John on Princess - 1972 - Camp Alonim - BCI

Photo – Me at Camp Alonim, Brandeis Camp Institute – 1972

In my early 20s I worked as a horseback riding instructor at a Jewish summer camp outside Los Angeles located on an undeveloped 3000-acre property of farmland and rustic terrain resembling Israel. One day, a two year-old unbroken stallion was donated to the camp. The director of the barn staff, a crusty old cowboy named Charlie who spoke with a strong hair-lip, asked me if I’d like “to break” the horse. Eager for a new challenge, I said yes.

Charlie told me to walk the horse slowly around a large open field for an hour or two daily to get the horse used to carrying a rider, and he showed me how to use a hackamore, a headgear with a hard rope noseband that puts pressure on the horse’s face, nose, and chin to assist in controlling the animal.

One day, after I thought I had a measure of control, I decided to trot the horse. I gave him a gentle kick, but the horse took off at full speed galloping towards the middle of the camp filled with children. With all my strength I sought to slow him down and redirect him away from the kids, but it was clear to me that I had lost control. I was successful only in steering him away from the kids. Then I bailed onto a lawn and the horse, free of me, returned quickly to the barn.

As I picked myself up, I saw Charlie laughing his head off a hundred yards away. He later explained that the horse was “barn sour,” meaning that the steed only felt safe and secure in the barn. The term “barn sour,” of course, is from the rider’s perspective not that of the horse. For him, the barn was a sweet place.

I’ve thought of that day a number of times during the last two months. As our stay-at-home order enters the third month, I feel as that horse must have felt so long ago. The only time I venture away from my home is early in the morning for a long walk in my neighborhood. I live in a wooded and rural-like area of Los Angeles yet, even as I experience its beauty and quiet calm, I’m happy to return home, a sweet, comfortable, and secure place.

As a 70-year old, like many of my peers, I’m especially frightened of the virus that’s killing and sickening so many hundreds and thousands of people in America and around the world and crashing the economy. I try not to give into the fear, to the dread of how many more people will get sick and die, or to despair about how long we’ll be shuttered before a vaccine enables everyone to venture out again and resume a more normal way of living. I’m striving to take each day as it comes. I’ve established a routine that offers me a sense of order, control, and calm. And I find that I’m identifying with that strong-willed horse that I attempted to “break” unsuccessfully 50 years ago. He wasn’t really “barn-sour” at all. He was “barn-sweet” just as I am home-sweet today.