It took me to leave rural northwest New Jersey, where I grew up, and to go to Philadelphia, where I went to college, to saddle up and actually develop a small knowledge base about Western-style horse riding.
I cleaned stalls and helped out Ike Johnstone at Belmont Stables, an historic West Fairmount Park building where Johnstone hosts the Bill Picket Riding Academy, through which he teachs anti-violence and communication to North Philadelphia kids. In exchange, Johnstone taught me some rudimentary riding skills.
Ten years ago, I had been riding weekly for several months with Johnstone when he finally gave in to my pressuring to take me on a (slightly) longer ride through West Fairmount Park. Believe me, I was no expert then, and remain decidedly uninformed today. But I had spent quite a bit of time with the horse, cleaning stalls and, as Johnstone would tell me, “If you treat a horse right, talk to them enough and clean out their shit enough, they’ll respect you, for a little while at least.”
Johnstone, who had become a deeply important and influential figure to me then, had me join just a quick 15-mile or so Sunday morning trail ride he was taking with some friends.
We were maybe only a third of the way into the ride when it happened, mostly far from the road so I hadn’t even noticed the trail had brought us close once again to street noise. I didn’t see the car or notice the driver who pierced the morning quiet by slamming his door suddenly enough to startle my horse, sending the horse into a gallop. I managed to hang on, despite being bucked, enough to settle him and bring him under control. It was a terrifying and frantic 10 seconds.
As any experienced horse person would tell you, I made many mistakes — being surprised, letting the horse take control before I could respond, among others. But I took what Johnstone had taught me, remained calm, balanced and firm. When I turned my horse and returned to the rest of the group Johnstone’s friends were hooting for me, knowing that for as inexperienced as I was, the moment could have gone differently.
Johnstone knew my love for country music, so he was playing into my romanticizing the West when he told me, “Chris, now you’re a cowboy.”
Of course, I was far from it. But Johnstone always mingled independent-mindedness and respect and a willingness to learn, with more tactical knowledge with his idea of a cowboy. (He was particularly fond of reminding people that the word cowboy was historically more tied to Black Americans than Whites). He was deeply important to me and my understanding of self.
I knew enough about how to dress, saddle, take out and mildly control a (very) well-trained horse, that I was comfortable getting a horse-carriage historic tour guide operating license. It was one important life lesson that led to another favorite experience of mine.
More than just the relative simplicity of Western riding (versus English style), it’s Ike Johnstone who informed my love and appreciation for it.