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Back In The Saddle Again

This page is loosely adopted from articles on horse back riding published in Personal Notes, circa 1974-1980. All material herein is copyright © 1996 by Richard Harter.

Boyhood Days On The Ranch

It is conventional in this sort of thing to begin at the beginning and that is just the rub – which beginning should I begin at? Who knows? Not I. Oh well, I suppose I shall just pick one and let the others wriggle in as best they may.

To begin with I was born. At least I am told that I was and although I have no recollection of having done so I have no real evidence to the contrary either. For those who are fussy about the rules of evidence let us merely say that it is alleged that I was born in the town of Highmore, South Dakota, and that I was raised on a cattle ranch some miles south of town.

Actually it wasn’t really a ranch but, then, it wasn’t a farm either. In the eastern part of South Dakota there are farms. In the western part there are ranches. In the central part where I came from they combine the two operations. We planted various crops such as corn and wheat. We also ran about a hundred head of cattle on fenced in grass land. These were reasonably large pastures – the east and west pastures were each a square mile in size. However they definitely weren’t open range.

Click here for a picture of Richard, age 3,riding a horse. (51K)

We had horses, of course. We didn’t get a tractor until after WW II (I was 10 in 1945.) so the work of pulling plows and wagons was done by our work horses, Babe, Shorty, Topsy and Bill. Babe and Shorty were large and brown; I haven’t the slightest idea what breed they were. Topsy and Bill were sorrels. Besides being used for pulling equipment they were also used for riding after cattle, for riding to school, for pleasure riding, or for pulling a sleigh. During the worst part of the winter we used to get around by sleigh.

Once we had tractors we sold the work horses. Before we did we got a mare called Linda. Linda did not have the most reliable or sunny of temperaments; my father sold her after shortly after she and I parted company one day on the most unfriendly of terms. We replaced her with Freckles. Freckles was a cross breed, half Shetland pony and half quarter horse. In theory Freckles belonged to my eldest sister, Lynn, but actually she was ridden by everbody so that she was really a family horse. (Lynn hotly disputes this theory; Freckles was her horse, by God.) We also got another mare, Smoky. Freckles and Smoky were used for working cattle. I seem to recall that Lynn and I rode them to grade school one year.

I seem to have been quite cavalier about horses. One of family pictures is a photo of me at age two on top of one of the work horses – a very small boy on top of a very large horse. My mother is fond of relating how I took Topsy, sans bridle and saddle, out to the stock dam in the East pasture. Since I was quite young at the time it was very much a matter of the horse knowing where it wanted to go and knowing where to come back to; I was just along for the ride.

In 1948 we built a house just south of town. We owned two places, the ranch 11 and a half miles south of town and a place a mile south of town. After we moved it became a regular thing to drive the cattle out to the ranch in the spring and bring them back in the fall to winter up town. These drives usually took about half a day. At some point we sold Smoky and borrowed a neighbor’s horse for the semi-annual drive.

Freckles had an easy life uptown. She had a large pasture to run around in and was mostly ridden for pleasure. During certain times of the year she would be used to bring the cattle in during the evening – an exercise that took about half an hour. I would guess that 99% of the time she was ridden bareback. We would usually just grab a bridle, go out in the pasture, catch her, put the bridle on, and jump on. The only time she was ever saddled up was when we were doing a cattle drive.

Lynn and I would go out and ride for pleasure. Quite often we didn’t bother with a bridle – we just went out and jumped on. I don’t know that we were ever that good at riding indian style – Freckles was quite a good tempered horse and we were totally indifferent to falls. The big trouble with riding indian style is in controlling the horse, particularly in slowing it down. I do remember that Freckles had the cute little trick of going into a gallop when you were riding indian style and then coming to a sudden halt and ducking her head down. Since we were hanging on to her mane for dear life we went sailing through the air regularly. It never bothered us though; we just got up and jumped back on. In retrospect I suppose that Freckles was trying to teach us something but we were too dumb to learn.

I was always comfortable riding bare back as long as I had a bridle even at a gallop. Fortunately Freckles was a smooth backed horse, i.e., her spine didn’t protrude. If you are male bouncing your equipment on a horse’s spine is not a good idea.

