The year Tess, my horse-crazy first-born, went to sleepaway camp for the first time, we flew to Burlington, Vermont, and then drove down to Vershire to drop her off. In our red rental car, my husband, James, Tess, her seven year-old brother, Adam, and I swung through green folded hills all the way to Chelsea, the little village near the Vershire Riding School summer camp.
Tess, who had just turned ten, had been been riding for three years, first at the Claremont Riding Academy in New York City and then at the Riverdale Equestrian Center in the Bronx. That summer was her first time away from home for more than a week-end. My husband and I had already looked searchingly at each other, not quite sure how we were going to bear this first big separation.
Earlier, when I had asked her how she felt about going to camp, she had said, "Excited. Nervous. Scared." I wanted to know what made her feel nervous and scared, and she had said, "Not knowing anyone there. Being the youngest one."
I checked in with Sara Wright, the daughter of the camp's founder and Tess, James and Adam went up to find her bunk. I stood outside on the cracked concrete terrace and suddenly felt bereft. It was only ten years ago that this slip of a girl was a new-born, slung over my shoulder between feedings, her blonde hair and blue-green eyes a big surprise to my dark-haired, olive skinned husband and myself. I had to choke back tears as I suddenly felt the visceral tug of her leaving me. I walked over to the wide green field bordering the terrace and gazed at one of the cross-country jumps in the distance. She's going to learn to jump, I thought, swallowing hard.
When it was time for us to leave, she hugged all three of us tightly, in turn, and then dismissed us, quickly joining a group of girls. On the way back to Burlington, Adam who had been perfectly behaved until then, helping his sister unpack, was suddenly out of sorts. He sat in the back of the car eyeing us beneath thunderous brows. He'd had it with being helpful and loving and warm. He was hurting so much that he was furious.
The next three weeks passed slowly, then quickly, and soon it was time to head back to Vershire. We'd missed Tess terribly but we'd heard a lot more from Adam, who finally had the floor to himself. Turned out that he was funny, knowing, opinionated but struggled sometimes to express what he had on his mind, especially without Tess there to fill in for him.
We arrived in the late afternoon, around five, and the girls were gathered outside around the tetherball, on the same patch of concrete where we said our goodbyes. My gaze settled on the back of a blonde girl with dirt-streaked legs, beaten up red flip-flops, blue t-shirt, blue shorts. I suddenly realized, with a burst of joy, that she was my daughter! Tess was very happy to see me, to see James, and gave her little brother Adam a mad hug, thrilled to be reconnected to him.
The next morning, we went back to the camp for the competition which was broken up into three parts - dressage, stadium-jumping and cross country. Her dressage test was scheduled for 8:36 a.m. By the time we arrived, she'd already dressed herself in a soiled version of the riding outfit I packed in her bag, jacket, shirt with neck-band, beige jodhpurs. She even had the leather gaiters buckled around her knees, an item that I was sure would remain in the bottom of her duffel bag. The rest was a bit of a blur. Tess tying on her number two vest, over her jacket, girls in their jackets and jodhpurs leading their horses in and out of the barn, hoofs clattering, girls chattering. Her mount was Sunday (short for Never on a Sunday), a sweet old gelding with a collapsed sinus that had left a big dent on one side of his face. Did I help her tack up Sunday? I'm not sure. All I remember was the intense look on my daughter's face - excitement, anticipation, nervousness.
I watched the dressage test carefully, trying to understand what the judges were looking for in the horse's gait, in Tess's aids to the horse. Enter working trot. Halt, Salute. She was tracking left, then circling, followed by a working trot, then a working walk, passing different letters on the edges of the ring - D, X, C, H, E. The test ended with her riding down the center line, and halting and saluting again. She left the ring and was not entirely happy with how she did, saying something about her circle not being round enough. I could barely register this, amazed that she had memorized the entire sequence of moves, that she'd learned all this in just three weeks.
The next part of the competition was the cross-country course which, at her level, was a modified course of stadium jumps followed by two cross-country jumps. The jumps weren't high but they were jumps and I was suddenly very glad that Sunday had probably jumped this course a million times and that he was steady, gentlemanly and not young anymore. Tess and Sunday jumped a clear round and I was proud of both of them, the young girl just learning and the old horse mustering his strength to do his job yet again. There was a break for lunch and then she jumped the stadium course in the afternoon. Another clear round. Again, I wondered at how much she'd learned. She'd memorized this too, understanding the sequence of jumps and the choreography of the course. After everyone had jumped the stadium course, the ribbons were handed out. Tess got a red ribbon, second place.
Sunday had earned his rest and we trooped back to the barn with Tess, who had to muck out his stall and feed and water him. For the umpteenth time, I found myself watching her with bursting pride as she cleaned his stall, dumping wheelbarrowfull after wheelbarrowfull of dirty hay and horse manure and urine-soaked wood shavings outside and finally filling the wheelbarrow with his new bedding, fresh wood shavings. She fetched a flake of hay, refilled his water bucket.
The next day was a horse show open to outside riders, with just the older girls competing. I got to see riders go over some substantial jumps and I also saw quite a spectacular fall, a horse slipping on the cross-country course, throwing the rider. I watched the rider remount and then approach the next jump, at the bottom of an incline. The horse balked, crashed into the fence and the rider sailed over his head, into the wrecked fence. Thankfully, neither were hurt but watching this chilled me to the core. Several of the riding school staff mentioned that it was a rider from another barn who wasn't ready for the course, riding a horse who wasn't experienced enough, and it seemed like a good explanation. Still, the chill didn't quite go away, as I tried to fight my fears of something like this, or much worse, ever happening to Tess. This is the agony of being a parent, of loving so much that the thought of your child getting hurt makes your heart stop. And as much as you love them, you know that you can't protect them from life, from doing what they need to do to grow up.
The show ended, and the riders from the surrounding counties packed their horses into their trailers and drove away. The counselors giving each camper an award - bravest, best helper monkey, most polite, best battle scar (a girl who got scratched by a branch during a trail-ride). Tess got "most committed," carefully hand-written by Becka, her counselor, on a sheet of paper with a drawing of Sunday on it.
One last time, Tess mucked out Sunday's stall. I offered to help. Before I picked up a pitch-fork, I put my arms around Sunday's neck and gave him a big hug, thankful that he'd taken care of my precious daughter. The work was soothing, shovelling big mounds of horse droppings into the wheelbarrow, along with the damp shavings and soiled hay. Tess and I shovelled together very companionably and it felt immeasurably good to be with her again, a part of my soul restored.
When we left the camp, she was elated. Happy to have been away for three weeks but also extremely happy to be going home, to her own bed, her dog, Sassy, her life in the city. I watched her glowing face, and made a silent plea to all horses everywhere, to take care of her the way the old ones had, the thirty-seven year old mare, Rosebud, she'd ridden months earlier, gentle Cheri and that sweetest of all horses, Never on a Sunday.