Author's note: So you know how this works: my brain works like a giant spider web. I remember some story, and tugging on that strand of the web moves all the others that cross it. So thinking about Georgie Girl has reminded me of other stories from that era of my life, and now you'll all have to suffer through them. You poor things.
Sometimes barns are full of love stories - not the play Equus kinds of love stories, but romances full of passion and beauty of a different sort entirely.
At the riding school we had a number of school horses of varying biddability and reliability. There was the elegantly beautiful palomino mare Goldie, who was also a sneaky wee bitch of a Saddlebred; she had the magical ability to escape capture by somehow causing the other horses to run interference for her, getting in the way of her would-be captor while she hied herself off to the most inaccessible part of the pasture. I missed a lesson on Goldie more than once this way, to my secret pleasure; Goldie had a very upright head carriage, which by consequence hollowed her back to the point where she was a very uncomfortable ride. Moreover, she had a mouth like a steel bucket, with no more flexibility or subtlety than that, and was inclined to cheat at everything, either to save herself some effort or just because. You constantly had to watch her on approaching a jump, because she was inclined to run out, dodging to the side to avoid the jump (and sometimes dump her rider at the same time), or occasionally she'd just stop, with much the same results. More than once my instructor - having gone to catch Goldie - would to my secret delight return red-faced and irritable, leading some other school horse, less elegant to look at but more honest of heart, and much more fun to ride.
There was Sailor, a sturdy Morgan gelding, who had the unfortunate (and for his breed, unusual) condition of being nearly strait in the pasterns. This rendered him a rough and choppy ride, but he was as cheerful as the day is long, and willing to go along with whatever you had in mind, and as he was otherwise well-built, he was strong enough to handle adults and honest enough to handle beginners, with the result that he was an oft-used lesson and trail-ride horse. This never seemed to trouble him; he was perfectly willing to have a go at whatever the task was.
You already know about Happy Face, a plain-looking little chestnut Anglo-Arab, the most honest horse I've ever ridden. He didn't like to get his feet wet and would jump over a puddle that was two feet across to avoid it - but he would also jump just about anything else you pointed him at. One time during a lesson I was riding him through a jump course. As the last combination in the series, there were a pair of jumps set up in a wide V, and the course set by my coach had me riding into the mouth of the V, jumping the left hand jump, and then taking a wide turn to the right, looping out enough to angle myself at the right-hand arm of the V from the outside, and then jumping the right hand arm of the V back into the center of it. I lost my left stirrup going over my first jump, so I was fishing for it with my outside foot as I cantered my turn toward the second jump. I couldn't pick it up and I hesitated just a hair - just the slightest indecision over whether I should take the jump with only one stirrup or pull him up. Happy felt my microsecond of indecision and he leaned back form his canter just the slightest bit, waiting for me to tell him go or stop. I felt him hesitate and I hesitated more. That told him all he needed to know. I wasn't ready, and he wouldn't take me into trouble. He broke to a trot and ran out on the jump, the only time he ever did so with me up.
Perched on the fence, my coach's mouth fell open and her eyes went wide with shock. Happy never ran out on jumps. Never. To her this must have looked like an act of gross rebellion, a dishonest move, a developing vice.
"Spank him for that!" she told me.
"I won't," I said. "It was my fault. I lost my stirrup and he could tell I wasn't ready. I hesitated. He could feel my seat come back and he did what my body told him, which was not to take the jump."
"Oh. Well then give him a pat and tell him he's a good horse," said my coach, grinning at me. So I did, reaching down to corral my errant stirrup with my hand. By habit I checked my girth. It was loose - like hanging an inch below his belly loose. Evidently Happy had developed a bad habit after all, that of holding his breath when cinched up so that the girth would be looser when he let his breath out. In Happy's case, I imagine this was a matter of comfort - some inexperienced riders will cinch a horse up too fast, pinching them with the girth, and some horses will hold their breath in self-defense. But had he wanted to, at any time during the jump course Happy could have had me off, sending me and the saddle slipping under his belly with just the slightest swerve on his part. It wasn't in his nature to try that, even though he must have known the girth wasn't even touching him under his chest. If it had been Goldie, I'd have gone under her flailing hooves at her first opportunity. As it was, I put my leg forward on his shoulder, tightened the girth, and went back and repeated the last combination, with both stirrups this time.
There were times, later on, when Happy - getting sour from overuse - would hold his breath and even eventually make biting motions when being cinched up. Once a riding instructor came to me, frustrated, asking if I could get him cinched up. Of course I could. I just went out and rubbed his belly, talking to him kindly, telling him what a good, good horse he was, leaning my forehead against the lovely curve of his neck and letting him feel with his body that I loved him, that I trusted him, that I would not hurt him. I tightened the girth one billet strap and one hole at a time, infinitely slow, rubbing and praising and taking my time like we had all week if we needed it. Happy dropped his head and rounded his neck and let his eye go soft. After a minute or two the tension went out of him and he let his breath out on a sigh. I got him cinched up properly - gently, gently - and then turned to the riding instructor. She was a newer one, capable enough, but one who had not known Happy for years, as I had.
