I thought I would die before I could stop her.
Thoroughbreds are athletic stock—horses bred for the American racetrack. Tall and powerful, they are known for speed.
Like people, horses have personality, but every Thoroughbred I have ever met had the same traits in common—resistance to control, headstrong, high-strung.
I am a stubborn rider. I fall off, slide off, jump off, and I’ve been plain bucked off of countless horses, but I always get back on.
I convinced Jason to go horseback riding with me. He said he knew how to ride, that he spent many a summer riding horses with a friend. But he really didn’t know how to ride. He learned on Tom Boy, the fat, bay Quarterhorse mare at Turkey Hill Plantation.
She kicked at me when I was trying to capture her in the field, but she only barely grazed my elbow and drew blood. From behind the fence, Jason yelled for me to leave her alone, afraid she would hurt me.
I grinned and lured her in with a bucket of oats. She always objected to being captured, but after you got a lead rope around her neck, she settled down instantly and became the most trustworthy trail horse you could ask for (unless she spooked).
I don’t have any pictures of Jason horseback riding. I wish I did. Back then, we didn’t even carry cell phones that took halfway decent photos.
Jason cantered all around the field, holding tight to the saddle horn. I told him he would have to let go of the saddle horn, learn to balance like a cowboy.
“You’re supposed to hold the saddle horn, that’s how they ride in Tombstone!” he said.
“No, they don’t! The saddle horn is for roping cattle. You have to be hands-free for the shotgun. Watch Hidalgo again,” I countered, as we referred to our favorite movies.
What else do I remember?
Jason wore a serious, determined expression while he cantered, the same look he had when recounting his days at work, the people he was teaching, the jobs he did with pride.
That night, