She came to stay the morning with me. She was eleven years old, small, with tangled curly hair, dressed in overalls with a broken strap, legs tucked into rubber boots. She was the kind of shy that hurt to look at you straight, so we worked shoulder to shoulder, which is a good posture for friendship anyway. Our deal, made on her behalf by her brother, was that she would clean stalls in return for a horseback ride.
“She’s a good horse, but she’s cranky,” I said, as she dropped her head in the old way for me, as gentle as could be. “Well she’s pruny anyway,” I said, and ran a finger over her tight lips, which seemed to smooth out as I did. The girl smiled for the first time. She was thinking the mare was understanding me. All little girls think this, because it’s true.
“They listen well,” I said. “So you can talk to her.” But she looked away. She was looking for a hole to run through.
I was sixteen when I got my saddle, my first real one, and one as real as they get. It was too heavy for me back then, and some winter days, it still is. It’s a Billy Cook, made in Sulphur, Oklahoma. Light brown, with a basket weave. When asked to list my property once, that saddle was the first thing that came to mind.
“She may give you a hard time with the bridle,” I said, as the mare lowered her head again and opened her mouth, soft, for the bit. She was making a liar out of me.
Most little girls come with fantasies about horses and I’ve found it’s good to reconstruct them quickly, before they get hurt. The mare usually helps by biting me on the shoulder, but this day, she looked ahead and stood still while I tightened the girth and gave my knee to the girl as a step. She learned stop, lateral flexion and back. Then she learned to walk and reign. In all this you can make yourself felt, if you are strong, but little ones must also make themselves heard. I said this generally, while looking out at the landscape. The suggestion was heard, not felt, certainly not taken to heart.
It took awhile, but not a sound was made from the rider. She made herself known all the way through the leather of that Billy Cook saddle, all the way down the reins and into the snaffle-bit of that bridle. Walk and stop and back and change leads and walk and stop and back and change leads and walk and stop and back. I did this myself for years, and I can tell you it’s important and I can tell you it’s enough to break your heart. It was already hurting the girl. I could see it in her eyes, because she let me. She looked straight at me for the first time, with it standing there between us, like a work of art, just waiting for someone with eyes to see.
“Would you like to go faster?” I asked.
This really shouldn’t be, you know. You ought to let a girl sit on the hard slow track and suffer the death of her fantasies just a little while. The ring is for breaking the will. But what better place for hope and reality exceeding hope to meet than on horseback? And what better time to find it than in the morning of ones life? Not every fine dream must be crushed in the ring, which is a mockery of God’s world anyway. There was no danger I needed to introduce her to. She had seen enough, for one who sees. All morning she had reminded me of my friend Annie, whose fear was long outrun by joy. I knew Annie would say life is short. I knew Annie would say seize the day. I knew Annie would say hold on.
“Hold on,” I said.
Then running beside her with the lunging line, we jogged until her stomach hurt and galloped until she knew what every good swing in her life was meant to foretaste. It was foolish of me, for now she thinking she could do it herself. Someday soon, I’d bet my saddle on it.
We rubbed down the mare and put her to pasture, then walked out of the barn and into the garden, lush from summer rain and lightening.
“I love this place,” said the girl.
“Everything. Thank you.” We stood beside each other before her words, all stored up and costly, like reverent pilgrims before a Michelangelo, kneeling down to weed awhile, till we heard the sound of her brother coming through the drive.
For you that took the all-in-all the things you left were three.
A loud voice for singing and keen eyes to see,
And a spouting well of joy within that never yet was dried!
And I ride.
Hilarie Belloc, Complete Verse: “The Winged Horse”