Before the first English saddle and before Coro, however, there were years of minimalism. No saddle, no pad, no helmet (!) and sometimes even no shoes (I would abandon my laceless Keds on a tree stump once out of my mom's sight), Tinker and I cantered meadows, raced country roads, hopped streams and played circus (I used to both kneel and stand on her back) through the summer days, and I would walk back to the house with the tell-tale patch of dirt, sweat and hair on my pantseat. If I was bare-legged my mom would have to hose me off before I came inside, like a farm dog that had rolled in something unsavory.
Bareback riding become less a part of my repertoire as I took up formal instruction, equestrian team in college and two different barn jobs. By the time I brought Coro up from my folks' property, it'd been more than five years since I'd gone without tack and several years since I'd ridden regularly. As I brought him out of retirement and we got to know each other again, I finally purchased a beautiful contoured microsuede pad in his color: burgundy. Grown-up bareback riding does require a little something between our butts and horsehide - we've got expensive full-seat breeches now. The day I determined to try it on him there was a windstorm and some commotion in the barn and he was decidedly antsy. I questioned my judgement as I led my prancing boy into the indoor arena. I had another addition that was absent from childhood: a mounting block. I led Coro up to it, ascended the steps...and he teleported sideways with a snort and a suspicious eye-roll. We repeated this dance several times until I decided I was going to have to wriggle aboard the old-fashioned way. Thankfully Coro has his official Pony status card at 14'1 hands, but jumping is one of his best skills, not mine. I took a few deep breaths before pathetically launching myself at his back. Cirque du Fail. He stood patiently while I flailed through several attempts and finally hauled myself astride. It wasn't pretty. Those first few steps were a twofold revelation. First, it was wonderful to feel my horse's back and ribs beneath me, to influence him with a subtle shift and feel the warmth of his body. Second, I was woefully unbalanced and out of practice. The little girl who'd galloped bareback through alfalfa and sage was nowhere to be found. We kept it at a walk that first day, but we kept at it. I recovered my center. Coro even decided that the mounting block wasn't the Purple Paso Fino Eater. By last summer, bareback was once again my preferred style of riding and my increasing confidence led the way to trot, and finally canter. If you know, you know: there is nothing like it.
The day that I tried Dani for the first time her owner asked after the trial ride if I'd like to cool the young, unfamiliar, 16'1 hand mare out bareback. I surprised myself and both instructors by saying yes without hesitation. I believe in that moment, with both less and more between us, the fate of these last eight months was sealed. Through saddle shopping, cold days, hot days, short-on-time days, we've had a lot of bareback rides since then. The tall mare seems to prefer it - it gives her permission to breathe a little more deeply as we listen to each other. I have to place a little more trust in her to carry me. We've yet to canter this way, but we've done a lot of trotting. There is something more meaningful about bareback circles, attention to detail is even more vital, but in a softer, intuitive way. There is less thinking, more feeling. A bareback pad is nice to save those fancy pants. A mounting block is needed to reach that lofty height. The light heart of a younger self, the strength of connection built by the horses that came before and the horse that exists in this moment are essential; the gifts of going backward in time and forward in space.