Eventually I left home. I went in the Marine Corps, went to college, and moved to Boston. When I was home I would often go out riding but the times I was home became fewer and farther apart. Eventually Freckles passed away and my horse riding days vanished into the past.

Leslie’s Story

Leslie Turek and Marsha Elkin were close friends of mine circa 1974 when the events related herein occurred. NESFA was and is the New England Science Fiction Association.

At this point we should tell Leslie’s story. Properly speaking Leslie should tell her own story. However Leslie had an enthusiasm for horses and riding that passeth all human understanding and in consequence tended to burble a bit. Since she was aware of this tendency of hers she declined to inflict herself on the public at large and passed the buck.

Leslie is, as you may have gathered, a female. Now there is this cultural thing in that it is quite common for adolescent females to have an enthusiasm for riding. I have no real idea why this is so but it is quite noticeable. Go out to any riding stables and you will find that the large majority of people there are female, usually young females. Like many of her compatriots Leslie had this thing for riding when she was a young girl and it stuck.

I’m afraid I can’t say much for her judgement. If she did mean to have this thing about riding she should have had the foresight to have had parents who owned horses. Like so many of us, however, she picked them with no thought at all and thus ended up with parents who didn’t own horses and didn’t have a place for them. Thus were her girlish equestrienne ambitions hamstrung from the start.

She did go riding a few times on stable hacks when she was young. Now this is an experience that has been denied me. I gather that said hacks are mostly a battered and worn group of horses. For someone who has a burning mystical urge to ride riding a stable hack is like giving a bottle of warm TAB to someone who has been lost in the desert for three days.

Once she got to college Leslie started taking riding lessons in various places in the Boston area. What with one thing and another none of them seemed to be satisfactory. Public riding stables tend not to have good horses. Classes were for beginners (which she was beyond) or for advanced students (which she wasn’t ready for). This activity was of a sporadic nature over the years and somewhat discouraging. She was ready to give up riding entirely. And then…

On the trail to Helga’s

And then a chain of events led her to Helga’s place. Helga Hardacker owned a place in Carlisle (a rather rural town which has more horses than people). Helga was a therapist at MacLean’s, a local mental hospital. She also maintained a stable of horses and ponies, mostly purebred Arabians and a small organic produce farm. She had an arrangement with the hospital where patients from the hospital would come out to her place to ride as therapy. From time to time she also took riding students.

To ride at Helga’s you had to know somebody who knew Helga. Marsha knew somebody who rode there and, knowing of Leslie’s great interest in riding, got them together. Leslie started riding at Helga’s place. Since Marsha and Leslie were thick as thieves and Marsha was a generally sympathetic listener and since Marsha was female and therefore automatically predisposed to succumb to the great American Female Riding Syndrome, Marsha got talked into going out riding.

Marsha and I had been going together and had just broken up. However we were on the best of terms and still saw a great deal of each other. Marsha had a certain tendency towards talkativeness; as a result I got to hear a great deal about horses – a great deal. Believe me, I got to hear all about horses.

This sort of put me in a quandry. You see, I knew about riding. I was raised in an environment where one rode as a matter of course. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know how to ride. So I was an expert; in the nature of things I had to be. Except that I wasn’t really. After all I hadn’t ridden a horse for ten or fifteen years. More to the point they were learning to ride English style whereas I was raised to ride Western. But I listened sympathetically and made sage sounding noises. (Making sage sounding noises is a male thing – it doesn’t mean anything.)

Then came the fatal moment. It was suggested that I come out some evening and watch Marsha and Leslie go riding. That was OK; I wasn’t in trouble yet and I was interested. Besides they wanted to show off for somebody provided that it was clearly understood that there would be no snickering or humorous remarks if they had any trouble. In due course the three of us went out to Carlisle of an early evening. I sat and watched as they rode two of the arabs around the ring. There were no occasions for unwanted humorous remarks and they were obviously having a great deal of fun. At this point I was still not in trouble but I was definitely on dangerous ground.

As I watched I was struck with a wave of nostalgia. I had been raised riding and had been away from horses for a long time. I watched and the urge to be out there too rose within me. So it was quite natural that I said sure when Helga asked if I would like to take Jose, the stallion she was riding, around the ring. At this point I was sunk although I didn’t realize it at the time.