"Thanks," she said.
"You're welcome," I told her, "but this is his last lesson today."
"But I have him scheduled for - "
"Use another horse," I said flatly, steel in my eye. "He's done after this one."
"But it's for beginners," she protested. "Happy's so push-button, how a I going to replace that?"
"Use Coffee. Use Cappuchino. Use Sailor. They won't get anyone into any trouble. But Happy's done for the day," I told her, fixing her hard with my eye so that she saw I meant it. I turned on my heel and marched into the barn office and called the owner of the riding school.
"Happy needs to go on vacation," I told her. "He's sour, and he's trying to bite people for cinching him up."
"Cancel the rest of his lessons for the week," she said without hesitation. "I'll trailer him out to the pasture Friday." That was what I loved about K. Had she been there coaching and not out on maternity leave, she'd have seen the problem developing and stopped it. But the minute it came to her attention, the horse came first, and the instructors - who all loved to use Happy, for his excellence as a school horse - would just have had to lump it.
K was an amazing coach. I remember the first time she told me to do a series of three bounces - jumps positioned so that there were no strides in between, so that the horse bounced over one, then two then three without any intervening strides. This was hard enough for me at the time - I had a tendency to get behind the horse on the first bounce, not ready for the second jump and even less ready for the third - but she told me to do it without either stirrups or reins, my arms held to the sides like airplane wings. I looked at the combination doubtfully.
"I don't think I can do that," I told her.
"Yes, you can. Now let's go," she told me in a confident voice, but one that brooked no demur. I trusted K, so I figured that if she said I could do it, she was right - and she was. It was scary, but I bounced three 2.5 foot jumps without stirrups and with my arms held out like wings, only my seat and my balance and the calf of my leg keeping me with the horse. Stirrups? We don't need no stinking stirrups.
It wasn't only riders K was good at judging. One time, when I was working in the barn, a dapper little man came wandering in. He had a sort of round, doughy, pallid face surmounted by an absolute Afro of frizzy middling brown hair. His face was saved from absolute ordinariness by deep, warm brown eyes and an undeniable sweetness of expression.
"Hello," he said to K. "Are you the riding school owner?"
"I am," she said. "What can I do for you?"
"Well, I'm an engineer and I've just retired," the man said, raising my eyebrows. He looked no more than 40, so he must have done well with his investments. "I've been taking lessons for a few years and now that I'm retired, I'd like to buy a horse - just for hacking in the woods, you know, nothing fancy. I'm not interested in horse shows or that kind of thing." K chatted with him for about 5 minutes, discussing his level of expertise and so on. I was listening with only half an ear, price-labelling hoof picks and sweat scrapers behind the counter. After a bit K looked at me.
"Go saddle Cappuchino up, will you?" she asked me.
"Sure," I said, trying not to goggle. Cappy was a draft-horse cross of indeterminate parentage, a likable horse but not exactly a live wire. She was broad and stocky and slightly sway-backed, with huge dinner-plate hooves, her fetlocks liberally decorated with long, cart-horse feathers. She was a palomino, but unlike the lovely but bitchy Goldie - whose coat was a sleek, rich, glistening gold - Cappy's was light and fine and cottony, a sort of pale yellow duck down. Her mane, though abundant, was similarly cottony, perched along her crest like a strip of fiber batting from the innards of a stuffed animal. When wet, as if bathed or sweaty, Cappy's coat became invisible, revealing that under its thin down she was pink-skinned with many large brown freckles scattered irregularly and unflatteringly over her hide. She had a large coarse cart-horse head, with a floppy, protuberant lower lip that tended to flap rhythmically with her gait.
She was undeniably a kind, honest horse, and on the trail was a pleasure to ride: she was square as a box, and no matter what tilt or pitch she was on it was impossible to feel unbalanced on her at any speed. On the trail she would occasionally pretend to be wild and excitable, with large, slow spooking jumps to the side (which, as far as spooking, shying horses went, were laughably charming and easily sat). Still, even on the trail she tended to be a laggard, trailing slowly behind the other horses and having to be asked constantly to keep up. In the arena, she invariably proceeded around with her eyes half shut, dragging her toes with the minimum of effort, barely heaving herself in slow-motion over jumps, dangling her feet and rubbing the top of nearly ever jump with her toes. The fronts of her hooves in fact had a slightly flattened spot on them from all her toe-dragging. She had a tendency to be hard-mouthed and was inclined to lean her head forward of the bit and let the rider do the work of holding her head up for her, as if it were just too much effort for her to manage on her own. It was true you could put a one-year-old child on her back and be assured she would bring him to no harm - partly because she would barely move unless cajoled incessantly - but she didn't seem to me to be the ideal choice for a gentleman looking for a hacking companion, unless he wanted to proceed at nothing faster than a toe-dragging walk. She was, for one thing, 22 years old at the time, and while that might mean she had another decade or more of good use in her, it also meant she wasn't likely to be the liveliest thing on four hooves. And while she was easy-going and willing enough, she was undeniably into maximum energy conservation, in the form of proceeding at the slowest possible pace, regardless of gait.
