On Horses

69395_495952525648_6380484_nShe was a itchy little bitch. A right royal fine piece of meat and I was right on top of her as I had so wished for many many years. I had looked for her in Russia but was frustrated by the language and cost. I had found her once in Peru for a good price, but a short little jaunt in the forest and a few steep hills did not satiate me. I do remember her. A long legged creature who walked down the path of the mountain with ease since this was the village she grew up in. Maybe that was when I was in Mexico. Maybe somewhere else. I know that in Honduras I was in a Finca, a coffee plantation of some note that grew the coffee in the shade in a way that allowed some of the jungle to thrive, and there I was able to have more control, more ability to play with my charge since it had yet to adopt all the articles of paranoid laws and regulations. Then there was that time I was in Long Island. It was a picturesque experience, the cold bark of autumn and the melancholic beautiful peace of the End of The Season where the shops and beaches all were sighing relief in unison at the dissipation of the crowds, but like parents who had wished for that empty nest for so long, were already tired and lonely without that joyful noise.
I had hoped to go on an epic horse ride in some exotic land. However, here I was on the Great Prairie of Alberta, the last of the dry season and unusually warm for this time of year but I was not to complain for my ride, Darkness or Shadow or some such name, fit this horse well. There is nothing better than ridding a itchy bitchy filly and those who have had such a horse between their legs will perhaps agree. Far better is it to ride a spirited mare than atop a stallion with a sex-addled brain or a sloppy gelding who has lost all spirit and thinks only of oats and knocking one leg into the stall once in a while to relieve the boredom. Ridding a horse cut proud seems to have somewhat the best of both worlds. Some management of both the primal drive and degree of control yet some spirit and joy of life. My partner’s horse had been cut proud and he extolled the virtues. He was an old Sicilian man out here on the Grande Prairie who had farmed all his life and now with his wife ran a guesthouse. All his mounts had been trained. I was on top of a fine oiled machine, one cough, one drop of the reign, a touch too tight with my legs and she was ready to take off. I complimented the owner on his training. I am a bad rider not out of experience but because I have had the wrong experience. Years ago, decades by now, I had previously only ridden those horses saved from the tubes of glue or some stew on a Frenchwoman’s table and done so only under the strict supervision of no one.
69047_495955930648_6118520_nYears ago, decades now, I worked for a certain institution in the Hudson Valley. Through this employment and I and my siblings obtained access to some horses kept on the property we rode in exchange for caring in part for them, if not but to muck the stables when we remembered. The context and full description of this situation of working on an estate of sorts is currently outside the ken of this blog, but suffice to say the key words to follow are “horses” and “ridding and “property.” We had four horses and 450 acres of waterfront property to play with them on as the estate was right up against the Hudson River allowing us million dollar views and while poor as church-mice to disport in the manner previously reserved for nobility in centuries past and neuvorich of the present. With our second-hand saddles, Salvation Army riding clothes, boots held together by tape, and four horses we did indeed make many references to the storied horses of said Apocalypse as we must have looked like a band of gypsies from afar and not gentile nobility and since we were usually trying to hit one another with ridding crops or whip the other’s horse with our ill-trimmed reigns, we perhaps sounded and cursed and stank in some manner as our ancestors, the Huns or Tartars or Magyars as it may stand depending on if one believed the version of sexual linage from my grandmother or that presented by my grandfather. We modern day Tartar we had the colours of the Four Horses of Biblical reference. Well, almost.
62381_489643825648_6304345_nThe White one was Father Jack Smythe. And he was a fatty. Fr. Smythe was an old police horse and he was every inch that part as if our of central casting as we also said he was every inch a sailor quoting a certain traditional Irish ballad. He had a slope back that extended his gut and we always said that dressed in an old police uniform he would fit right in within any precinct. Unlike his compatriots who thought only of the safety of the paddock and oats when they were on the trail (or excited for the trail when bored in the paddock such as horses are), Fr. Smythe was curious in a way that reminded us of cops poking their nose into people’s business, at least the cartoon cops or Norman Rockwell charactures. Fr. Smythe would always come over, check out the slightest disturbance and were there some event, not matter if it was his or not, he had to check it out and insert himself into whatever event it was. He also liked chasing things. Now, the other horses would run, canter, and trot, but Fr. Smythe would give chase to a target. Usually this was an errant deer, but while the others would pursue as directed, I could lose the reigns and he would continue to sprint after our quarry an agreed upon activity. Also, he was named in jest after a local priest who was of a certain order and who shared his character. A man of great bravado who rode motorcycles and tended to the poor in foreign lands.
