Like most people, there are parts of my past that are so distant from who I am and how I live now that I basically think of them as fiction. When I refer to these sorts of things, which is rarely, I’ll usually say a shorthand phrase like, “In another lifetime…” One of these things about my history is that I was an avid equestrian growing up. Few people in my life know that I competed in horse shows for most my childhood and even owned and lived with my horses during high school. Despite the distance from that part of my life, very often I think of touching horses, the smell of them, riding and taking jumps, what horses’ minds are like and the never-ending mystery of trying to understand them. For these reasons, I love reading about horses. Anjelica Huston was a serious equestrian growing up in Ireland. Her memoir, which I’m currently reading contains exhilarating descriptions of high speed fox hunts with men and women and children riding their mounts over six foot stone walls, through castle ruin windows and racing through twisted and unknown terrain, while wearing jewels and furs. While I’m reading her memoir, I’m horse-triggered.
Cormac McCarthy is one of my most admired and favorite writers, even if he didn’t write so often about horses. But I think all of his novels contain some horses and some of them (All the Pretty Horses) deeply explore the ways of horses and horse people. He once had me daydreaming for an hour about whether the fact that a horse’s eyes see two different images helps explain their skittishness and fickleness. If you have a relationship with a horse on the left, they may not even recognize you, let alone trust you on the right. Each eye—a separate mind.
Earlier this year I wrote the first short story I’ve written in years. (Having been all about novels for far too long.) The story is about horses and it’s autobiographical, in that order. Here’s installment 1. I’ll post the whole story over 4 days. I’d love your thoughts on it. And if you’ve unlocked any horse secrets, I’d love to hear them too.
By the Light of the Moon
The girl moved toward both horses in the corral. She raised her arms, forming a T, and talked soothingly to her own horse, Ruby. She didn’t know which way they’d move, but they always moved in the same direction, together. She’d press them closer to the fence, and then separate out Ruby.
“Hi, girl. We’ll go on a nice ride. I know you already ate dinner. It’s a night ride. See that big full moon?”
The horses moved sideways and backwards, trying to evade the girl. Buck, the more resistant one, her Dad’s horse, tried to tell Ruby what to do. He whinnied highly at her, and made a dash forward and right. The girl stepped between Buck and Ruby. The fence was close behind the mare now.
It seemed to her that Ruby wanted to cooperate, wanted the affection and attention—the long grooming that would come before the saddling and the ride. But she habitually avoided the contact, and of course, she listened to her equine companion, the domineering Buck.
When the girl was within arms’ reach of Ruby, she was gentle yet quick. She didn’t try to halter her horse because that took five seconds, long enough for Ruby to change her mind. She just wrapped the lead around her horse’s neck and fastened it—like a dog’s leash. First stroking the horse’s muzzle, and chest, the beautiful white star on her forehead, the girl took her time working the halter around the ears and fastening it under Ruby’s jaw. The girl loved the tack, the same way she loved the animal. It all delighted her. A simple red nylon harness, a blue nylon lead. A hundred yards uphill at the stables, was the leather bridle with braided reins, the plaid saddle pad, the leather saddle. The girl was seventeen and had owned Ruby for exactly one year. She was delighted and still in disbelief that she had a horse of her own.
The horse coincided with her parents’ separation. It was not, as her mother’s lawyer suggested, bribery. She had been riding since she was eight, but owning a horse was never a possibility. She rode the stable’s horses. But when her parents separated, her dad moved in with a friend in Topanga Canyon—horse country. Horses were his passion too—that’s why she’d gotten lessons. Right away, he paid for the construction of the corral and stables. They found Buck and Ruby, both under strange circumstances, rescues. He wasn’t trying to lure his daughter. He didn’t have to. The girl spent one year with her mother. Now she was spending a year with her father. Then she’d go to college. The horse was just her good luck. She didn’t mind any of the horse-related work, and she rode her every single day. The wonder of it didn’t wear off.
Harnessed, Ruby gave herself over completely to the administrations. She walked up the path behind the girl, just like a dog on a leash. When Dad came down in fifteen minutes, Buck would be that much easier to catch, now that Ruby was out of the corral. The horses understood the inevitability of it too. They always were caught.
The girl liked having the extra time in the stable, grooming Ruby at her own leisurely pace. Always the same order: the left side of her neck, the bump at the base of her mane, her shoulder and chest, her back—the dustiest part, her left-side belly. The girl trailed the brush with her left hand, loving the feel of the hide, the twitch of muscle beneath. Her rump. Then the girl walked behind the horse to repeat the process on the right side of the animal. She never totally lost her fear of walking directly behind her horse, but you had to show them that you expected no kicks—that you believed in the relationship. She talked to Ruby non-stop during grooming. She’d been taught that the grooming was the foreplay to the ride. You established your bond while grooming and saddling. She’d never once ridden a horse that someone else had saddled for her. She didn’t like even the thought of it. She did all four legs last. Ruby tended to stomp when her legs were brushed. They were skinny and rarely dirty, or rather that dirt was caked on and urine-splashed and would be taken care of after the ride, with a hose-down. And each hoof had to be picked too.
Each administration raised a different emotion in the girl. It was exhilarating to handle the nine-hundred pound body of a horse, to shove the mare with her own narrow hip, to force a large animal to lift its round shod hooves, to scrape them with a pick, removing shit and rocks. It was incredible to rub her cheek on the horse’s cheek, blink her human brown eye an inch from her horse’s brown eye. The girl loved her horse and treated her as she had the steady-stream of dogs she’d had her whole life, like a beloved pet. Ruby responded in turn, nuzzling the girl, being caught easily, and if Buck didn’t interfere—coming directly to the girl, especially if she carried green watermelon rinds for Ruby to munch on.
The dogs were in the stable with the girl already and would come on the ride. There was the mixed-breed German Shepherd named Path. Shortly after moving in with his work friend, her father had been clearing a path from behind the house, down to the newly built stable, and he noticed the skinny, stray dog watching him. Her father had spent the afternoon wooing the stray and finally feeding him dinner. Within days the dog was sleeping on the floor in his bedroom. Path had filled out, and was exceedingly well behaved, smart, handsome, affectionate, and piteously loyal to her father. They all liked him so much that her father’s friend decided she’d get a German Shepherd as well. Five months earlier the three of them had driven to a breeder in Granada Hills and had seen the litter. The puppies were all black with pointy ears—already cut and taped.
“Why are they all black?” The girl asked the breeder, looking at both parent dogs— which were the usual black and tan.
“They start off all black and as they age they get their tan markings.”
These purebreds were much more stylized looking than Path, their mutt. With slightly rounded backs, extreme face masks, and lush tails. The parents looked like police dogs.
Her father’s friend chose a sweet-natured female. They named her Tara, because she was black as tar. In the light of the full moon, the girl noticed that Tara had a lot of tan coming through now, on her face, her shoulders, the backs of her legs, and she was nearly as big as Path, would be much bigger. The dogs lay down on their bellies in the dirt and watched the girl pick the horse’s hooves. Twice a year when the farrier came to re-shoe the horses, he would throw the trimmed pieces of hoof to the waiting dogs, they’d gobble them up like strips of rawhide.
Usually the girl rode alone after school, or if her father said he was coming home in time to go with her, they’d head out in the early evening. But whenever there was a full moon, they’d hold off until the moon was up, to experience the spooky moon ride. Their moon shadows were sharp and looming on the dirt trails, the tall sage bushes, the dry creek bed, the distant Santa Ana Mountains. In fact, the girl often spent these entire moon rides watching her shadow, with the two shepherds moving in and out of the single shadow she and Ruby cast.