So I swung up into the saddle and walked Jose around the ring a half dozen times or so. Apparently I impressed my viewers a little bit. Part of the reason was that I swung up into the saddle (got on the horse if you prefer) with great ease. Not anything to inspire awe you say? Well, yes, but you see, Jose was a very large horse. Mounting a horse is no particular problem to me – I am a little over six feet tall. But to Marsha it was a different matter. Marsha had a three stage process for mounting Jose. First she lowered the stirrup as far down as she could. Then she put her leg as high up in the air as she could. Then she spent ten minutes or so clambering up the side of the horse. This got her to the top. Then she crawled over the top and there she was – a Marsha mounted on top of a Jose.

The other thing that impressed my viewers was that I apparently had excellent western form. Even though I was on an English saddle I was riding in classical western style. It was sort of diverting to be told that I had flawless form at anything.

At this point I could have left well enough alone. I had actually gone out and established my credentials in creditable form. I could now rest on my laurels and bullshit about riding without ever being embarrassed by actually having to establish that I knew what I was talking about. If pressed I could always point out that I was a western rider. However…

Back in the Saddle Again

I did not let well enough alone. After my visit out in Carlisle I got to thinking a bit. It is one of my maxims that is often worthwhile reviving old interests. Sometimes it is best to bury the past and let it be. But quite often an old interest is like a played out field. You let it lie fallow for a while and take no notice of it. In due course the time comes when that field is ready to grow a new crop, rich as ever. Then too, when you revive old interests and ideas you sort of keep in touch with yourself. What you used to be and do are a part of you, a part that makes you what you are now.

And I got to thinking that it is worthwhile every once in a while to do something different, something new, something that you aren’t too sure about. A person can get set in grooves. If you get deep enough into a groove you do the same sort of thing the same sort of way all of the time. You get so that you can’t see anything but that groove and you forget that there is anything but that groove. And then, by and bye, you wake up and say “What the Hell happened? Where did all of the time go and where in the Hell was I?”. (Complicated business, this living. Sort of makes you wonder whether would you choose to be born if you had it to do all over again. I suppose I would – one never thinks out the important decisions of life.)

As you can see I had already decided that I would take up riding and was busy building a set of rationalizations to support my decision. In the end I got Helga’s number, gave her a call, and asked if it would be OK if I started riding there. She seemed a little surprised but she agreed cheerfully and there I was.

A Picture Gallery of Horses and People

Helga Hardacker and duckling
Helga and a foal nuzzling Leslie’s car
Horses waiting to be ridden at Helga’s Place
The riders, Richard and Leslie at Helga’s
Here’s raffmah looking at you
And sugarfoot not looking at you
Marsha smiling at Martha
Richard brushing down Pammy

In Deepest Darkest Carlisle

At this point I really should say more about Helga and her place. I have very fond memories of both. Helga was tall, had a very strong accent, and was very energetic. I never saw her wearing anything but work and riding clothes but one suspects that high fashion would have been very flattering to her. She had two children who were college age at the time.

Helga’s place was fairly good sized. There were two houses, a horse barn, three sheds, a number of paddocks, an outdoor lighted ring, a small field, a pond, and critters. Critters included a number of horses, several ponies, three dogs, a cat and kittens, guinea pigs, some muscovy ducks, barn swallows, and I don’t know what else. The place bordered on the town woods and was very countryish. It was a wonderful place.

One got the impression that Helga didn’t take in riders for the money. It helped with the food bill and it meant that the horses got exercised. But one felt that she just enjoyed training horses and riders, that she liked having people around who like horses and riding, and watching them and the horses develop. Helga had a very low keyed approach to teaching, a great advantage in teaching something like riding. Many people get nervous in learning situations and riding is one of those things that one should be relaxed about – alert, yes, but relaxed.

Leslie said this was one of the things that she particularly enjoyed about riding at Helga’s. At the place she was at before the instructor was very intense and she felt uncomfortable with the pressure. One of the nicest things about riding at Helga’s was that it wasn’t like going to a commercial establishment. It was like going riding at a friend’s place. It was all very comfortable.

Horses. This is about horses, after all. Helga had four arabs, Kibi, Kiki, Martha, and Arafma. The latter is a phonetic transliteration. Kibi is short for Kibretta. Kiki was a name bestowed by a child. Martha is short for Martha. Pammy was a purebred morgan. Sugarfoot was a half breed; half something and half something else. I never knew what the somethings were. Those six were mares. In addition there was Jose, the stallion, and Pammy’s colt.

