I was nine years old when my friend Emily took me to Bar-B-Ranch. I had no other barn to compare it to, so Bar-B-Ranch felt like a paradise, but now I understand that it was shoddily run, with horses that no one else wanted and a motley assortment of bridles, saddles, and teenagers who taught us. The way that it worked seems unfathomable to me as an adult: day camp, held every Saturday, officially started at 8:00 in the morning, but the first kid there got to choose any horse she wanted. And so I was always the first kid; we would leave the house at 5 AM (that what was my parents’ limit) and arrive at 5:20; then my dad or mom, whoever drew the short straw that day, would wait in the car until the sun rose, and then drive away. I would sleep in my breeches the night before. But I could barely sleep—the anticipation felt so acute it was almost painful. The next earliest child arrived at 7, and so I was always first, except for one time, when an eager girl with curly hair, a little older than I, beat me by fifteen minutes. It did not happen again.
After you chose your horse (I always chose CJ until a beautiful white mare named Crystal came along). CJ was old and grouchy but he was fast, and had a smooth gait. You chose your style of riding for the day: English, Western, or bareback. I chose bareback, or English . Then the teenagers would herd the two dozen children and their horses into a big field, and we would ride for hour, culminating in a race back to the barn, which is, I know now, an awful, dangerous idea.
For lunch we all piled in the backs of two pick-up trucks and went to McDonald’s; we came back and re-saddled our horses and went on a trail ride, which usually meant that we alternated between walking slowly and galloping wildly through the woods behind the ranch. Then our parents would come to collect us, and I always hated this moment, because it meant another six days between me and a horse.
There were so many ways that a child could have gotten hurt: I could have so easily fallen from CJ on the race back to the barn, and been trampled beneath the other horses’ hooves. Or been hit by a low-flung branch while galloping through the densely wooded trails. At every other barn I rode at my parents had to sign a release form, and I had to adhere to so many safety precautions that I learned to be cautious around horses. It seems impossible that no child was ever seriously injured at Bar-B-Ranch. Yet no one ever was, at least to my knowledge, and the place’s continued existence seems proof that nothing horrible ever happened. It was a place where you could do anything on a horse—you could jump bareback, you could ride backwards, you could even win a race against twenty other horses—and do all of this fearlessly.