Back in the day - not quite THAT far back in the day - after my stint in racing barns, I managed a hack barn. The owner of the riding school - my old riding coach (and here I must point out that by "old" I do NOT mean "elderly", I mean "former") was extremely pregnant and I arrived on the scene in need of a job at just the right time. Presto, I am now a barn manager. Well. That was easy.
It was a 15-stall barn, which I mucked out by myself (usually, although sometimes we had volunteer help). I fed up in the mornings, turned horses out and brought others in, bucked hay, scrubbed buckets, swept and spiffed the shed rows, and raked the saddling enclosure into pretty geometric patterns that would last anywhere up to 20, maybe 30 minutes.... until the first set of boarders, students, or the ubiquitous barn kids would show up on the scene. And sometimes, if I was lucky (and I was generally lucky this way at least 2 or 3 times a week) I'd get to use the tractor to mow some of the pastures.
The barn kids were all girls, all horse-crazy, and mostly either owned or leased a horse at the barn. Conveniently for their parents, they were generally dropped off in the morning (in the summer and on weekends) or after school (during the school year) and could be left until dinner time at the barn, where they would ride, chase each other shrieking and squealing through the orchard, brush horses (and often go catch and groom and tack up horses needed for lessons), pet the barn cats, congregate in the hay loft to giggle at God-knows-what antics of boys at school, and make themselves variously helpful, endearing or annoying according to their personality and mood. They varied in age and seriousness about the whole horse thing, but by and large they were decent riders and reasonable horsewomen (by which I mean they had some sense around horses and could in the main by relied upon not to fall into the horse troughs and drown themselves, nor get run over, nor let horses out accidentally, nor fall out of the hay loft and crack open their skulls, nor get bucked off, nor crash their mounts through a jump, nor any other foolish or dangerous thing that a teenager at a barn might decide to do.) Some of them were quite exceptional horsewomen despite their young ages, better (at half my then-age) than I will be by the time I die. They were typically good-hearted kids, and got in far less trouble at the barn than many of their peers might have done at the mall.
One of the perks of the job was that I could ride as much as I wanted - unless a given school horse was needed for more than three lessons on a given day, I had my pick. I tried always to pick horses that had less work; there were a few "push button" horses there that got way more than their share because they were honest and could be counted on to keep their students out of trouble and do as they were asked, without any sly moves or barn vices. My favorite amongst these was Happy Face - although that was a complete misnomer, because a more solemn and lugubrious face on a horse you'd be hard-pressed to find. He was, however, a good, true, honest little horse, and I for many years desperately wished I could afford to buy him. However, as a college student commuting seasonally between the Rocky Mountain west and the east coast, that was not a realistic option. I loved riding Happy - but because he got so much work, I would sometimes reserve his time for an hour and take him out and halter-graze him in the orchard, just to guarantee he had a break and a little leisure time, a little time to just be. I don't think I rode him once that whole season - but we had our little orchard trysts, and I think it brought him some peace. It certainly did me.... and I felt better about "buying" him an hour off than I would have about riding him for that hour, even out in the woods where he loved to go.
However, I DID ride a fair bit during my stint as barn manager. There was this one little quarter horse mare, Georgie Girl, who I took out usually at least twice a week. She was a sturdy, compact, pretty little bay mare, a bit more than a beginner could usually handle, so she didn't get as much work as some of the other horses. She had been half-leased by one of the barn kids for a while (a half-lease is one in which the horse is used on a light school lesson schedule, but the leaser has otherwise fairly free use of the horse.) For whatever reason - temperament, home difficulties, fears or anxieties of her own - the girl leasing Georgie was a bit on the dramatic side. She seemed always to be falling off, and the other kids said she sometimes didn't fall off but just said she had, and other times did it on purpose, though as I was never witness to these events - being otherwise occupied - I must in all fairness say I don't know if that was true. What was, however, perfectly clear was that the teen in question was slowly instilling in Georgie some vices. About 6 weeks into the lease, I discovered that George had started balking on the trail and turning for home, while the other girls with whom they rode continued on along the trail without incident. One of the best riders there - and earnest, elfin girl, beautiful and tiny and delicate to look at but a tremendous little rider, fearless and steady and very skilled - said that the girl had started by pulling Georgie up and pretending that she wouldn't go on, or pretending to fall off, or otherwise making some excuse to go back to the barn. This quickly progressed to Georgie stopping on her own at the usual spot and turning for the barn without any guidance at all, and eventually to actively resisting any feeble attempt to ask her to go on with the rest of the horses. This was a significant problem in A) a horse that might be taken out for trail riding by a member of the public and be expected to continue on as asked, and B) a horse that had previously had no vices whatsoever. Whatever else she might be, little Georgie Girl was smart as a whip and, like many mares, quick to press any advantage.
