The Awkward Moments Series: A Tragic Tale of Embarrassing Myself via Horseback Riding in Iceland

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The Odyssey. A tale of a man dickin’ around the seven seas trying to avoid his wife for an absurd amount of time. The moral, according to my 9th grade honors English teacher, was to be aware of hubris, or excessive pride.

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That’s what all the other kids learned, anyway. I spent all my time blowing off classes, getting into trouble, and doing the bare minimum to move onto 10th grade.

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If I had taken class more seriously, perhaps I wouldn’t have wound up in a precarious and embarrassing situation. Yes, perhaps, I would have avoided falling danger to my own horseback riding hubris.

Third grade. I took two years of horseback riding lessons. I think I did OK, I got as far as learning to trot. I really liked the experience, and have gone trail riding every once and again, but never seriously studied the equestrian arts since let’s say 12 years old.

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So…naturally…when a horseback riding instructor says, “Only people with five or more years of experience should ride this horse. Is that anyone here?” It seemed like I, 26 year old Stephanie, was the person naturally fit for this job and this horse.

 

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Equestrian Expert.

Once you ride a horse, you never forget (is a saying I made up in my head that day.) As far as I was concerned, I knew everything there was to know about riding a horse, so why couldn’t I ride this one? Climb on, hold the reins, steer, I got it, bro. I’ve done this. The instructor looked me in my lying eyes and said, with furrowed brow, “I want to reiterate. You need to have ridden horses for five years to handle this horse. You have this experience, yes?” An audience looked on, and I really remember being pretty fucking good at horseback riding. “Yeah, I love horseback riding, for sure.” She nodded and pulled out a smallish guy from a stall (all Icelandic horses are very small, and I was at my heaviest, 170 pounds. Please keep this in mind as you read.) I scoffed and walked over to meet him. She told me his name in Icelandic, looking back I think his English translated name was, “biggest asshole and piece of shit ever.” I lead him out to the horse play pen to show him who was boss.

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“I’m assuming you can use the stirrups to get yourself up” declared the instructor. Piece of cake. Nottttt. If only I hadn’t eaten so much cake, maybe I could have done it. I pretty much just choked the horse to death by pulling on his reigns to hoist myself up. My foot got caught in the stirrup and he began  sauntering around in circles with my foot still in the stirrup, so I just giddye-up hopped behind him until someone came to rescue me.

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“Are you sure you can handle this horse?” the instructor asked again. Again, hubris, swelled through my veins. “I said yes, maybe you should offer a step stool to your riders. Anyone would have trouble climbing onto a horse with no step.” I held the reins as I remembered and put my feet in the stirrups. I asked my husband to take a photo of me, as it would look really cool on my Instagram. The horse again began to walk in small circles as if he were short circuiting. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get him to stop and now people were starting to look at us. Small, careful, circles. Nose to tail. Every time Arthur tried to snap a photo, he was facing the wrong way due to his circling, of course. The instructor joined by a friend came out to explain the rules and my horse stopped, thank God.

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His compliance lasted all of thirty seconds before he found and opening in the gate and just fucking walked out, with me on his back. “Ma’am, excuse me. Please come back, we need to go over the rules.” I fake laughed, but was sweating with embarrassment and seething with rage.

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“Let’s fucking go, walk backwards.” I whispered in the horse’s ear, who was now walking further away from the gate wherever the spirit moved him. “Ma’am, you need to come back” the instructor shouted angrily. “Oh, yes, we’re coming. Here we come!” I waved confidently to her and my fellow riders as the horse continued walking at an embarrassingly slow pace further away, as if he were dying under the weight of my body. I pulled the reins as I had remembered to get him to go in the opposite direction. It’s like they weren’t even attached, no effect. “I’m not fucking kidding, let’s go.” I whispered again. He snorted and stopped, probably short circuited again, idiot. He began trotting around the horse playpen where one of the instructors had to come and rescue me and bring us back to safety.

 

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We started in a single file line out of the gate, my horse was maybe 6th back. Well, he felt far superior to sixth place and so, would walk off the line and sidle up to the horse in front repeatedly. “Please control your horse. He needs to be back there.” Picture a person repeatedly trying to join a conversation they have been shunned from, and the conversers growing more and more angry. Whenever the instructors thought they’d gotten rid of us, they’d commence their joking and chatter. My horse did this four more times. Four more times he ran up to the front, stuck his big beak right in between their heads as they spoke, or casually pulled up next to them, and there was I, smiling and unable to control him laughing awkwardly and doing a queen of England wave.

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They put him in the front of the pack, so he could feel like the leader or champion. It is here, that he thought it would be funny to buck wildly and do strange things with his body which terrified me and I had never seen before.

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Again, I was scolded for not controlling my horse and the two instructors began to talk shit about me in Icelandic. I completely admit I did wrong from the get-go, but this horse had clearly never been ridden before. Nothing about his demeanor suggested he had ever been broken in, trained, or ridden. The whole group was made to stop as the instructors discussed what to do with me and Dickbag, the poorly behaved pony. I looked at him with rage in my eyes.

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“OK, ma’am please get off the horse. You aren’t good for him, we need to bring you a new horse.” I got down from my horse with help and whispered that I hated him as I passed him. The look in his eyes told me he felt the same way.

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My husband laughed and through looks agreed we would catch up with each other later as the instructor announced that everyone would go on ahead and I would wait with the other instructor for a new horse.

We waited in the freezing cold for thirty minutes because another instructor had to be radioed to come retrieve the horse, lock him up, and bring another horse. I was deeply embarrassed but happy to see him go.

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Luckily, the instructor who waited with me was the kindest most understanding girl from Hamburg, Germany. I was honest with her, and told her that I did have experience, but from years ago and that I was deeply so embarrassed. However, I stressed that I didn’t think it was fair to pay for a lesson in skills I felt that I’d already had. She agreed and noted that anyone with experience is given a new horse to break in, so everyone should just be treated as a beginner. She also mused over her doing week long rides in the summer with her co-workers where everyone gets super drunk and thrown off their horses. Many of the horses just run away, but the Icelanders never worry because they run all the way back to their barn.

A new horse was brought and I actually began to feel very lucky. I was able to have a private experience on a much kinder horse who I fell in love with. We rode at my preferred pace and I got to make two new friends. Afterwards, we got to the barn ahead of everyone and I was given the opportunity to take photos and feed the horses who were hanging out in the horse play pen.

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What I Learned: Cultural Nuances. Experienced in my world would mean, “have you done this before?” Experienced in Iceland means, “Do you feel willing and able to assist in breaking in this soul-less beast who has a reckless hatred toward all humanity?” I should have clarified, and not have been so eager to show off the skills that I could have sworn that I had. I feel that I missed some opportunities during the excursion, such as laughing and being with my husband. However, I also gained a private experience tailored to my needs and an opportunity to ride amidst the complete serenity and vastness of Iceland which I think wound up being incomparable. In the end, I found a horse I loved and got to interact with many other horses, learn more about the uniqueness of the Icelandic horse in particular, and hear more about the culture from my new friend. Much like Odysseus, my journey separated me from my spouse and felt like it went on for hours. I endured my journey in an unpredictable, feckless, and horrid vehicle (my horse) just as Odysseus had. If like me, you didn’t learn a damn thing from Odysseus’s inability to check his hubris, please, learn from mine.

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