April 16, Poem 16 - Horse Sense / fiction based on true events, or sumpn like that
I’d never ridden a horse before, but I didn’t think that an obstacle to doing so on this particular day. The weather, which was treacherously close to falling below sixty degrees, even though it was June, just a day earlier, had finally begun acting right, and it was a robust seventy-five by 10AM. I awoke early and came downstairs to my host’s huge kitchen. She was already up and drinking a Bloody Mary to go along with the cigarette, and she smiled broadly, “Ready to ride some horses?” “Born ready,” I answered with my usual bluster and she and Katherine laughed and we agreed that we should all have either some coffee or some hair of the dog that had attacked us viciously last night, as Margaret was doing with her Bloody Mary. Katherine and I had come up the previous day from the city for the conference which was being chaired by Margaret and were being put up at Margaret’s house, a massive converted and modernized farmhouse attached to a ranch where Margaret’s 4 horses were being kept. We were in Canton New York, where one had to fly into an airport on something like a station wagon with wings, which was so close to the Canadian border that it flew both flags. I opted for coffee.
After coffee I returned upstairs to put on jeans and shoes. I opted to remain shirtless. I was never one much for clothes and by the time we ambled on out to the barn it was approaching eighty degrees and I was basking in the heat. I craved the heat on my skin, still do. It is perhaps what I miss most about Trinidad, about home.
The groom was a sixty year old man named Paul who was a shade over six feet and 150lbs. He was wiry and his arms seemed criss-crossed with cables of muscle. Several teeth were missing, but there was no mistaking his authority out there in the barn; his easy confidence with the animals. He was a congenial man, who spent much of his younger years in Kentucky in the horse-racing industry. An aspiring jockey in his youth, he grew too tall and a little too heavy to make it on the pro-circuit, but he loved the horse and stayed around them his whole life. He walked with a slight limp, which he had explained the night before was from an injury many years before, trying to break a horse, but he moved so easily with the faulty gait, you could imagine he’d been born with it.
In one of the stalls was a massive young stallion. Its withers were well over my head, and its entire bearing was haughty. Of all the horses, it was the one that seemed least respectful of Paul. It wasn’t disrespectful exactly, but clearly it felt itself on equal footing with Paul. My breath caught in my stomach when I saw it and I pointed “Do I get to ride that one?” Everyone fell out laughing. “That horse will kill you as easily as it’ll look at you,” said Paul “…he aint broken yet and it’ll be a minute before we kin even git a saddle on ‘im. Besides, if you aint never rode befo, I suggest we put you on this old mare right here. She’s easy and she knows how to handle an inexperienced rider.” I laughed at myself and discarded my cowboy fantasies for the day. “No doubt,” I said “…sounds like a good idea.” The old mare was much smaller than Black Beauty, but an impressive sized animal nonetheless. I made up my mind to develop good rapport with her. Margaret and Katherine were both riders, and comfortable on all sorts of horses. They were designated the two young, frisky white Arabians. They were beautiful animals. They looked fast.
Paul taught me how to saddle up the horse. I talked to her, fed her an apple and in the few minutes before I draped the blanket over her back, nothing felt quite so natural to me as talking to an animal. She whinnied softly when I touched her and pushed her face up against mine. I had tied my long ropy dreadlocks into a bun behind my head and she pushed her nose against the bun and tossed my hair loose. She seemed to prefer it like that and I left my hair out. She smelled my neck, my underarms, my chest and stared at my face for what felt like a full minute in silence, but was probably more like ten seconds. We put the saddle on and belted it securely under. Paul was teaching me all the different parts of the apparatus as we did. “This is the horn…” he’d say, or “…this is how you get the bit in her mouth,” or “these are the reins; it’s your steerin’ wheel.”
