Writing to Riding: The Carnegie Center Connection

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The other night, my friend Laurie Brock shared a few sunset pictures on Facebook that instantly transported me twenty-one years back to some warm, fuzzy feelings. It wasn’t the vibrant color nor the silhouetted trees that evoked the nostalgia. It was location. Laurie shot her gems from the premises of the Carnegie Center in downtown Lexington. Regaining my senses, I quickly liked her post and replied something to the effect that, “I love the Carnegie Center! It’s my Hogwarts.”

I mean that. If you’re not conversant in the fictional world of Harry Potter, this is the revered institution of learning attended by J.K. Rowling’s young characters. Officially Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, it is where young wizards and witches, by invitation, learn, grow, and discover more about themselves. Essentially, who they are, their talents, and who they might become. The Carnegie Center was all that to me.

(Cue the overused introductory sentence.)

It all began innocently enough.

While working on my Masters in Education at the University of Kentucky, I applied to attend the Center’s month long, seven hours a day, five days a week, Summer Writing Institute (aka The Bluegrass Writing Project). I passed the initial, extensive and thorough application round and was invited for an interview. Thank goodness they included a parking pass. (Those of you familiar with parking around the Gratz Park area of downtown Lexington are nodding right now.)

I had never been to the Center before. As I stood at the information area inside the venerable structure, gazing in wonder at my surroundings – rich paintings on the walls, light filtering throughout the place, comfortable looking sofas, and books, books, books – my senses absorbing the feeling that life-changing knowledge was contained therein, the little voice inside my head affirmed, “You can learn something here.”

Twenty or so candidates would be chosen. Despite the feeling that I had knocked it out of the ballpark with the interview, the conviction in me that the voice must be appeased created a sense of anxiety. I just had to get in.

A few weeks later, I received my letter of acceptance. (Sadly, Potter fans, it came by regular mail, not by owl.) I found myself positively giddy with the promise of new adventure. And what an adventure it turned out to be! In four weeks time, my “writing fellows” and I honed our teaching skills in the areas of language and literature. We bonded through group sharing and activities; we read, researched, and we wrote, wrote, wrote. It was here, through the Friday afternoon sharing of our writing, I discovered my penchant for fiction. It was here that I discovered my words could hold a group of my peers in rapt attention. It was here I discovered that I was a WRITER!  Prior to the Institute, I had no inkling. Thank you, Carnegie Center!  Total Hogwartishness.

So what the hell does any of this have to do with “riding?”

Let’s come back to the other night and Laurie’s post, my traveling back through the portal of time, and then recalling the rich memories. Those “writing fellows” with whom I bonded?  One of them was Anne Buchanan, who, at the time, was teaching Science at Dunbar High School in Lexington. I was teaching English at East Jessamine Middle in Nicholasville. We taught different subjects at different levels in different school districts in different counties. But we were “writing fellows, Bluegrass Writing Institute, 1998” – and that is a bond that transcends subjects, levels, place and time.

Four years later, Anne and I found ourselves teaching at Southern Middle School in Lexington. It mattered not that we hadn’t seen each other since the last evening of the Institute, almost all of us having met that night, along with our significant others, at a Lexington Karaoke bar for a final toast (and a few songs) to our month of togetherness. It was four years later, but we were “writing fellows” and now we were colleagues in the same building. Totally cool.

So cool that one day, not long after the school year began, Anne asked, “Hey, Karen…would you like to learn how to ride a horse?”

Without hesitation, I answered, “Absolutely!”

A night or so later, Anne introduced me to a bullpen, a lunge rope, an English saddle, and a dead broke horse named Pork Chop. I posted at a trot for the first time.

Writing to riding.  Just like that.

But maybe never if not for the magic of The Carnegie Center.

A shout-out for posting those pictures, Laurie.

February 2017: Blogging from the barn

Wow! Already a month into the New Year and it has thus far been one wild rollercoaster ride in America, at least politically and, as a result, social media wise. But that isn’t our agenda.

Not at all.

As stated on the home page, this space is specifically designed to be safe from outside noise save for the worship of mostly things equine – past, present and even future. Horses, ponies, donkeys, trainers, owners, riders, vets, farriers, caretakers, tack, feed, stalls, shows, tournaments, etc. – all are fair game here. Definitely some occasional non-horse related, non-controversial topics as well. Maybe even a little storytelling. So, let’s get started.

A Dream Denied, A Passion Discovered

When I was growing up in Yuba City, California, a mostly-farming community some 50 miles north of Sacramento, I dreamed of being a rodeo cowgirl. You see, I only associated horses with two, maybe three things: Movie/TV Westerns, parades, and rodeo.

