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Galloping into Forty

Three days before my fortieth birthday, my boyfriend of six

years took me out to dinner. Over a glass of our favorite pinot

noir, he said, "When you get home tonight, pack your bags. I'm

flying you to Amelia Island."

Richard knew I was less than thrilled about officially entering

middle age. He also knew there were two things I dreamed of that

I 'd not yet attained: riding a horse on the beach, and becoming a

published author.

There was little he could do about the latter, but as a

computer nerd and pilot, he had the skills to research the few
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beaches that still allowed horseback riding and fly us there in a

rented single-engine Cessna. At last, I would have the chance to

fulfill a long-held fantasy of riding the most glorious creature on

land along the very edge of the earth.

Thirty years ago, as a horse-crazy kid, I'd been shocked

when my mother got a horse for her fortieth birthday. I'd been

collecting Breyer horse statues and decorating my rooms with

horse posters and drawings for years.

"But I'm the one who loves horses!" I cried. "Why does Mom

get one?"

My father explained in calm even tones that my mother

didn't collect posters and models, but she had loved horses all her

life and this was what she wanted more than anything. He also

explained that if I was nice instead of jealous, I might even get to

share in the care of this big buckskin addition to the family.

After months of proving that I was serious--and more than

willing to help with even the most mundane aspects of horse

care--my mother enlisted the help of a horsewoman who could

give me riding lessons. I rode every chance I had until the day I

went away to college.

It had been a long time since then, and I was not sure I could

still ride like I had in my teens. I'd outgrown the posters and

statues, but was still as in love with horses as my mother had

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probably been when she was facing forty.

###

After a little turbulence and lots of scenery, Richard landed

our little plane on the narrow runway in the middle of the island

and we took a cab to Elizabeth Pointe, a spiffy Bed & Breakfast on

Amelia Island. On the top floor, we walked into a bright, breezy

room with a canopy bed and fluttering linen curtains whispering

with ocean breezes.

We rode bicycles around the island the first day, then slow,

plodding horses along a trail to the beach the second day. It was a

horseback ride to be sure--and Richard was a trouper to come

along--but he knew this was not the ride I'd hoped and longed for

all these years. On the third day, we walked around the historic

district and dug around flea markets and looked at antiques. The

evening before we left, Richard found a local woman who owned

thoroughbred racehorses and talked her into taking me out for a

real ride.

The plan was that she would trailer her horses to meet us on

a deserted stretch of beach, then afterward, drop me off at the

airport runway to give Richard time to perform his pre-flight on

the Cessna.

###

The morning I turned forty, we woke at dawn and had

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breakfast on the rocking chair porch, watching the interplay

between waves and seagulls. We left to meet Debbie, who was

right where she said she'd be, unloading two stunning and lively

horses.

She turned to greet me, gloved hand outstretched.

"So, Kim, you ready for the ride of a lifetime?"

Debbie was tall, lanky and blonde, with a sort of sideways

rough-and-ready-for-anything smile. She introduced me to

Sandman, her tall white thoroughbred, and then the younger of

the two, a sleek, leggy chestnut with a white stripe down his

nose.

"This is Taco," she said. "And other than carrots, the thing he

loves most in life is a full-out gallop. Think you can you handle

him?"

I looked out at the waves, my hair whipping in the wind. "I'd

sure like to try," I said.

She nodded and handed me a slim English saddle. "Let me

see you up on him," she said with a wink. "A rider's seat tells me

all I need to know."

I held out the back of my hand for Taco to sniff, and he took

a deep heavy breath, then threw his head twice in greeting. Once

I had settled the light saddle onto his back and guided the gentle

snaffle bit into his mouth, Debbie offered me a leg-up, and there I

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sat, my head in the trade winds, 1,200 pound of glorious horse

beneath me.

"Nice," said Debbie. "Deep in the saddle, heels down, head

up. You're good to go."

We started off slow, Taco in front at a brisk walk, his mane

swinging in rhythm, the hum of the surf in my ears. The friendly

nod of Taco's chiseled head made me smile in recognition: we

were moving in time with the tides, and all the earth made sense

from horseback. The view framed between his alert pricked ears

made the grey and green of the beach all the more beautiful. It

was as if he was telling me look, here--out there--this is the world.

Behind me, I heard Debbie shout something, but the rush

and roar of the ocean carried it away as Taco picked up speed—a

bouncing trot followed by the rocking magic of a canter. There

was a swooshing of the sand and surf, then a moment later, those

thoroughbred muscles kicked in and the clouds began to blur, the

earth echoing under his thundering pace.

At a full, all-out gallop now, Taco was pedal-to-the-metal and

my heart was racing. When he swerved to miss some foam riding

in on a big wave, I lost a stirrup and thought I was a goner. How

was I ever going to get it back at this speed?

I looked back at Debbie--she was a good 50 feet behind us,

smiling and laughing. I glanced down at my flailing stirrup and his

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blur of legs against the sand and wondered if I should attempt the

"emergency dismount" I 'd learned from my riding teacher at 14.

Could I dive past those sharp hooves and roll on such hard sand?

Moments later, I was thanking the good heavens and gods of

horseflesh because Taco finally slowed and pulled up, allowing

Sandman to catch up with us.

"This is where we turn around," said Debbie, breathing hard.

"Race you back?"

###

Richard had made my 40th birthday a very happy one

indeed. I'd eaten a Captain Van's shrimp burger perched in the

branches of a giant oak, pedaled a bike all over the island, walked

the beach alone one morning, sitting surrounded by seagulls,

standing in the surf regaining my bearings with the earth, feeling

gravity’s pull. There was that moment of turning in my saddle to

see a smiling Rich on Eddy, the slow brown pony at the end of the

line--and then that last taste of salty ocean air on my face while

tearing through the surf on a leggy chestnut steed.

So few events in this life measure up to the gems of dreams

we hold and turn over in our minds. The more we long for a

moment, a thing, a chance at that fleeting image, the less likely

the reality has of coming close to our vision.

This was one day in my life that was absolutely beyond the

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fantasy--echelons above, and miles beyond the small romantic

notion I’d had of clopping along the beach on a horse "one day."

This had been a race with the earth, an awakening of my heart.

This was holding my life up for an ageless glimmering instant of

joy. Yes, I still turned forty, but that day on the beach, I was sure

that on Taco the racehorse, I could outrun time and the wind

eternal.

###

While waiting for Rich to pre-flight the plane, I took an

arm's-length picture of myself before that bold, glowing grin

could wear off. I wanted to remember this moment of deep and

total happiness. I'll always cherish that picture of me the day I

galloped into forty on horseback.

When we returned home, I found a letter from a literary

magazine asking for permission to publish a story I'd submitted

months earlier. It was the most delicious icing possible on top of

the very best of birthday cakes.