Urban Man: Urban Boy Meets Midwestern Values in the Horse Ring
by Marc Porter Zasada
My 14-year-old has grown mysteriously agile, and although he lives in the gritty megalopolis, he has taken up the unlikely sport of horse vaulting, or gymnastics on horseback. You can find anything you want to find in L.A., and my son has found this sport practiced right in the city, just off the 210 Freeway, along with a curious subculture and values mostly alien to the Urban Man.
Horse vaulting is not only an unlikely sport, but an obscure and perhaps, not a terribly serious one. It involves smiling, sunburned girls in spangled unitards who roll into handstands on the saddles of cantering chestnuts; fresh-faced, thick-shouldered boys who heft their fearless sisters for arabesques; and strong-thighed young women who turn bold flips off the rumps of cantering bays. It is the kind of thing I imagine they do better in Europe, but which is apparently done pretty well by wholesome, horsey young people here in America.In any case, equestrian gymnastics are the kind of thing that writer-ly urban Jews rarely encounter on any continent, and perhaps only in America. Indeed, my presence in an encampment of vaulting parents at a large public fairgrounds is always something of an amusement to the others: My too-clean clothing, my felt hat, my hardcover books, my fussy food. They are cautious to ask the Urban Man’s help in things like carrying around saddles or setting up practice barrels.
His son seems tough; but perhaps he is fragile. It’s true that neither my wife nor I can recall athleticism within our families for generations. We live in a Beverly Hills-adjacent ghetto: The home of digital rights lawyers, film composers, therapists, cardiologists and financial advisors. Our friends in this verdant ’hood offer blank looks if you describe anything but soccer and baseball to them.“Isn’t that dangerous?” they ask. We assure them horse vaulting is not dangerous. Indeed, it is now 6:15 in the morning, and a couple of hours from now, my son will experience his very first injury in the sport after two years of falls from horses. It will be a small moment of truth for the Urban Man and his still-urban homeschooler: An encounter with those alien values I mentioned.
At 6:16 I wake my groggy boy, who refuses food in order to rush down to the stables. If he is not there by 6:30 he fears he will be given 50 pushups as punishment by his coach, Rick, the man responsible for his surprising muscles. I trail comically behind with water bottles, uniform, sunscreen, forgotten socks, healthy nourishment and carefully-controlled expectations.Rick Hawthorne is middle-aged, cowboy-hatted, craggy with too much sun, quick with bad jokes and prone to heartfelt speeches. He is the kind of person who takes over a room (or a horse arena) when he walks into it, and he personifies that wonderful word, “Coach.” Coaches can say things the rest of us are not allowed to say: “I’m not getting a blessed thing from you this morning. Why am I here busting my butt if you’re just going to fool around? Commit to that handstand and you can do it. Commit! Commit!” It’s not that Rick has missed out on the self-esteem movement, but he saves it for the very young, the very uncommitted, and the handicapped with which he also works.
Rick and his practical wife, Virginia, maintain eight horses and a cheerful nonprofit, Valley View Vaulters, on a small strip of land running along an embankment of the roaring freeway in Lake View Terrace, just 15 miles north of Downtown L.A. The afternoons are hot and noisy with trucks, the setting is urban sprawl, but there’s a tack shop down the street beside a restaurant called the “Ranchside Cafe.” Nearby, many of their fellow citizens keep horses and put up signs for riding lessons on the roadside fences of their own dusty, too-small plots of earth.Whenever I drop off the freeway into this neighborhood, I feel like I’m entering some embattled outpost of Midwestern America, barely surviving here on our decadent, over-sophisticated Coast. It’s as if NPR suddenly started playing Dolly Parton or an island of Weber’s surfaced among the foccacia. Rick often tries to connect with me, male to male, and I appreciate that – but having no experience with sport, the Urban Man is perhaps understandably wary of the “coach thing,” and the increasing influence of this other man, and yes, this other culture, on my son. Although the values Rick carries to tournaments in his horse trailer are admirable – respect for authority, physical courage, team loyalty, die-hard persistence – they are not values I quickly comprehend. I know instinctively that they are not Coastal values and definitely not the paving on the road to success in the big city.
