Rebecca and Lady
"Come on, Lady," I coaxed, applying steady pressure on the lead line in my hands. The dark brown stinker on the other end rolled her eyes and looked down at me, huffing a drawn-out, anxious snort. Her delicate head was high enough to give the impression of a giraffe, her stubborn lips were floppier than a cow's, and her legs were braced mule-like as she considered taking a few steps forward and into the dark interior of the trailer. I was aware of the scrutinizing gaze of my friend Amy, whose bay gelding was already loaded into the trailer. "We're going to get out of this cooped-up place and ride the hills with some friends. Don't you want to really stretch your legs?" My answer was a sharp yank as Lady spilled backwards, still managing to look dignified despite her elegant legs flying in all directions.
Sighing, I followed her, attempting to regather my patience. "Let's try again, girl." After several more episodes of this spanning ten minutes, she relented and walked into the trailer, nervous manure quickly splattering the floor. I tied her to the baling twine attached to the bar, bolted the back of the trailer, and hopped into the car, exchanging excited smiles with Amy as her dad started the engine.
I was a first time horse owner, and Lady was my lucky steed. She was a six year old, dark brown Anglo-Arab, beautifully conformed, with an attitude to rival Paris Hilton's. It wasn't that she was prissy, she was just extremely hard to impress. And I didn't even fill one quarter of the respect bar, despite my efforts to change that.
When I tried to lunge her, she would run backwards and rear high into the air, because she knew she could. If I insisted on pushing her around me, she would raise her head and accelerate into a fast trot, glancing out of the circle and giving me the cold shoulder. On the ground, she had no qualms about pushing me out of her space, and my weak attempts at shoving her back did little to dampen her enthusiasm for running over me.
Her fast-paced canter and sudden swerves taught me to keep a very secure seat, and when she developed girth galls, I was forced to learn to ride her bareback. She would refuse a jump at least three times before she'd even consider putting a hoof over it, and always leaped with a powerful surge, throwing me off on several occasions. Everything I asked of her, her initial response was "NO!" and it was a challenge to get even the simplest things done. I needed help, and I had some friends who were willing. Mike and Linda were experienced cow horse trainers, and they'd agreed to work with Amy and me today. To say I was excited was an understatement.
When we arrived at the rodeo arena about half an hour later, we unloaded the horses and tacked them up quickly. Linda and Mike were waiting with their small, sturdy Quarter Horses. Well, they might have been Quarter Horses. Here in New Zealand, where English riding is predominant, every animal bred here seems to have some form of warmblood heritage. We trekked up the hill and left the mountains behind us as mile upon mile of farmland appeared, stretching out into the distance. Cows and sheep dotted the landscape, and fences seemed nothing more than strategically placed strands of hair upon the dappled countryside.
"Is all of this yours?" I asked Mike.
"That and more," he responded, grinning.
We spent a fair bit of time trotting down the raceways, throwing in the occasional canter when the terrain permitted it. Lady surged ahead, her mouth deaf to the bit. I jammed my heels down and leaned my weight back, trying to control her. I could feel Linda watching me, and I was desperate to make a good impression. My brown mare threw her head and shook it, slinging foam as she challenged the strength in my arms. I longed to let her go faster, just because we've never had room to freely gallop before, but I didn't dare. My only consolation was that my friend's gelding was acting up too. He was only three, and acted as if he'd been gelded late. What a pair we made, Amy and me with our horses. Neither of them were right for beginners, but they were all we had.
After several hours climbing mountains and jumping logs, Lady slowed down a bit. She seemed to be enjoying herself, and a sheen of sweat coated her dark skin, making her appear almost black. I loosened my reins and relaxed my death grip on her mouth, but didn't dare to let go of it completely. Although it couldn't be said that we were getting along, at least the foam had stopped flying, and we were able to have a bit of fun.
I could feel Lady eyeing some cows at the top of the hill, and suddenly Linda appeared beside me on her liver chestnut mare. "Do you want to chase them?" she asked.
"Hell yeah!" I enthusiastically replied.
Both Amy and Mike politely excused themselves, so it was just Linda and me as we picked up the reins and directed our horses towards the herd of cattle. I knew that Lady had come from a farm, so she would have seen cows before. Dust flew as I whooped and pushed my reins up Lady's neck, and she barreled forward with incredible speed that took my breath away. It was all I could do to hang on as the forces exerted on my body threatened to send me flying backwards over her rump. The cows scattered as we galloped towards them like a dark bullet, and suddenly I realized that the electric fence was coming up. With difficulty, I managed to circle Lady and ride her at a more sedate pace towards the cattle, who watched us warily. Neither of us had cow experience or knew how to work a herd, but we still had a grand time pushing the animals around, and Linda quietly observed with the humoring smile of a parent allowing a child to scatter a flock of pigeons.
