Monday, May 6, 2013

Horse Crazy

The horse I picked to win the Kentucky Derby did not. I'm disappointed, but not, because had he won, I would not have won any money. I don't bet on the Derby, nor do I have the opportunity to watch it in real time. Once a year, I just look at the horses, glance at their pedigrees, and make my choices. Really, I thought Revolutionary was going to win, because he had such a beautiful head. I almost put Orb (the actual winner) on my list because he was the only one with Nijinsky in his lines, and then I did not. I picked Java's War, and then Mylute because black horses are my favorite (and, had Mylute won, it would have been the first time a female jockey rode to victory in the Kentucky Derby). Interestingly, every horse in the derby seemed to have Native Dancer in his pedigree; I didn't realize we'd reached such a bottleneck with thoroughbreds. A couple had Secretariat and thus also Seattle Slew.

 (public domain image of Churchill Downs May 14 2008 from Wikimedia Commons)

I first read The Black Stallion by Walter Farley when I was six or seven. I fell in love with every aspect of it; the survival story near the beginning, the friendship between the boy and the horse, the pounding crucial heartbeat of the track. I of course thought my adult life would be devoted to horses and horse racing, nevermind that I had, to date, only been on a couple of pony rides at fairs. In fifth grade, my class went to some thing that they had at Brookdale Community College for elementary school writers. One of the classes was with Walter Farley's brother, whose name escapes me, and he had a little "contest" for the essays we wrote for him. I won, and got a copy of The Black Stallion's Filly, in which he wrote his brother would have wanted me to continue writing. That thrilled my ten year old soul.

My family did not run out and rent or buy me a horse (probably wise of them). I got many of the Walter Farley books, and books on horses. I got  a few lessons a summer, probably about 6 Thursdays a year, given to me on my birthday in July, starting when I was 8 or 9, finishign the year I turned 15 (16 was the year I took a 10 day trip to Ireland with one of the local schools, and then I had a job after that. It never occurred to me, I guess, that I could get my own lessons.) When we went to Cape Hatteras, one of my aunts or the other would take me for the hour long horse ride you could "rent" there, walking on trails on the widest portion of land that the sandy spit in the ocean has. Pure heaven, all of it.

It's a particular smell, horse. The sweat of the horse, and your sweat. The saddle leather, the horse's mane, the hooves when you pick out the packed dirt and hay. The dust from a horse ring is so very fine as it hangs in the air and settles in the lines of your knuckles, the seams of your jeans.  The carrots in your pocket for the end of it, when you've walked the horse and rubbed him down. You become aware of balance as a Thing, a cantilever of toes, knees, hips, shoulders. You hold the reins in your hands gently, as though they're raw eggs that you might crack. You pay attention to the breathing animal beneath you, ears flicking just ahead of your gaze, head bobbing with the steps. The horse, those lesson horses, they know what you should be doing. You learn from them, and from the teacher, standing down there in the dirt watching you and calling out directions.

My fiancé even went to far as to tell me, in college, that he would buy me a horse if I never got a motorcycle. He's never bought me a horse, per se, but Elka is pretty close. I've heard that a lot of Doberman people are horse people, in fact. She's big, she possesses that sort of equine grace and gallop, and sure stomps on us pretty frequently (more than horses ever did, in fact). I know so much better, now, how to listen. How to read shifts of muscle, stiffness of lines. If I ever make it back to horses, I can only hope that even as an adult novice, I'm more perceptive than I was as a teenager, easier on mouths, less stiff of back.

The memories are so very vivid for me even now. Certain smells bring me back to a riding ring, or the summer sky a certain particular shade. We've all got memories like this, locked away in the recesses, to be brought back by a smell, or taste, or texture. These are the goldmines that we writers loot when we have the chance, because to make things that much more real is to make your story that much more alive.

Zenyatta is the horse to listen about here: Watch how she comes from dead last to second. Her jockey erred gravely at the beginning and she still almost won.

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