Seeing once too often that Georgie and her rider were coming home alone only 15 minutes after starting out, and hearing once too often that she "wouldn't go", I started to wonder what was up. Having also heard the rumors from the other girls at the barn - whispered furtively, as if they feared speaking ill of another barn kid, but at the same time knew something wasn't right and an adult should be told - I decided to take Georgie out for a little test drive one morning and see what was what.
For the most part I rode early in the morning, before it got too hot. I'd come in before 5 a.m. and feed, muck out about half the barn (which allowed the horses time to digest their breakfast), ride, cool and brush out my mount, and then finish the barn and whatever else needed doing. Having decided to check out the balking story, I quickly discovered Georgie's developing vice was more than a rumor. Having ridden her many times prior to the lease and never once having her balk on me, I was really expecting more that the rider was just a little too tentative with George and wasn't asking her to move along with adequate authority. To test my theory I took her hacking along the trail where she'd been balking. As usual, I rode early and alone (since I'd begin riding anywhere between 6:15 and 7:00, depending on barn chores.) It started as a lovely, peaceful ride in the woods, everything just as it ought to be, when suddenly George stopped in the trail. She showed no sign of alarm, no spooking or shying or tension or lameness. She just stopped. I asked her to go on and she did, so I thought perhaps my theory was correct and she just needed a slightly stronger or more confident rider.... until the next day, when I rode her again. She stopped in exactly the same spot, and this time when I asked her to go on, she didn't. I gave her a little more leg, with the same result. So I put my heel into her (which, as I was wearing leather cross-trainers, wasn't really much of an inducement) - but I did it firmly enough to indicate that I meant business, and she walked on.
The next day I rode her again, she stopped again at the same spot. This time I put my heel into her firmly the first time, to indicate that we were not going to be playing THIS little game every dang day in creation. George ignored me. I set her my heel again, as sharp and brisk as you can make it be in tennis shoes. Georgie flicked an ear, but otherwise ignored me completely.
"George. Walk on," I told her, and gave her my heel again. This time Georgie moved, all right, but she moved backwards up the trail, shuffling up the slight slope and backing into the surrounding trees, intent on making a three-point turn and heading home again. She backed me under a low branch - probably not by design, but just as an accidental consequence of the spot she'd chosen to make her turn.
All righty, then. That's enough of THAT little game, I thought, leaning flat on her neck to avoid the branch taking out my kidneys. Transferring both reins to my right hand, I reached back with my left and broke a twig off the branch. It was about 11 inches long, had about 9 leaves on it, and was about as bendy as a half-cooked piece of spaghetti. I stripped off all but three leaves (quickly, as George was fighting my rein and trying to turn her head toward home), and I took the twig into my left hand, laying it along her shoulder as I would a crop, had I been carrying one. It wasn't much of a weapon - after all, with three leaves on the end to break the speed and the extreme bendability of the twig, I couldn't have done more than tickle her with it, even had I been in deadly earnest - but laying it along her shoulder was a reminder that such things as riding crops did exist, and that if she earned herself a spanking, she was by-God going to get one before I was going to let her turn around and bolt for the barn. I gave her one anemic little tap along her left shoulder with my featherweight improvised crop.
"George. Walk on," I told her, in my best do-it-or-feel-my-wrath voice, giving her a little bit of leg at the same time.
