My horseback riding career officially began when I was 10 and my mom and dad found me an instructor. My first instructor is a legend among the equestrian community in Maine, and his life story is the stuff that movies are made of.
At the time, I had little appreciation for the history or qualifications of my instructor. All I cared about was getting to ride a horse. Now, knowing what I do, I feel tremendously privileged to have been under the instruction of Alejandro H. Solorzano, known as Alex by all of his students.
Alex was born in Ecuador in 1911 and competed in the 1939 Pan American Games as a member of the gold-medal-winning Ecuadorian show jumping team. His journey to Bangor came about following a counter-revolution and military coup which forced him to flee his country. Alex’s history of military training and jungle fighting belied the man I knew.
The Alex I knew was a jolly, though dignified, gentleman who spoke with a strong accent. He was small in stature but gigantic of heart. He loved his horses and he loved his students. I was warned before starting riding lessons that Alex had no patience for anyone who truly did not want to learn to ride well. There was no question of my dedication and I looked forward to my weekly lesson like it was Christmas every Saturday. My Mom was also dedicated to drive every weekend to Trafho Farm in Eddington, which was an hour away, for lessons.
Not every lesson was wonderful. Though Alex was kind, he was also tough. There were lessons that I grumbled through as I was told to trot eight times around the arena posting without stirrups, or told that I “looked like popcorn” as I tried to master the sitting trot. In addition to classical riding, Alex had me somersaulting off my horse, standing on its back and performing an acrobatic maneuver called the “scissors” which required me to swing my legs over my horse’s back, cross them, twist my body and end up sitting backwards. It was then repeated going the other way to end up right way around. All of these exercises instilled a confidence for moving around on the horse, established balance and strength and also provided my mother with limitless goofy photo opportunities.
Alex taught outside, all season. When it was very hot he’d let me get on Peach, his reliable gentle giant of a horse, bareback so that I could take Peach for a swim across the farm pond. When it was very cold, Alex would be bundled up so that only his twinkling eyes were visible between layers of scarves and wool hats. Whenever I brought friends along to my lessons, or my brothers accompanied us, Alex would let them have a little ride too. He was generous and truly loved teaching.
Mom took dozens and dozens of photos of my riding lessons and would give Alex copies. He would always look at them and say “Look how beautiful!” even when I was wearing a magenta track suit, sitting backwards on my horse or riding with my feet sticking out like wings.
Alex became an honorary member of my family, attending my high school graduation and the grand opening celebration of my own riding stable. I wrote him letters through the years keeping him updated on my horse adventures. He always wrote back. He gave me a fantastic start as a rider and while I may have pouted about doing my posting trot work with no stirrups, and endless serpentines, those basics built a strong foundation.
Alex passed away in 2003, yet I can still hear his strong voice telling me, in his lovely Spanish accent, that I look like popcorn.