The dun mare shared the name of the local village wandmaker, Erin. Perhaps Erin the horse was named after Erin, a girl who at 14 had a baby or seven in order to follow in the footsteps of her sister who single-vaginaedly was ensuring the continuation of the human race by having children in what my grandparents would have called “out of wedlock” but we kids being more in tune with rated R films, used more uncompromising and foul language while avoiding those old traditional gender-normative expectations. Erin (the horse) was young and not very well-trained but she was a Morgan and a wonderful horse with as much energy as a rider would hope and spirit yet pushed into a shape manageable by humans. In other words she was about as close to greenbroke as a horse could get while remaining of some utility to the novice rider willing to risk life and limb for an afternoon’s jaunt in the fields. She required a few slaps here and there when she would try to bite one of us or give us a kick. While youth affords some manner of natural confidence, Erin was for some reason suffering from PTSDs or something that led to a great amount of horse angst which when expressed by a 1200 lbs beast is something more frightening than the fretting of Woody Allen or some other bag of bones. When out for a ride, Erin (the horse) would often jump at the slightest thing. A log! Horrors a log! A branch! Scary branch! A bird. Make it stop! At the paddock she was the frothy one even if it was but a gentle ride and we would have to comb her down and walk her off until she was more at ease. So many nights I came home to my place with the stink of Erin (the horse) upon me luck to be alive after being attacked by some squirrel noise or other sudden commotion.
Fred, the spotted gelding was a former trotter, saved from some gambling den such as Saratoga or the Meadowland track (racinos had yet to be invented) and had been bound for the glue pot or whatever they do with horses these days that does not involve the French. It took many sessions in order to break him from a trot and the day he finally broke stride he almost killed us. Something burst forth in his horse psyche and he burst forth in a spirit that had been beaten out of him and for so many years his true power was unknown and to this moment be broke reign and galloped setting off a race among the horses I assume each thinking, I’m to die first, no me no me! Towards the woods, the cliff and the river they charged on without care for the obstacles coming or what would happen to his unfortunate rider and one of use had to cow/girl/boy/hermaphrodite it and duck to reach under the charging horse for the reigns and pull hard in order to bring him and his little friends who had also been wiped up into such excitement, under control.
Then there was Mike. He was a fine horse and because nothing was too unusual about him, he was often the one to take out when we went night ridding or hit the trails in a sudden snow storm because it was always fun to mix in the hazards of bareback riding with the danger of precipitation or the risks inherent in riding through darkened woods the only light that from an inconsistent moon hiding behind clouds and trees and allowing night to occlude our way forward.
It was with this experience that when I finally joined the civilized world I attempted to learn to ride. I joined a ridding club at the girl’s college I was attending and woke up early in order to make the bus to the stables and our ridding class. This lasted but a few weekends. After so many years of riding Indian Style, to fit my boney ass upon a saddle and to conform to some form one had to take in order to look good in the ring, and to practice such mincing wincing posture so one could compete against horse-girls from all over the world, ones who had grown up with posters of horses as teenage boys [used to have] had posters of [some half naked model here] and equal oanistic fantasies surrounded by these posters while in bed, there was no way I was going to drop in to this world now, nor would I submit to the instructor who removed my crop I always tucked in my boot since that wasn’t where it “belonged” as if I hadn’t had years of riding and always maintained the rule that the hoofs faced down… except for that time Fr. Jack and I took a tumble on an icy road and he almost fell on me. Or that time Erin jumped sideways having been startled and just made it over a creek. Or the other time…. The damage from these wild years was done. I was not to be satisfied with trail rides nor horse perfect conditions where these beasts were reduced to My Little Ponys writ large, to toys and games rather than the brutal and dangerous animals they were.
24043_428276835648_8282770_nAnd so for years I wandered the globe trying to find a more lawless place in order to take full command of my ride. I guess this is indeed a First World Problem and as most of us spoiled Firsties do, I went to the Third World in order to solve my problem. And I managed from time-to-time to ride. In Honduras on the Finca the El Jefe had me trade my well-behaved horse for one that was posing an issue to another guest who was unable to manage the obstacle course the man had us guests take in order to demonstrate our equestrian ability. Oh yeah, I felt like hot shit on a stick when I made the handsome All American Man get off his mount in front of his perfect girlfriend on their dream vacation and little old me was able to jump on and turn that nag into a speed demon.
