Sunday, May 13, 2007

Pony Up

No Brazil today. Sorry. Fresh out. Maybe tomorrow.

Instead, I want to discuss riding horses, from renting a horse in Griffith Park in Los Angeles (scene of a big wildfire last week), to the purported equestrian abilities of the newly elected French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. First, let's look at Mr. Sarkozy, the media, and the horse they rode in on.

"Pony," my wife said dismissively when she saw the recent photo of Mr. Sarkozy in the saddle [above], in attire that appeared to have come from a Western Wearhouse catalog, except for the sneakers. "That is a white pony. It's about 14 hands. It is not a horse. And look at how he's sitting. He looks like a kid at a birthday party," she said.

My wife is a serious horsewoman, and she had something there. I don't know what kind of a rider Mr. Sarkozy is, but judging from the way he's sitting on that pony, leaning way back with his feet forward, it appears as if his riding experience has been confined to being led around a circle by somebody on foot holding a rope hooked to a halter.

Let's just say that when I look at Sarkozy on a horse, I am not exactly thinking of another French leader who liked to pose in the saddle, Napoleon .

There's a painting of Napoleon top right, astride one of the many stallions he rode with unbridled courage. It especially took courage to have the horse execute that magnificent rearing-like levade at what appears to be the edge of a stone drop-off, at least as depicted in the painting. How to you say, "Watch it -- one step back and you and the horse you rode in on will be going down that hill ass-over-teacups, mon Empereur" in French anyway?

(Little known fact: The emperor was famous among his troops for charging furiously into battle and promptly falling off of, or being bucked from, his steed, which any rider will tell you hurts like hell. But still, basically, the little general could ride like the wind as long as he stayed in the saddle -- and riding a stallion under any circumstances, let alone battle-charging, takes skill and guts).

Even more risible than Mr. Sarkozy sitting uneasily on a pony in his little western outfit has been the dutiful way the media bought into this stunt. Sarkozy was shown "sitting on a small white horse named Universe," one story reported. Others described him as seeking to personify himself as the proverbial "man on a white horse."

Let me reiterate:

Pony! Pony! Pony!

Posing as a cowboy, he bore "a vague resemblance to the look of George W. Bush on his Texas ranch," the French newspaper Liberation said mysteriously. Other news media noted the same thing. A sub-headline in today's story on Sarkozy in the Week in Review section of the New York Times says this: "Bush on a horse sends one signal. Sarkozy on a horse sends another."


Call me a cynic, but let me ask you a question: Have you ever seen George W. Bush on a horse? No, you have not. There is a reason for that. Mr. Bush, who sometimes dresses in a cowboy outfit, is afraid of horses. He cannot ride.

The President is, in other words, all hat and no horse. He has a little ranch, and on his ranch he has some cows. ... With a moo-moo here and a moo-moo there ...

Incidentally, I cringe when I see the media, here or abroad, refer to Mr. Bush, usually negatively (especially if it's coming from abroad), as a cowboy.

This is an insult to cowboys, and I know cowboys. In fact, some of my neighbors in Arizona are cowboys and cowgirls. One of them is the head wrangler at a famous dude ranch. If I had to describe the nature of a cowboy or cowgirl, whether rodeo or ranch, I would say: laconic, tough, hard-working, funny, honest, self-reliant, peace-loving, deliberate, cautious and ... oh yeah, I almost forgot: Able to ride a horse!

[Totally incidental equestrian side notes: President Reagan was a world-class horseman, as was his wife, Nancy. ... John Wayne, an OK rider at best, was famous for riding only the smallest horse that could possibly carry his considerable weight. The next time you see him on a horse in a movie, watch how his feet in the stirrups practically drag the ground. ... By unanimous consent, Roy Rogers was by far the most skilled rider among the movie cowboys.]

OK, now that that's off my mind, let's turn to Griffith Park, in Los Angeles, scene of a barn-burner of a wildfire last week.

As a business traveler, I sometimes find myself with a day free on the road. As a rider, I have found that it is surprisingly easy to get in a good ride in the most surprising places. London's Hyde Park, for example.

And even in Los Angeles, in Griffith Park -- you know, in the Hollywood Hills where the observatory, the Hollywood Bowl and that godawful crappy eyesore, the Hollywood Sign, are.

If you're a rider and you have a little extra time on a trip to Los Angeles, you can find a wonderful ride at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center and other horse rental places just on the other side of the hills in Burbank (you can even get there by subway from downtown).

Some of the 55 miles of trails were damaged in the fire, but most are open. Besides a chance for a breathtaking ride -- you can gallop for miles at a stretch on some of the trails -- you're also treated with magnificent views of Los Angeles all the way to the sea.

Well-supervised, walking trail rides are also available for inexperienced riders. White ponies can be found.


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