When I take him out of the stall and brush him, there is a trembling in his flanks. He is just a common quarter horse, a prey animal, I explain to the kids. Don’t be afraid, and yet I am still afraid, even after all these years with many horses, even after falling and getting up again.
I lead him to the ring. Round and round I make him go, and he obeys. He knows I don’t want to go in circles either. Make them respect you, get some of their energy out, they say. So I lunge dutifully, ignorant of his feelings toward me, but with the deepest respect for him and sure that I could never, not with anything I’ve got, reduce his energy.
He is an oldish horse now, retired from the barrel-race ring at age three. The first glance I had of him was his massive brown rump backing out of a horse trailer in our front yard when I was twelve. Whoa, I said, and I’ve been telling him that ever since.
We are ready to go now, and I shiver all over. He feels it, and shivers too. There is a new view of the world up here, and a new set of muscles and sinew alive to it. There is a huge amount of work that goes into sitting a horse. If you don’t feel it at the moment, you will feel it worse, sure enough, the next day.
I keep him reigned in. The road is difficult, and whatever his strengths, I still think better than him, anyway. I hold him sharp, reigns gathered, head collected. He submits, and I marvel anew, every time. It is a willing submission, it must be. And mine is a willing lead. I am in his mouth, as they say, and it’s true, because this is a hard world. I’m never more perceptive than in those moments, when I can hear a twig crack like a bird dog, making the calls for the both of us. It makes me glad to be a woman.
Then we come into the clear, the Big Country, a piece of National Forest so far back the hunters can’t find it. “No country for old men,” I say and he snorts. I hold him back just for a second, then release with a “Get up!” I don’t know whose idea he thinks it was, but I knew I had no choice. I knew it the moment I took him from the stall. Hold him back? There just ain’t no way, not on God’s green earth.
There are few things in creation more beautiful than a horse given his head. It is not a wild strength, but a bound one, set loose, it’s the freedom within law, the exuberant life of discipline. It is also terrifying. A prey animal? Nothing seems further from the truth. He runs toward the battle. Would the call to retreat sound, I’d have to jump off and run, for he’d have none of it. He considers not the obstacles before him— holes and felled trees, creeks and gullies. Just hold on. Sometimes I must close my eyes, all the while smiling so big, it hurts.
He slows down at last, not because he is tired, but because he is satisfied. We are in a rich field and he wants to eat. I slip down and remove his bridle. “Wingman,” I say, rubbing his neck and for a moment I feel like a child beside her pet dragon. “Good boy.”
Then I sit on a stump close by, as if to meditate, and wait for my ankles to stop trembling.