Where is the saddle and why is that postage stamp on the horse?

If you have never ridden a horse (or even if you have) you may be under the impression that there is only one way to ride a horse and that all horses are much the same for the purposes of riding. Tain’t so, McGee.

In this country there are two major styles of riding – English and Western. Each was evolved to meet specific practical requirements in the days when horses were an ordinary form of transportation. Western style riding was evolved in the western part of the United States; it strongly reflects the needs of raising cattle.

The western saddle has a high front and back, large stirrups designed to be stood in, and a saddle horn. The latter is there for tying a rope to but generations of insecure riders have made the discovery that it is something handy to hold onto. There are only two important gaits in western riding, the walk and the gallop. The reason for this is quite simple – when you are working with cattle those are mostly the only gaits that you need. It is a general principle in working with cattle that you don’t run them. The whole idea of raising cattle is to get them to put on weight, not to run it off. So, when you are moving cattle, you and they walk. Sometimes you have to get to somewhere else in a hurry, usually because an animal is doing something you don’t want it to do such as heading out in some other direction entirely. In that case you move out sharply in a gallop, get to where the action is, slow down quickly (you don’t want to spook the steer and start it running) and head it back to where it is supposed to be going. In working cattle it is important to be able to move fast and to change directly sharply.

In western riding it is important to have a hand free so both riders and horses are trained so that you hold the reins in one hand. It is important that you be able to get off the horse without it wandering off so western trained horses are trained not to move while the reins are hanging free. (Actually, the first thing the horse does after you get off is to start eating grass. Horses are great believers in eating grass, particularly if they can get away with it while they are being ridden.) In western riding the trot is not an important gait. Western saddles and the western style of riding are ill suited for trotting, particularly the fast trot. Jumping plays no part in western riding.

Western horses will jump. Once, when my mother was working cattle and riding Freckles, she came upon a creek which Freckles decided should be jumped, giving my mother the surprise of her life. As far as I know that was the only time she ever jumped on a horse.

There is one other facet of western riding that I am embarassed to mention. The truth of the matter is that western style riding and the western saddle are particularly suited to people who don’t ride very well. The western saddle and riding style evolved from military saddles and riding styles. In military riding in the days when there was no mechanized transport large number of people had to be able to ride whether or not they were any good at it and they had to be able to perform a large variety of activities while they were in the saddle.

Much the same was true of western riding. The average cowboy was not a particularly good horseman. There were more deaths due to falling off of horses than there were due to gunplay in the days of the wild west. The western saddle is designed so that one is rather firmly held in place – a distinct advantage to someone whose seat is uncertain to begin with. In western style riding the signals that the rider and the horse must understand are very simple and uncomplicated. You didn’t have to be very bright to be a cowboy. (Considering the wages that a ranch hand gets it might be considered an occupational requirement to not be very bright.)

If you’ve never ridden anything but a western saddle the first sight of an English saddle is a bit of a surprise. It’s so little. The whole front end is missing. They have dinky little stirrups. Your first thought is that an English saddle is a compromise between riding bareback and riding with a western saddle.

Then you try riding English style. First of all you discover that you are expected to hold the reins backwards. Not only that you are supposed to hold them using two hands. You learn that there are all sorts of body signals that you are supposed to be using to tell the horse where to go. It is easy to get the impression that the point of English style riding is to have a horse that can’t figure out for itself what it is doing so that you can tell it every thing to do.

You learn that you are supposed to trot a lot, particularly fast trots. Now the trot is not the most comfortable gait that a horse has. In fact, on some horses, trying to sit a fast trot is the next best thing to operating a jack hammer. In western riding you don’t bother with any such thing – you lope instead. (The lope is actually a canter which is sort of a collected, slow speed gallop, and quite a pleasant gait.) In English riding they have a maneuver called posting. This involves moving your ass up and down in sync with the horse so that you don’t get any shattered teeth.