By the time we were done saddling up, I was confident I was ready for my first cameo in Gunsmoke. Paul directed that I mount the horse from the horse’s left and motioned to give me a hand up. I waved him away. I’d watched enough TV; had seen Clint Eastwood’s Outlaw Josey Wales enough times to know, not just how to put my foot in the stirrup and swing over, but how to make it look good. I stuck my left toe in and swung. grabbed hold of the saddle-horn and swung my right foot up and over the back of the mare. I landed smoothly in the saddle and Paul’s eyebrows raised a bit. “You sure you aint done this before?” I figured he was just trying to be encouraging. “Not once,” I said. Margaret and Katherine were ready with their horses and they ambled out of the barn ahead of me. I dug my heels into the horse’s ribs and made a clicking sound with my tongue against the rook of my mouth. She obediently followed the Arabians out into the street.
Once in the street, I realized that simply being aboard the horse was not as easy as it seemed. I’d never opened my legs that wide before for any sustained period of time, and with each step, the horses network of knotted back muscles jabbed themselves into a sensitive spot just behind my balls. I figured I’d have to find a way to alleviate this discomfort if I was to be able to ride for more than five minutes. I searched my memory bank for all the sports television or comboy movies I’d watched. What were riders doing that maybe seemed natural, that was more than just them sitting on the horse. I thought equestrian events. I thought the easy sway of John Wayne atop his steed. I remembered being ten at the track with my cousin and seeing local legend jockey Challenor Jones, bring home the mottled grey horse If So Why Not, for another victory. What made these people seem so at one with their animals? What made Challenor able to ride one of these massive animals at high speed without breaking his tailbone and smashing his scrotum up into his body? What made the horse jumpers able to leap these tall fences and come down without injury? It seemd to click all at once. I began moving with the horse. It was like dancing. You had to feel the other body move and move with it. You had to lead, and you had to give. You had to let your own body respond to the horse’s body, and most of all your body had to be firm without being tense. You had to be loose atop the horse. I adopted a modified version of a motion called posting I’d seen from riders at equestrian events. Soon I was moving along easily, enjoying the ride. From time to time, Margaret and Katherine would look back to see how I was doing. Soon enough they stopped worrying and went about enjoying their own rides. About half mile down the road, we turned off the street and into a large meadow. The frisky Arabians turned and took off into the sun.
I think I can safely say I am an excellent driver. There is a thing about the instinct of driving at top speed that requires brilliant vision, sense of spatial relationships and daring. Once you decide to change a lane, to fit into a space, there can be no hesitation. At 80, 90, 100 miles an hour, the space that is there now, is not there less than a second later. You must know your vehicle and have a very keen sense of how it responds to speed, how it brakes, how quickly gas tumbles through the carburetor to buck into high gear, how much pressure on your steering means what degree of turn. I spent my late teen years back home drag racing almost every weekend. We raced around the savannah in a massive 3 mile oval three abreast in narrow lanes. I was never afraid, never considered the possibility of wrecking. I knew at all times what I could do and how my car would respond…
…A horse, is a vehicle with a will. To ride a horse one must have all these tools, but it does not account for the animal’s own will. The old mare, became excited when her young friends took off into the meadow, and well before I was ready to be galloping or even cantering, she picked up the pace; first with a brisk trot and soon into a canter. She sensed I wasn’t totally in control of my vehicle and she started making her own decisions, the way a car, cannot. I pressed my knees into her shoulders and choked up on the reins. I leaned closer into her neck and tried to exhort her to whoa. She wouldn’t whoa. Clearly my whoa did not come with enough conviction, but I wasn’t panicking yet. I was riding, busy looking good and busy making sure I didn’t fall off and hit my head on any of the rocks jutting up from the ground in different places. We rode like this on through the meadow for about a minute until we came to a creek and now my body had to learn to do different things as the horse went down the modest slope into the creek and came up the slope on the other side. the creek wasn’t wide, but me made enough steps through it that I had to learn real fast to lean back on the descent and to lean forward on the climb. I was feeling proud of my instincts by the time we got to the fencing at the far end of the meadow and had to turn around to go back.
With a car, you the driver, are in possession of the only memory in play. If there is a decision to be made about where to go, what turn to make, what route to take, your car will not second guess you. It will not decide that this is a bad idea, or that it has a better one. Your car will do – as long as it’s in good working order – whatever you tell it to.