Instant response: Her ears went flat back on her head, her eyes narrowed, and she pinched her lips and nostrils in an ill-tempered, snake-lipped, Oh-all-right grimace - and she went trotting out onto the trail in a stiff little pissed-off short-stepping gait, turning sharply left away from the barn, just where I'd asked her to go. She jolted down the trail for about 50 yards, stiff and choppy, neck rigid with irritation and completely unlike her usual smooth, fluid trot. I let her have her little tantrum - she was, after all, going where I'd asked her to, and doing it without me having to get off and lead her past her sticking point - and after that short stretch her eye softened again and her neck relaxed and she generally unclenched herself and started to enjoy her morning ride again - because Georgie really DID like to go off onto the trails, which was one of the reasons I so often chose her for my early morning jaunts and not one of the other less-used school horses.
We never had that conversation again - the next time I rode her she hesitated at that spot, but I legged her on and she picked up her stride again without argument, and she never even hesitated there again. I discussed this little episode with the school owner and the decision was made that Georgie was going to be "too busy" henceforth to be leased by the girl who'd allowed - or possibly encouraged - the vice to occur.
Thereafter, George was a delight in every way to ride. Steady of temperament, she was smart and level-headed and willing, and seemed quite cheerful to go on her solo morning rides with me. And I did offer her one thing that was almost irresistible to her: she loved to sprint.
Strictly speaking, we weren't supposed to go faster than a walk in the confines of the reserve wherein the riding school existed. This was because there were others using the park, and while it was ideal for lots of lovely long three-abreast canters and gallops - having a veritable maze of wide, well-groomed grassy trails edged by tall lush hedges - the idea was that we, ahorse, might run over and mangle walkers and runners on foot. There was a certain justification for this, although there were several places where you could have a long, strait, uninterrupted stretch, with perfect visibility and no place someone could suddenly pop out in your path - unless they were bushwhacking through 8 feet of Bre'er Rabbit brier hedges expressly in order to fall directly under your horse's pounding hooves. However, it's difficult to make and enforce different rules for one stretch of path than for another, so the ranger decided that walking was our top speed, and that was that.
Now, I'll have to ask you to keep this next part strictly between you and I.
Where the ranger's house was, there was a long, wide, perfectly level straightaway that went for about half a mile. To the right there was an impenetrable hedge. To the left there was an open, rolling, short-grass meadow, frequently mowed and dotted here and there with the occasional small tree. In short, it would be impossible to miss seeing any traffic larger than a squirrel, and hence impossible for there to be a collision of any kind unless you completely lost control of your faculties or your horse and went careening about like a drunken starlet. Moreover, as I generally reached this area somewhat before seven in the morning, there was never - not even once - another soul around. The ranger's house was nearly always dark and quiet at that time, he not yet having even bestirred himself for his first cup of coffee. I always rode sedately past his house, my mount's hooves thumping quietly on the thick turfy sod, her tail swishing quietly behind us.
As soon as I judged that the noise would not reach anyone stirring in the house, I turned Georgie's nose west and let her fly.
The first time I did this, she (not knowing what was in store) stepped off willingly from my heel into a pretty little canter. But I took the hand-gallop position: my upper body leaned over her neck, fists braced against the curving muscles of her neck, my weight balanced forward and carried mainly in the stirrups - and I told her "GO, baby." And go she did, letting her canter open in a matter or strides to a sweet, thundering gallop, flying down that straightaway like she was running for the roses. She was all bunching muscle and flex and speed and power - and me... I was laughing into the wind, feeling our speed push my breath back down my throat, letting her flying mane sting my face and whip tears from the corners of my eyes, feeling my heart thunder in time with the beat of her hooves.
It doesn't take long for a quarter horse to gallop half a mile - but let me tell you, it lasts forever. That's a rush that'll be with you til you die.
We did this every morning I could get away with it - whenever the ranger's house was dark and quiet, whenever I got through the barn early enough to saddle Georgie up and blow the dust out of her lungs and the cobwebs out of my brain. After the first time Georgie - a quick study if ever there was one - was ready for the gallop. After that first time all I had to do was lean forward and lighten my hand on the reins and she would sink onto her muscular haunches and launch herself like she was breaking from the gate, racing herself and all her ancestors to the end of the stretch, my hair lifting like a flag on the wind and my laughter left behind so quickly that even I barely heard it before we outran it.
