Path danced to see her father appear. She smiled too, anticipating the things he always said, over and over the same enthusiasm and pleasure in his life.
“Too bad it’s such an ugly night. Ugly moon.” He roughed up Path’s thick neck fur, shook his head around. “This dog loves when I put on these sneakers, knows we’re going riding. But on a full moon, he follows you down here, doesn’t wait for me.”
The girl kept petting Ruby. Her saddle was on already, but not tightened. First you cinched it on one hole, snug but not tight. The horse would blow out their belly to prevent the cinch from being made tight. Then you walked them fifty feet or so, and were able to tighten another two holes, when they were unsuspecting.
“You didn’t catch Buck for me?” This was rhetorical, he was already reaching for the halter, then walking briskly down the path to the corral. He would only keep the girl waiting ten minutes; he never groomed as much as she did.
“Nope,” she called after him. “He doesn’t like women.” The girl was in a stage where it tickled her to refer to herself as a woman. And it was true about Buck. He’d been a slaughterhouse rescue. She didn’t know why the slaughterhouse kept a horse, a kind of ugly Palomino, with a sparse main and tail, and nice Appaloosa spots on his beige rump, but they had, and he’d seen slaughter all day and for that the whites of his eyes always showed, and he skittered away from them before being caught, and he didn’t like women. But he was a great ride when all was said and done. And he and Ruby had grown to be a pair, happiest loose in the corral, but energetic and responsive on the trail.
The girl followed her father downhill, back to the corral, this time leading Ruby by the reins. When she neared the corral, her father had just caught Buck and was heading back up, and she quickly flipped the left stirrup over Ruby’s back and tightened the cinch before the horse could think about it and expand her tummy again. The dogs followed her father back up to watch the saddling. The girl mounted Ruby and began walking her in a wide circle along the fence. They rode Western, but the girl incorporated some things from her many years of English lessons. She always mounted her on the left, rode her counter-clockwise around the ring, and led with her inside foot, getting the horse to do the same. You couldn’t properly post in the long Western stirrups so she didn’t bother. The girl’s one regret about Ruby is that she’d never clear a jump on her.
The girl could clear jumps her own height, five feet and three inches, she’d cleared up to six feet actually, a height which felt like the horse was going straight vertical, and you should be falling off it’s ass, except right before you can fall, you’re being tossed forward again onto it’s mane. The most exhilarating feeling she’d ever known. But Ruby was no jumper. She was a rescue from an Arabian breeder who’d been kicked in the head and grown neglectful of some sixty Arabians. All were sold cheap and were on the news in Los Angeles the summer the girl and her father drove out and saw her, grossly underweight, patches of black skin where her beautiful roan red hair had fallen out, a half broken-off mane and tail. But to the girl’s delight, Ruby’s mane and tail grew back full, all the bare patches grew in, and the horse gained about two hundred pounds under her loving care. It had taken two months with a trainer, to get Ruby to allow the girl to ride her. But that had been almost all the better. Girl tames broken horse. Ruby was only fifteen hands, a great size for a petite teenage girl. Although she’d taken lessons on some massive geldings and at first frowned at Ruby’s scrawniness.
She’d made about five circuits of the ring when her father came down with Buck. They wordlessly moved to the back gate of the corral, which opened out on a trailhead, and her father unlocked the gate. The dogs ran through it and headed off on the trail ahead of them. She walked through on horseback and her father walked Buck through, re-latched the gate and then tightened his saddle. Buck snorted in protest. Her father mounted him. Unlike the girl, the father didn’t speak soothingly to Buck, he was more of the dominating type horseman, but he was never rough to Buck and they had mutual respect for each other.
They headed downhill on their horses, walking. For the majority of their rides, especially a full moon ride, they just walked and the places they ran or trotted were well known to all four of them. There was one uphill stretch at the end of a loop they frequently did that they affectionately called “Coyote Run.” Once a long time ago they were walking up that stretch and a coyote entered the path before them and Path and the horses bolted in chase. The horses ran until the hill crested an exhilarating five minutes later. Both the girl and her father had grinned the whole way, dust hitting their teeth, the girl’s long hair flying behind her. From then on, when they hit the spot where’d they once seen a coyote—the horses took off, unprompted, thrilling their owners each time.
They rode single file, the girl in front, her body swaying back and forth in the saddle with Ruby’s shifting hips. They had not yet reached the place where they needed to decide on their route. The girl hooked her reins over the saddle horn and raised both her arms up over her head. The big moon was behind her and she looked at the shadow directly in front of them. The quintessential shape of Ruby’s ears, like small rabbit ears framing her head, the horse’s chest and the movement of her forelegs, and the girl herself, torso and shoulders and falling hair, arms reaching for the sky, she could count all ten outstretched fingers. Ruby snorted, distrusting of the looming shadow she was forced to step on, and she was aware of the sensation of dropped reins. She tripped and immediately caught her balance. But it was enough to force the girl’s hands down quickly on the horn, knees tightening around Ruby’s withers, and she picked up the reins again.
“Let’s ride straight up to the ridge and see the houses.” Her father called from behind her.
A developer had cleared the top of one crest within Topanga Canyon and built about twenty-five new homes. It was right outside the protected canyon lands they rode in. Her father had briefly tried to obstruct the development, not wanting to see his new rugged neighborhood grow to resemble the suburban family home he’d just left in the valley. But, he’d discovered the exact terms of the protected land and its borders and he was left feeling more privileged than ever that his friend’s property, now partially owned by him, abutted a permanently state-protected area. Now, he periodically wanted to spy on the progress of their less wild and less fortunate neighbors.
The girl would have objected because part of what she loved about their rides was not seeing a house or car, but once you’d crossed through the new development, the way home was an other-worldly terrain of large flat rocks, tall sagebrush and eucalyptus trees that glowed silver in the moonlight, they’d nicknamed that area “The Desert.”
“And we’ll come home through The Desert?”
The dogs reappeared on the trail, running a figure-eight between the two horses. The larger animals had grown used to the dogs’ darting movements. The girl was impressed how the dogs could explore the dark areas off the trails, at full speed, and yet always return just in time to see which route they were taking. Heading for the crest of new houses was akin to going straight. The ride thus far had been a steady downhill and here they headed back up.