Still, I went out and caught her up, brushed her down and picked out her feet and tacked her up. The dapper gentleman came out to meet her, stroking her and letting her smell his hands, and then he mounted her up and rode her up to the arena. Bemused as I was by this unlikely choice, I had to watch, so I followed them up.
The arena was set up for a jump course, nothing over two feet, and of course there was plenty of room around and between jumps to ride. The fellow walked Cappy around the arena for a circuit, getting the feel of her mouth, of her gait. Cappy was looking odd... something strange was going on with her. After a moment I realised that she had her head not just up, but on the bit, her head perfectly perpendicular to the ground, neck beautifully arched. Her eye was bright and open, instead of half-closed, and - wonder of wonders - her lower lip was tucked into a normal position, instead of hanging so low you could see the pink lining of it as it flopped loosely. She was picking up her feet, stepping along briskly, a light in her eye.
The rider asked her for a trot, which she picked up smartly, then a canter. All of a sudden Cappuchino had a big, scopey, reaching stride, well-collected but driving with power. He pointed her at a jump and she popped it smartly, tucking her big feet neat and high under her chest, landing on a turn, already seeking the next jump her rider wanted. She sailed sweetly over that one too, turning on a dime, taking a flying lead change in the center of the arena to turn for the next jump. A flying lead change? CAPPY?
I gave K a narrow look. She just smiled.
The man criss-crossed her across the arena, making a giant figure eight of it, and Cappy took another flying lead change, as smooth and lovely as any dressage prospect, turning tightly for another jump, a light of joy in her eye. He brought her back to a trot and her big heavy feet reached out ahead of her in a beautifully extended trot, floating - those big, heavy cart-horse feet floating over the ground, seeming barely to touch it, snapping up smartly and reaching forward with grace and elegance and undeniable beauty.
The rider pulled Cappy to a walk and rode up to where K and I stood at the fence. I managed to remember at the last minute to clamp shut my hanging jaw and tried to look as if this was just what I had expected.
"I'll take her," he said. "How much?"
"Thirty-five hundred," K said, which was a fair expense in that time, especially for a 22-year-old mare... but Cappy was a valuable school horse, and would have to be replaced. Given that she was strong enough to carry a 250# man without strain, and gentle enough to take a 2-year-old around safely, she wasn't going to be the easiest prospect to replace.
"Will you take a check?" asked the dapper little man, without hesitation.
We returned to the barn, where I unsaddled Cappy and brushed her out for the last time. Her head was up, her gaze following the man into the barn, and she stood watching until he came back out, giving him a low nicker when he reappeared. We untied her and walked her around to where he had his vehicle, with a horse trailer already hitched up. He'd come prepared. I watched Cappy load up willingly, and then watched her go down the road in her new trailer - a good horse, and I'd miss her - but there was not the slightest heaviness in my heart. She met that man and she knew - knew right that minute, somehow, that he was The One for her. And all the grace and power and joy in her big heart, mostly sleeping all those years as a school horse, awakened at once and said: Take me. I am for you.
I went back into the office, smiling dreamily, thinking about Cappy's life to come. She would be spoiled and cosseted, loved for every inch of her being, brushed and polished and daily taken on the communion of a ride with another soul with whom she was in complete accord. With a life like that - who's to say she might not have decided to hang around for another ten years, another fifteen? I hoped fervently that it would be a long time, a long lovely life, a reward for the many years of her faithful service as a school horse, a repayment for the countless people she helped teach to ride.
I looked at K, an expression of utter bemusement on my face. "How did you know?" I asked her quietly. "How could you possibly have known that she was the one for him?"
K smiled and shrugged. "I just knew," she said, simply.
"Well. That was remarkable," I said with wonder. "Cappy didn't go three strides with him up before she knew she was in love. I never saw anything like that in my life."
"It's a good ending for her," K agreed. "She deserved it."
Things like this don't always happen in life. But it's nice to know that they DO happen sometimes; a little touchstone for when things seem grim. A little reminder of grace. So when I get discouraged, I try to remember things like this: like Cappuchino in love.