The straightaway ended in a wide cul-de-sac bounded by high hedges. Here there was a scattering of trees, broadly spaced but constituting obstacles, so I always started to pull her up before we got there, taking back my balanced seat, letting my weight settle back into the saddle and my hands come off her neck, taking up my feel of the reins again. Typically George would have dropped back to her smooth sedate canter by then, breaking to a trot and then a walk before I'd let her go through the gap in the hedge that would take me back to the barn. I could not, after all, see what was on the other side of a twelve-foot hedge, so I took care never to go through that gap at anything other than a walk, just on the off chance that a deer or a fox or a stray morning jogger might be on the other side.
As the summer went on, George was more and more in love with her morning sprint, stronger and faster with practice, and she knew the drill. I let her sprint a little closer to the cul-de-sac, and a little closer yet, knowing she understood what we would be doing and that she wouldn't fight my rein when I pulled her up. One morning, though, we had a little confusion about which side of a tree we were going to pass on, me thinking left and her thinking right. We took three weaving strides strait at it, and at the last minute I gave her her head, rather than crash strait into its branches. My fault, that time; I'd pulled her up about 4 strides too close to the tree, and that was enough to confuse her as to our trajectory, at our speed. The result of this all being that, breaking to a trot, we still weren't slow enough in my judgement to go through the hedge gap, so I legged her past it, to her obvious confusion. After all, she KNEW that was where the path was, and I was pointing her where there was no path. But she broke to a walk as we passed the gap, obedient to my leg and rein, and I relaxed my cues the second she took her walk.
In that instant, Georgie demonstrated what it is that is bred into the Quarter Horse and executed, for the first time in her life and unasked, a perfect roll-back into the hedge gap: sitting back hard on her haunches and lifting both front feet off the turf, she pivoted around her flexed hocks to execute about a 120-degree turn in a single fluid movement, so smoothly that I - all unexpecting - had no more trouble sticking that than had she made a sedate walking circle back to the gap. Rising smoothly off her haunches, Georgie continued calmly through the hedge gap, walking on as if she - who had been trained to go English all her life - had spent the last five years as a working cow pony on a ranch in Montana.
Well. What do you know. Little Georgie has a few more tricks up her sleeve yet, lest we get complacent.
I miss those days sometimes, my solitary morning rides in the cathedral of the forest, the live and colorful tapestry of horses out in the pastures in the early mornings, the happy nickers and shrill excited whinnies as I arrived with my weelbarrow full of grain to distribute scoop by scoop. I miss the smell of a clean barn, all fresh straw and hay and the sweet, warm scent of horse. I miss filling the watering can with hot water and just that little touch of Pine Sol, and the ponderous sway of the can back and forth across the aisles as I sprinkled them down against the dust: my own private preisthood, the watering can my cencer as I proceeded down the aisles of the house of my own kind of worship; the sweet feed and the gratitude with which it was both given and recieved a simple sort of communion. There is something about being with horses that tends to connect me to the divine, in some way; maybe it is not so for everyone, but for me, they are a link between the physical and the metaphysical. Something about them is a metaphor for life, for me - both the life of the mundane physical, and the life of the soul. And if I ever get stuck - grinding along in the same rut, and finding no way out - a sure cure is to go for a ride. I never fail to gain some new perspective that way - whether it is because being up on horseback provides a literal change of perspective, and so triggers a metaphorical one, or whether it is due to some special magic of horses themselves, I don't know. But I don't have to know why it works: it is enough THAT it works.
And here's the other thing about horses, both actually and metaphorically: Once they get into your being, even if you never ride one again so long as you live, they are just like those early morning gallops: Always there, til the day you die, all the rush, all the warmth, all the sweet smells and sleek power and surging joy and kind, generous, liquid-eyed strength ready to be called to your service... always there. Waiting.