After an intense week (and with my work-intense weekend still going on for at least another hour or two), tonight I'm going to give you a break--a bit of what we'll call comic relief. A soon-to-be-Kentuckian friend of mine mentioned in passing this morning that she's planning to take up riding again once she's in her new home, in the heart of bluegrass country. And one of my Brooklyn blogfriends (I love that I have two!) has written movingly about caring for old horses in her youth, about the "dark, decrepit old stable full of geriatric, honorable horses" she eventually left behind.
Myself, I've only had one experience on an actual horse (as opposed to a pony in a ring). It was in Memphis, back in spring 1994, toward the tail end of the only spring break road-trip I ever took (which also involved the only time I ever saw New Orleans). The motley crew with whom I was traveling had stopped off for a few days in Memphis to visit the family of the woman who would become my roommate the next year. She had grown up riding, and so we all piled off to a park where we could hire horses to ride for part of the afternoon. My feelings about this outing were not unlike the feelings I've always harbored for roller coasters. A roller coaster always seems like an excellent idea, in the abstract, and I make a good, determined show of psyching myself up for riding them, but in the face of the thing itself, with all its possibilities of falling (which, you'll recall, is my greatest fear), I panic. Where roller coasters are concerned, this panic has always meant that I've ended up standing at the base of a coaster's huge support pillars, peering up into summer skies to see my friends screaming along, their hands held high or their legs hanging down (depending on the fanciness of the coaster). But where these horses were concerned, I toughed it out--probably because I didn't know how nervous I'd actually be, once I was on my horse. Also, perhaps, because while riding a horse, one doesn't generally go hundreds of feet up in the air and hang upside down and then plunge hundreds of feet down through the air.
We reached the park late in the afternoon, and the horses seemed pretty tired. I don't know from horses, but thinking back on these horses' behavior, I see a lot of myself at the end of a Thursday afternoon in the way they submitted to our mounting them and learning the rudiments of encouraging a horse to walk around. When my horse had me just about as far out as we were going to go, she decided it was time to quit what was supposedly her duty and to start eating whatever was within reach (I do this almost every Thursday at about 5:30 p.m.). We stopped stone still, and she dropped her neck and began munching the high grass and yellowed weeds around us. Her bending forward meant, of course, that I was pitched forward as well. I clung to the pommel and tried to encourage her to start walking again, but to no avail. Eventually, I decided that I probably wasn't going to fall forward over the horse's neck, and so I calmed down and just looked around at the lowering late afternoon light while she ate. And eventually, she had eaten her fill, and off we went again. By the time I returned her to the stables, I had gotten the hang of riding, a little bit, but I haven't done it since then. I do think that horses are beautiful, and I get a thrill when I happen upon horses running through a field, when I'm traveling somewhere. As I left town for Thanksgiving this year, I got very lucky and very thrilled indeed: about fifteen minutes into the trip, I passed a field where a horse had dropped onto her back and was rolling about, scratching. It was an utterly graceless, utterly lovely spectacle.
Those anecdotes aren't the funny part of what I have to tell you.
When my family relocated to Indiana in 1983, we moved into a house on the outskirts of town. The house was sited on the middle (mostly cleared) acre of a six-acre wooded property. There was an old red shed on the property; it had been the horse's home, when the daughter of the couple who had built the house had a horse. Our neighbor still had a horse, if I remember correctly, when we moved in. I think I remember walking over through the woods to visit the horse periodically--though, probably because I didn't have the girl-love of horses of which my Brooklyn blogfriend writes (despite my having loved it when Mrs. Whatsit became a centaur in A Wrinkle in Time ), I didn't go every day or anything.
And the linoleum tiles of our kitchen floor had hoofprints in them. Deep, tile-crashed prints, scattered over much of the floor. My parents asked the real estate agent--as you do--how the floor had been damaged. She told them that the people who had built the house had had a daughter who had a horse; this horse was the one who lived in the red shed in the back three acres of the property. One weekend, her parents were out of town, and she was worried that the horse was lonely. And so, when the television show Fury was ready to come on the air, she led the horse into the kitchen so that he could watch it with her. The horse proceeded to stomp up the floor.
"That's not all that horse did in that kitchen," my great-grandmother commented wryly when my mother called her up to tell this story.
The story was a family staple for a couple of years, until we had those tiles taken out and put down a new floor. In the past few years, I've kicked myself for not having had the foresight to take pictures of the prints before they weren't there anymore. Of course, I was no more than nine or ten when we changed floors, which means we were still firmly in the time of the Kodak disc camera. Things are a little different now that I'm pushing thirty and shooting digital. (Do you remember those disc cameras? I liked the sinuous coiled metal wrist-chain.)
The horses I always loved best were on carousels (though I was also a huge fan of the KMart mechanical horse when I was a small child, and I also loved riding my spring-loaded rocking horse). On my first trip to New York City in the blazingly hot July of 1999, I rode the carousel in Central Park with my Knoxville friend. Because we're sometimes just this way, we had decided to wear crazy flowered minidresses all over the city that day, but we clambered up onto the horses anyway, and around and around we went. We might have been the only people on that carousel; it was really that hot outside. When we were done with our ride, we walked over to the Frick, and then to the Met. It was that kind of day.
I suppose that it was always the measured motion I loved, on those inanimate horses, never the wildness of what they shadowed gaudily.
Ironically, it turns out that the original Central Park Carousel, in operation from 1871-1908, was powered by a blind horse and mule.
sources for tonight's images: 1) The Happy Trails Highway (witness Trigger, with Roy Rogers, setting his prints in concrete at Mann's Chinese Theater in April 1949); 2) a Fury Brave Stallion trivia and memorabilia site; 3) a WiredNewYork Forum.