Eventually, the sun began to descend in the west, and we returned to the trailer to put our horses away. Amy's gelding was lathered and puffing, but despite the dried sweat on her shoulders and belly, Lady looked like she could have gone on.
"She's very fit, isn't she?" Linda asked, coming up behind me. "What do you do with her at home?"
I flushed, feeling rather embarrassed. "Nothing really. I ride maybe three times a week and we do mostly trot work. And we jump sometimes."
I could tell the answer intrigued Linda. And I could also sense that she was curious about Lady, too. About her capabilities and what she could do with the right rider. I knew that she thought we weren't right for each other and that Lady deserved better. And she was right.
With Mike helping me, we got Lady into the trailer in no time. The half hour ride home seemed shorter as we talked about the day, about our favorite parts and what our horses felt like.
Amy's dad parked at the pony club where I kept Lady, and I led her out of the trailer. Amy kept her horse somewhere else, so he stayed in. The darkness was almost complete, but there was just enough light for me to see where I was going when I took my mare to her paddock. Impulsively, I took the end of my lead rope and tied it to the other side of her rope halter, and jumped on to her back. "I'll be back in five minutes!" I told Amy, and then I squeezed my calves and pointed her up the hill towards her paddock.
Lady accelerated into a trot, and as we moved into the shadow of the mountain, I realized that I'd misjudged the light. The ground was only a murky blur when I looked down, and I had trouble making out the sandy path. On one side of me was a thicket of gorse bushes. On the other, a sharp drop curved down, and my gut rolled at the idea of us going down it. I began to panic, but it was too late for me to slow Lady down, and there was no room for me to turn back to the trailer.
The wind blew my hair behind me, and I felt very exposed without a helmet. I'd galloped Lady in a rope halter once. She almost bolted right into traffic, and the idea of a repeat experience in the dark made me feel sick. I was stuck on her back, unable to see my hand in front of my face, and had no feeling of control.
Then it occurred to me that my horse knew the path, and she could see better in the dark than I could. She wasn't panicking. She strode up the hill at a confident pace, her head up, eyes bright. Back to her herdmates, back to the grass, and the faster she was, the sooner she could offload the annoying human on her back.
She flowed into a canter, and with darkness all around and no scenery to distract me, I could feel every muscle twitch in her back. I could feel each hoof hit the ground, sense the sequence of the canter, feel her head as it lowered and rose to complement her balance. Without realizing it, my fear faded away as I allowed myself to trust the powerful animal beneath me, whose strength I'd been struggling to contain all day.
Now I encouraged her forward, letting go of the halter rope completely in order to grab her mane. My legs tightened their grip on her sides, in defiance of my regular habit of avoiding her ribs at all costs, lest she think I was telling her to go faster. For once, I was not telling her what to do. I sat quietly, my hands holding her mane, doing nothing to impede or otherwise direct her. One misstep, one awkwardly placed hoof could send us tumbling, and at the speed we were at, we would hit the ground hard. But Lady, she found the curve in the trail, continuing uphill at an affordable canter, avoiding the dips and steep parts with the certainty of an animal with better instincts and a more remarkable memory than any person.
The ground flattened out and she slowed to a stop at the gate to her paddock, standing quietly as she waited for me to slide off and grant her freedom. But I lingered on her back, still entranced by the connection I'd felt with her before. For a ride that spanned less than thirty seconds, I'd given over my trust completely over to her, placed my life in her hands. It was something I'd never even considered being able to do, and I had a vague feeling that our relationship was missing a vital component, and that I was on the verge of finding it.
Lady swung her head impatiently, nibbling the latch on the gate, and I took my cue and slid off. I released her and watched her move among the herd, flattening her ears at the grey gelding, charging at the fat mare, reasserting her dominance as the boss horse. Nothing had changed for her. And tomorrow there was likely to be no new learning curve for us. The fleeting moment had come and gone, leaving me frustrated that I couldn't find any more significance in it. I shrugged and turned away, and down the path, I could see Amy coming after me with a flashlight beam.
"Good night, Lady," I whispered. Then I strode towards the light, glad for the consideration of my friend who knew that it was too dark for me to see my way back down.