I could channel my favorite characters, like Rowdy Yates (played by a young, brooding Clint Eastwood) from Rawhide or any of those Cartwright boys from Bonanza, playing cowboys and bandits for hours with my buddies; but, at the end of the day, reality bit big time. I mean, trying to imagine my bicycle as a horse was, pardon the pun, a pretty lame facsimile for the real deal.

And parades…well, between Yuba City and its sister city Marysville, we had about two parades a year – Christmas and Veteran’s Day – where a few horses participated, but not to any memorable degree.

Rodeo, though – rodeo was real. I lived for the annual Sutter County Fair and Cotton Rosser’s Flying U Rodeo, held at the Yuba-Sutter Fairgrounds.

Rodeo! Hot and dry was the order of the evening; after all, it was August in the northern part of the Sacramento Valley, where daytime temps could (and still do) soar into triple digits and stay there until well after dark.

Rodeo! Popcorn, cotton candy, corn dogs, beef jerky, Coke, Quarter horses, broncs, bulls, steers, roping, riding, bucking, well-oiled saddles, cowboy hats, fringe, snap shirts, string ties, blue jeans, boots, wiry lean guys, strong pretty gals.

Rodeo! Barrel racing, and pole bending. How I dreamed of performing in that dusty arena! I wanted to ride the hard dirt with abandon, sitting deep in my fancy saddle as my game, athletic Quarter horse turned tightly around each barrel, then whipping my reins from side to side, gleaming spurs on the heels of my worn, fancy boots encouraging him as we raced the clock for the finish line. I would have been just as thrilled to take on those daunting poles, my nimble steed slaloming through each one with speed and grace, blowing away the competition. Unfortunately, dreaming was as far as I got.

The sad truth is that I never had even a sniff of making my dreams a reality. Living not a quarter mile outside the city limits, I was nonetheless located smack dab in the middle of Sutter County suburbia. Paved streets, sidewalks, quarter acre lots…no barns, no poultry, no cows, and certainly no horses.

My friends didn’t own horses. If they had the good fortune to live in the “country” parts of the county, their parents were agricultural farmers – growing walnuts, almonds, apricots, peaches, pears, and other produce. I had an uncle on my mother’s side, Everett “Butch” Rubel, who was an actual cattle rancher outside of Marysville, but he didn’t keep horses on the local property, only on his “upper ranch” in Red Bluff – a good two hours away. I knew of no place where I could learn to ride.

So, what did I do? I watched Westerns at the movie theater or on TV, settled for my three speed Schwinn bicycle as an imaginary horse, its wire baskets my saddlebags, and eventually turned to sports like tennis and softball for physical activity. In addition, I played clarinet in the Yuba City High School Band, which included marching and dodging my share of horse poop during four years of Christmas and Veteran’s Day parades.

Sadly, I didn’t learn to ride until I was 49 and living in Kentucky.

No poles or barrels, not even a Western saddle, but for the past fourteen years, American Saddlebred and Morgan horses (with an occasional Arabian) have fulfilled a portion of the dream. Actually, they’ve fulfilled the largest part, because when you come right down to it, it’s all about one’s relationship with the horse, right?

Horses! The amazing, magnificent, athletic creatures who can in one instant melt your heart by nickering for a peppermint and in the next have you cursing a blue streak because they saw a bogeyman in the corner of the arena and just about pitched you straight into an emergency room. Let’s compare: The old blue Schwinn vs. the 1200 lb., four-legged scaredy-cat with a mind of its own. Now that I actually have a choice between the two, I’ll take the latter every time, my mantra not, “share the road,” rather, “share the arena.” It’s relatively safer. (Of course, you do have to trust that little Suzy, gaining on you from behind, knows how to steer and pass wide – but that beats narrow Kentucky roadways, distracted, aggressive drivers and ending up tossed into a ditch. I digress.)

I have discovered that horses can be soul nourishing, mind soothing, heart healing and predictably unpredictable. They can frustrate you, bite you, kick you, step on you, drool on you, not do a damn thing you ask them to do in the arena, and have you crying with laughter as they chase their favorite ball around the field. For me, horses are far more entertaining and challenging than my former “pretend” ponies.

And what about the other portion of the “I wanna be a rodeo cowgirl” dream?

Well, thanks to American Saddlebred academy riding (competition classes for beginning, less experienced riders of all ages), I have been able to “show” on lesson horses at a walk and trot, competing against ages ranging from 19 or so through those like me who are in their sixties. I’ve even managed to bring home a couple of blue ribbons, though they are not the norm for me. When one starts riding something with a mind of its own at age 49, there is a lot more “I hope I don’t fall off because it will really hurt” than there is “Yee-haw, let’s ride like the wind!” To be honest, this limits me. Yet, I’m proud to have conquered most of my fears (if not nearly enough lesson horses) and find that I have more good rides than not on the few steeds I know well and trust. At almost 64, it’s quite satisfying.

But…I’d still like to know what it feels like to round a barrel in the saddle.