As you can see, English style is different from western style. Having read a lot of Georgette Heyer books I can guess why it is different. Basically English style is more suited for riding in varied terrain and woods. Because you are riding a great deal closer to the horse, so to speak, you are much more in control. Furthermore the western saddle is ill suited to jumping whereas the English saddle is well designed for jumping. In terrain where there are lots of natural obstacles it is very convenient to be able to jump over them. There is also the advantage that the English saddle is a great deal lighter so that the horse has a lighter load. It all makes sense, I guess.

If you can ride, why are you taking lessons?

So there I was, having undertaken to go riding at Helga’s. This made for some problems. First of all it had been a number of years since I had been riding so my recollections of the various paraphenalia of riding was somewhat less than sharp. Secondly I had the disadvantage of never having had the theory of riding, so to speak. I just knew how to ride – I didn’t know how to talk about it. Thirdly, I would have to ride English style which I didn’t know a damn thing about. (What is worse, though I didn’t know it at the time, was that Helga was teaching dressage.)

My first few sessions were rather interesting. In some ways I became a worse rider each time I went out. The problem was that I knew well enough how to ride my way but I didn’t know how to ride the way I was supposed to be riding. As a result the first time I went out I rode western in an English saddle and got on quite well, except for that business about trotting. It is true that I was using western style signalling but western signals can be understood by an English trained horse without any difficulty. More importantly, I was in full command of the horse. This is important – it is necessary at times to be firm with horses and for them to know that you will be firm and in control. (You should know the difference between firmness and roughness and abuse.)

This was all very well but I realized that when I started riding at Helga’s that I would be riding English style. I had welcomed this idea on the grounds that I would be learning something new – always a useful thing to do. The next few times out I began to learn something of the elements of riding English style. I learned how to hold the reins in the approved style. I learned something about body signals. I learned something about sitting in the English saddle.

Now the trouble with all of this learning is that when someone is learning something new, particularly something one has to learn to do on the move, one is shaky and lacking in self-confidence because you aren’t too sure about what you are doing. It was particularly unhandy when you have to do things almost as reflex actions without thinking about them – not too easy when you aren’t sure what the hell you are doing.

As a perfectly natural result I began to lose confidence in what I was doing. Since I was trying to do things ‘right’ I was never sure whether I was confusing the horse or it was just being obstreporous. Not only that I lost my confidence in being able to tell the horse what to do. Naturally I became less able to control the horse. What’s worse the horse was well able to tell this.

It was funny in a way. In some respects I was an old experienced rider; in others I was a rank beginner. For example I didn’t have any problem with staying on. I may have had problems sitting ‘correctly’ but my sense of balance was so ingrained that merely trying to learn an unfamiliar style of riding was not going to affect it. Similarly I had no real worries about emergencies – I may hve been trying to learn new reflexes which were still shaky but the old reflexes were still there, ready to take over when needed, and I had every confidence in them. In a sense it was as though I were playing a game of make believe. For the purpose at hand I was a rank beginner and played the game that way. However, if necessary, I could stop the game and take control if the horse got too out of hand.

In due course I learned the elements of English style riding and the barest elements of dressage. I acquired some notion of posting, that art of bouncing in time with the horse. I could get a horse to make the transition from the walk directly to the canter bypassing the trot. And I did a certain amount of jumping. Still and all, I expect my style was probably abominable – a matter of riding English with a strong western accent and a stutter.

On The Trail

For a good while I only rode at Helga’s. Leslie, Marsha, and I would go out three times a week, weather permitting. On tuesdays and thursdays we rode for an hour to an hour and a half in the ring. Most of this time was spent doing close control work (basic dressage for rider and horse) at a walk or a trot. Sunday mornings were spent trail riding in the local woods. To be honest, trail riding is a lot more fun. You are riding for the sheer pleasure of riding. The ring work is more profitable because you and the horse are learning something.

Marsha eventually went off to England to marry her artist and Leslie and I continued on. At some point Helga’s priorities changed and we had to find other places to ride. Leslie and I were both members of NESFA; our enthusiasm got other people interested until there was a fair group of us who went riding.

I can’t say that we ever really got into the horsey set bit. As far as I know none of us went to horse shows. (Actually Leslie probably did – she worshipped at the font of a stern goddess.) But, as a group, we did the basics such as simple jumps.

Groups are fine, but I think my heart was always in those trail rides in Carlisle with two or three people. There is something ineffably fine about riding a horse. In a car the world rushes by and you see nothing. On foot it takes forever to get anywhere. On a horse the world is all around you and you in it.

