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Most people are surprised to hear that I head from the suburbs to the city to ride a horse.. Just off a busy city avenue in Buffalo, tucked among white stucco apartment buildings sits The Buffalo Equestrian Center, a turn of the century polo arena which has become a lesson barn. Faded black and white photos of riders with their horses decorate the wood paneled entry which leads to a lounge with fireplaces flanking both sides—tired yet timeless.
Truthfully, I spend little time in the lounge except to warm up on a cold day. I move quickly to the barn. The original stone floor is hard and cold, but it is strong beneath the horses hooves. Hay spills from the eleven stalls on each side of the dark long aisle. Thirteen bays, three grays, three chestnuts, one black and one palomino pony that bites—these are the tenants of the pine stalls. Besides the deep grooves in the stall doors where horses have gnawed, I believe little of the environment has changed since 1922. The earthy smell of horses, hay and peppermint treats still drifts through the barn; a calico barn cat still naps in the corner; a sparrow flits back and forth between the rafters. Except for the distant beep of a car horn, the city is forgotten.
At the barn I work, I volunteer, and I ride. I’ve been working as a barn helper since I was thirteen years old. Grooming, tacking, feeding, watering and sweeping make for long, cold days, but I get more time with the horses. Unlike other kids who can exercise their passions in the driveway or the public park, I had to patiently wait for that 1 hour lesson once a week.
Volunteering with the therapeutic riding program affords the same opportunity. Children with physical and mental disabilities find riding soothing—once they’re on and comfortable. Getting them to that point is my responsibility. It is frustrating to watch a child throw a tantrum because he has to ride a horse, since all I want to do in my free time is ride a horse. But once the horse is moving, the child’s body starts slowly rocking, and he smiles.
When I’m lucky, I’m on the horse in the enormous indoor ring which is actually still lined with stands and raised boxes polo spectators once occupied. Sometimes completely alone, I get to jump a course; this is the time I love. I have had my share of falls and a few bruises, but like many sports, a good quiet ride brings me back to the barn. The barn is meaningful to me simply because it is where I do what I love. I’ve been envious of my family members who can slip on running shoes and go for a run any time in any city or town, releasing anxieties and calming nerves.
Maybe that is why the barn is special; I didn’t always have access to it. I savor my time there. Nonetheless, there are aspects of my favorite place that, ironically, I hate. It is barely heated; the water is freezing cold always; it is dark even at noon in July, and that earthy scent can be awful. But as Winston Churchill said, “There’s something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” Horses have been good for the inside of me, and that is why I love the inside of the barn.
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