Along Beverly Boulevard, our youth are taught more practical virtues like maximizing your time, profiting from friendships, seeking comfort and safety, appreciating culture, and knowing when to cut your losses. These are the traits which lead to wealth and position in the place I know. A horseback sport violates all Coastal values. You can forget time management, comfort -- and certainly profit -- around the stables. And, “We have a rule against saying the word can’t.” says Rick to his charges, directly contradicting the local virtue of knowing when to cut your losses. “Never, ever, let me hear you say ‘I can’t do that.’ If I hear can’t, I want 20 pushups.” I wonder what most of the kids along Beverly Boulevard would say if they heard that kind of language from the teachers in their $17,000-a-year private schools.On his third competitive event of the morning, the Urban Boy is injured while doing his dismount: A one-handed roundoff which he has completed successfully a hundred times in practice. The crowd gasps as he collapses into the sawdust with obvious agony, and the emergency medical technician does a fine vault over the fence to rush to his side. One of the fathers, a fireman, hoists the boy dramatically over his shoulder and carries him out of the ring to general applause. The team gathers round in sympathy, the ankle is iced, and despite his disappointment, I can see the boy enjoys the attention. At last I take him to our shaded tent and I set him up with pillows, lunch, and a beloved novel.
The question on everyone’s mind is the fate of the “team kür,” scheduled for the next day. This is a showy group acrobatic routine which Rick and his eight-member troupe have worked hard to develop. My son is a crucial “base” in the arrangement, which means that he does a lot of the hefting and holding of the smaller “flyers” out of the saddle. Worse, the Nationals are coming up in just two weeks. He will need to practice hard with the team for Nationals. If he lets the ankle stiffen, he’ll be useless.It is a moment of truth. I look in on the boy, recumbent with a P.G. Wodehouse novel and an organic veggie burger I have cooked for him. The foot rests on two pillows and an icepack. Even here in this dusty fairground, I can easily conjure a comfortable, intellectual life for him. Indeed, how easy it would be to pack up and head home right now. No one would blame us. I can already imagine the CDs I would play along the drive. The spell of Midwestern America is wavering; coastal values begin to re-emerge. “Why don’t we try walking on it,” I say at last. “It hurts,” he replies, looking up from his novel. “It hurts a lot. Walking might make it worse.” “It’ll hurt at first, but then it’ll stretch out.” My gaze is level. It is, we both know, now or never.
The Urban Boy looks at me a moment, and then, wordlessly, he lets me help him up. At first it hurts just to touch it to the ground. And then, with a groan, he puts weight on it. And then he walks. And then he walks unaided. Within 15 minutes, he is walking almost without a limp. Within two hours, wrapped, pumped with ibuprofen and grimacing only slightly, he’s lobbying Rick to let him compete in more individual events. “Why do you want to do that?” asks Rick, looking him straight on. “Because I want to. Because I worked really hard for those events.” I beam my approval, and feel both heroic and justified. But Rick is not impressed: “If the ankle’s steady, we need you for the team kür, and we need you to practice for Nationals. What’s more important, what you want, or the team?” asks Rick, sharply. “The team,” replies my son, abashed and proud at the same time.And I am suddenly filled with open admiration for Rick and his Midwestern values, and I number them again to myself: Physical courage, respect for authority, persistence, team loyalty. Like a conjurer, Rick has made these words into real life, even here in Los Angeles, even here on the decadent, intellectual Coast. And he has brought my son that much closer to becoming a man.
Next day, the kür is passable, if less than it might have been. The team celebrates. On the drive home, as he hoists his foot painfully onto the dashboard with a dripping icepack, my son reads me P.G. Wodehouse aloud, and feels a hero. The Urban Man tucks his felt hat low over his eyes, and tunes in a Mozart concerto on NPR, interrupting his son to listen for the counter melody in the oboes: Coastal values matter, too.Marc Porter Zasada is a writer, editor, and marketing consultant living in Los Angeles. His collected columns can be viewed at www.TheUrbanMan.com.