What goes up must come down

Since it is Leslie’s fault that I got involved with riding it behooves me to put in a word about how well she rode. Basically she rode much better than I did and much worse. She rode better because she had been riding English for years, had taken more lessons, and never had anything to unlearn. With her it was a religion; I was just along for the ride. She rode worse because she didn’t learn to ride as a kid. She didn’t have an ingrained sense of the horse and she didn’t have an innate sense of balance.

Over time she took several falls, some fairly serious. In one respect they weren’t her fault – a horse unexpectedly bucked or shied and she got thrown. This is the sort of fall that could happen to anyone. One the other hand she did have two disadvantages. She was short which meant that she couldn’t get her legs as far around the horse as someone taller. Secondly, and more importantly, she didn’t learn to ride until she was an adult. As an adult it is much harder to learn something that requires balance and physical coordination, particularly if you haven’t got superb balance and coordination to begin with. Part of the trick of riding is simply automatically maintaining your balance and position on the horse. It is especially important when something unexpected happens because you need to be able to maintain your balance reflexively white you dealing with the unexpected.

I had that balance, gained from years of riding as a youngster, particularly riding bareback at a gallop. She did not. Except for being bucked off by Linda when I a child I had never been thrown by a horse (I don’t count Freckle’s little games.) She had been, several times. And that rankled a little bit and she envied me, and I didn’t know that until one day…

She and I had found a new place to ride at, a very well run riding stables with a large indoor sand riding area. It was large with many windows which cast patches of sun light onto the riding area. The horse I was riding was male – I don’t recall whether he was a stallion or a gelding but he was definitely male. He also had a nervous temperament and was inclined to be a bit spooky. This particular day he was very spooky – we didn’t realize how spooky until we started the session.

We were going through some drills, controlled paces around a marked ring. All was going well when, all of a sudden, my horse shied at a patch of sunlight. He stopped, backed up, and had to be encouraged to get back into the program. We went on. He spooked again. I got him going again. We went through this routine for a while until it got a bit tedious. Then he essayed a trial buck. I got him back under control and we went on.

Finally his patience snapped; he evidently decided that this was not where he wanted to be, this is not what he wanted to be doing, and he definitely didn’t want me on his back. He went into full time serious bucking. He jack knifed. He sunfished. He did all of the cute little tricks that horses use to dismount a rider except for rolling and scraping. But he didn’t throw me. At one point there was a foot of daylight between me and the horse; however I slid onto his neck and slid back into the saddle. If his timing had been better he could have gotten me then; however he didn’t duck his head at the right moment.

After some minutes of this I finally got him back under control and we continued the lesson! He shied a few times and tried another quick buck but his heart wasn’t in it. We went through the rest of the lesson as best we could. When the time was up the instructor said with an absolutely straight face “You may now dismount in a normal manner.”

It was all very exciting, after the fact. Once it was all over and we were headed back Leslie and I discussed the events of the day. It was then that I made a most disconcerting discovery – she had been pulling for the horse to dump me! It was, after all, a sand arena and I was unlikely to have gotten hurt. And I had never taken a fall and she had, several of them. And she was just a bit envious. And…

Somehow I didn’t share her enthusiasm for my comeuppence…

Fallow Fields

My Boston riding days spanned about three years. In 1975 NESFA was wracked by a feud. As a result I became persona non grata with Leslie’s boy friend. This didn’t stop our riding sessions but it made things more complicated. Then I acquired a new girl friend, Mary Cole, who was quite jealous of Leslie. This further complicated things. Mary and I moved from Cambridge to Concord where we renovated a house. What with one thing and another and all the complications my riding sessions came to an end. Horses and I came to another parting of ways.

Will I take up riding again? Perhaps. As I say, it’s always good to take up old interests once again, to preserve that unity of self that marks you as who you are. It’s uncertain. I’m older. It’s been years since I’ve been on a horse. And my knees complain about having been beaten by a decade and a half of volleyball. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to take the chance of being thrown – older bones and all that, you know. And yet, as I write, I recall rides on pine needle covered trails through New England woods and I am touched by exquisite nostalgia. Perhaps it is time to see if that fallow field will bear one more crop.

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