The mare decided really early on our turnaround that she wasn’t feeling the creek. She didn’t want to go down into that rocky bad and slash up through that embankment. If there was a way around the creek, nether she nor I knew the route and so the mare began to pick up speed. I began with a whispered whoa into her ear that became firm when her nostrils flared and I realized she was getting ready to open up. My whoa became panicked shortly thereafter, but by now we were at a full stretch. we were galloping, and all I had now in my head was the picture of Challenor Jones, knees tucked, head low and right between the ears of If So Why Not. My elbows tucked and hips in the air behind me, I was desperate to not fall off and die, but what a picture we must have made to folks passing by on the street. Several cars had stopped to watch and at the far end where we’d turn back onto the road, Katherine and Margaret had stopped their horses and were looking back anxiously. All of Canton seemed to hold its breath at the sight of a shirtless black man flying along with his long ropes of hair in the wind behind him. By the time we got to the creek, it was clear to me that the horse was going to jump and for a brief second I considered bailing before she took flight. I don’t know if pride or fear was more responsible for my deciding to stay on, but stay on I did.
If you’ve ever been launched into the air; maybe a ride at a carnival, maybe a trampoline. maybe, like me, you were seven once and decided you could leap off the roof of your house and land unscathed – if you’ve ever had this experience then you know the simultaneous thrill of momentary flight mingled with the fear of possible death. You know the exhilaration you’re experiencing is, however slight, at the potential cost of death. And in those brief seconds when you are airborne, your synapses, firing at probably 1000 times their normal speeds, interrogate your entire life. And when the mare leapt, I could only think that here we were six months shy of the year 2000 and I wouldn’t live to bring in the new year to Prince’s 1999, as I always imagined I would, the first time I heard the song as a teen. I thought about who would tell my mom and what my brother would do. And all this time, I was also calculating what my body would have to do to not be jettisoned off the horse by the impact of her landing. My ass, I imagined, couldn’t actually be on her back when her hind legs came down, or I’d catapult from her, and I couldn’t just be standing in the stirrups either or the impact would jolt my feet loose. It would have to be a matter of timing; a smooth integration of my body back into one being with the horse. Somewhere at the crest of the arc, it became a matter of zen. I would have to separate myself from the horse in the air and become one again with the horse as she hit the ground.
I don’t know if my theory was sound, but in practice it worked like a charm. I slid back into the saddle as easily as I might adjust the seat behind a steering wheel. Onlookers clapped. I was more brave in my whoas now and the mare slowed down in response. Paul had said before we left that the one thing you don’t want is for your horse to lead you back into the barn. You must never look out of control of your horse as you’re bringing it in. For the rest of the short ride, I concentrated on looking smooth as I brought her in.
When I was a kid and I was coming home with the car later than I should, I’d try to keep the time I came in a secret. In our narrow street, where one had to angle weirdly to back into the driveway in a two-point turn, it meant gunning the car halfway up the street, turning off the engine, and letting momentum carry me up to the driveway, where I’d wrench the wheel hard into the turn and then jam the car into reverse, so that it rolled back into the narrow driveway soundlessly, and without scraping the fenceposts. I was gifted with all the bravado of being 19, and male then and was calling on some of that now with the horse, who excited to be going back into the barn, was again picking up the pace, but I’d survived her test and I wasn’t going to let her embarrass me further. I pulled firmly and gently up on the reins and my voice was a long, deep whoaaaaa now, and she knew. And we walked silently and slowly for the last 50 meters or so back into the barn. I climbed off smoothly, my groin muscles straining in a way they’d never hurt before, but I landed easily, patted the mare on the face. Outside, Paul was leading the big stallion around a corral on a lead. It followed, but its entire bearing was one of insolence. “you say you sure you’ve never ridden before?” Paul asked “Not never,” I replied. I stood there, watching him walk the stallion around the corral. I leapt the fence and walked up to the big horse and patted it on the flanks. It looked me I the face hard for a few seconds, but didn’t bend its massive head down to smell me. “when I come back up here…’ I said, “can I ride him?” Paul chuckled a bit. “sure nuff…” he said “sure nuff. don’t see no reason why not…”