang assured her.
I picked up a brush and began to groom Duke, the horse I would ride at our mother-daughter riding lesson that cool and lovely August evening. Mary Frances approached her pony slowly, carefully. She and Baby eyed each other, and then, carefully and from arm's length, she began to brush the pony's leg. Baby turned her head and fixed her enormous brown eyes on my daughter.
"OK, time to get on," Lang called cheerfully. I hadn't been on a horse since my senior year of college. But it seems that riding a horse is a bit like riding a bicycle. You don't really forget, even though your balance might be off.
But Mary Frances had never been on a horse before. She had never even been close to a horse before. She looked at me with a flash of fear in her eyes, and I nodded and smiled encouragingly. Like many seven-year-old girls, she had wanted to ride a horse for years.
So she took a deep breath, and she climbed that mounting block without a word. She held the reins, put her foot in the stirrup as instructed, and hoisted herself up on that pony. And finally, she smiled. A great, big, joyful smile. She had done it.
Lang began to adjust her stirrups to make sure they were the right length.
"Where's my seat belt?" Mary Frances asked her.
"Oh, there'e no seat belt when you ride a horse. You have to use your balance and your legs to stay on."
Mary Frances flashed me another deer-in-headlights look for a second, but before she could get too anxious, Lang was explaining to her how to use the reins and reminding her to keep her heels down. And then they were off.
We walked across the gorgeous green fields of the farm, past horses in their pastures, through the long white fences that stretched to the woods, across an old, unused racetrack and into a ring. The ground was muddy from all the recent rain, but neither the horses nor Lang seemed to mind. The air was soft and humid and smelled earthy. The clouds, which had loomed and threatened earlier, now turned pink as the sun began to set. It looked like a scene from a movie.
Lang gave us some more instructions as we walked around the ring, and said I could ask Duke to trot, if I wanted. Around and around we went, in the pink light as the spectacularly beautiful farm bounced by. You can't really think about anything else when you're trotting on a horse, except trotting. This is what makes it so fun, to be completely absorbed in what you're doing so that no other thoughts or worries crowd into your mind. Just me, the horse, and the air rushing past.
Mary Frances saw us bouncing along and begged to trot, too.
"Only for a little bit, and I'm going to hold onto to Baby," Lang said. "You hold onto the saddle."
And for a few moments, I watched my daughter laughing out loud as she and Baby trotted along the rail. My child, who was once my tiny baby, sitting atop this beautiful creature and moving gracefully through the evening to the other side of the ring: I could glimpse in her posture the woman she'll be some day.
Lang was a phenomenal teacher, patient, calm, kind, fun and professional. She put me at ease and allowed Mary Frances to go at her own pace and find her confidence on her pony.
By the end of the lesson, Mary Frances was stroking Baby's neck and talking to her in the same way she talks to her dogs at home. She smiled, not a camera-ready smile, but a soft, little smile that was just for herself through the whole hour.
When we walked back to the barn, Mary Frances jumped right off Baby with no trepidation. She turned to me and blurted, "I love this so much. I want to come back and ride on Baby again. I just love her. This is probably the best thing I have ever done in my whole life." She has been talking about it since.
It was the best Back-to-School Night ever. I saw my girl fall head over heels.
Three Fox Farm offers horseback riding lessons for both children and adults, beginner to advanced, as well as horse boarding, and an array of other services. They are located at 1046 Mickle Road, Blythewood. Contact them at (803) 786-0649.