And now, to the civilized plains of our Neighbors to the North I was again on a mount. However, this time I was indeed the amateur. Not only had it been years since I had ridden, I had foregone any training and now sat atop this machine so in tune with every signal from my body, my hands, who quivered with the tensing of one leg or another, that I was very impressed with the potential to screw up as I was feeling some sense of embarrassment in front of my gracious host whose table I supped at and home I lay about as a guest. Since while it was a Bed and Breakfast, I was the only guest and they were very informal with me. About the lunch table we talked of animals and their antics and this and that crop or garden issue. They bested my stories of animal madness with one of their own about how horrible it is to raise ostriches and how the lady of the house almost got murdered by one because it tuns out they’re stupider than a chicken, which is hard to believe. Because chickens in all their bock bock glory are quite, quite stupid. Just look up Mike The Headless Chicken. Mike is NSFW but you’ll see what I’m talking about. The stories of raising ostriches made it sound like we should indeed stop trying to raise exotic animals like lamas, and hippos, and all manner of creatures not native to the continent nor to the Western diet and be content on murdering pigs and turning their guts into bacon. The farmer and his wife were older and had lived in Alberta all their lives. His father was from Sicily and the family had almost settled in Montreal except that a contingent of Italians had discovered Calgary. The government was still giving away huge tracks of land and his father’s generation moved quickly out of the city of Calgary and into the countryside. This was just about the “lean years” of the depression. One still saw the sad and cold shacks of these years sprinkled about the landscape. The neighbor’s farm was over 3000 acres. The thought of the government giving a private individual, a non corporation, blew my little American mind. The old man had gotten this bounty of land in exchange for having to work it for at least a decade. He had three sons and each would get a share of this land. The thought that a man in his 20s could obtain such hard won wealth seems so foreign to my mind, trained to think in terms of colleges, loans for college, then loans for graduate school and then perhaps a Goodjob that has some benefits here and there and perhaps meets the bills.
71542_495951800648_7686901_nMy host’s father had gotten a similar deal but the farm I was at was bought when the happy couple met so-and-so many years ago. In those days it had been a working farm, with a large stock of cattle and a crop rotation, but now that they were older they were slowing down and had gotten rid of the animals and were looking to make a go running a bed and breakfast. As I sat at their table it seemed more that I had been inserted into a “natives” house, the sort of experience that when white people go to brown people places they move into a grass hut so that as part of their college trip they can brag that they did not do the tourist things, they lived with The People. And so, unexpectedly, since this trip was for business and this was the least expensive option, I had mistakenly been set into a strangers house, and at their table eating the finest pancakes I had ever had.
We set up the ride at the table.
This service was unofficial, sort of something only offered when the hosts knew the guest. That is, it was not part of the offerings but upon request. The horses were kept just out at the barn that was down a complex set of turns and fences. We captured two of the herd who when they saw the tack knew what was in store for them and attempted to bolt away, but we managed to toss a lead-rope about the neck of our respective horse and return through the complex maze of trees and boundary fences. We walked them first to the tie up next to the shed where we brushed them down and set the saddle on. I had totally forgotten how to tie a saddle. We then walked them down to a sand pit to fit them and warm them up. Certainly a horse is not something you can just start up and go, for the most part. Back in the day the sand from this property, since once in epochs past because this was ocean, was prized and most of the buildings of Calgary, I was told, were built using this sand. The pit made for the perfect paddock since it was out of the constant wind that blows across the prairie. We mounted and did a few laps and then walked out. So upon the crunching grass I rode having managed to take directions and improve somewhat in my control of an actual horse in my ride. Everyone tells me they can ride, my host told me, and then they get on a horse and I see at once they only know how to ride from movies. I had made sure that when I told him I knew how to ride, that I actually didn’t know how to ride ride I just knew how to hang on and make glue go very very vast in the general direction I wanted. After some laps he had me do turns. After a few turns we left the north field and went farther on. Far in the distance the mountains of Albert made themselves known as the clouds that had masked them the previous days parted and the sky opened up to dark blue of the distant mountains capped with white. We walked past a neighbor’s farm, all the time the unromantic hum of traffic and heavy trucks in the distance but in the unbroken landscape these seemed all too close. And on the narrow country roads indeed the rigs charged past at 80 miles an hour… I mean 130 Kilometers… or whatever it is. Under these fields, my guide and personal dressage trainer told me, ran thousands of miles of pipeline. We passed several well heads. If they find gas under your property they pay you rent for the well head and the pipe, but the gas is theirs. It belongs to the state and the state sells it to the companies. It seemed unfair, but this was the way of the land. We moved down the road to a large field that had round bales scattered all about. Since the land was flat and I had been taking some manner of direction, I was allowed to cut loose and run full-tilt towards the horizon, or highway, whichever came first. I rode hard and cut close to the piles off round bales nothing but the sound of the cool air and the occasional Jake-brake in my ears. The distant mountains became fully revealed and their dark blue contrasted the open flat miles of brown and the last spots of green. It was unusually warm or this time of year, my host told me, so I was lucky in my timing since by this point in the year there is some snow on the ground or at least one needs a heavy coat to be outdoors.
In time, we turned back to the farm and again followed the dirt road past the well heads and gas junctions and I wondered at the thousands of miles, the network of the modern age that ran underground. I wondered too at the now out-of-reach sport of ridding and how these animals propelled us in their own way into the age of superhighways and that now to ride is a privilege when it isn’t a rarity or something we middling classes can only afford when traveling in disadvantaged nations where our currency stretches farther and the rules of insurance companies and liability lawyers haven’t made ordinary activities extraordinary. Considering how inextricable this creature is to the rise of our civilization as it stands — for ill or as an eternal benefit — knowing the basics of how to ride, knowing what a fantastic animal a horse is, should be mandatory part of the most common of experiential educations.
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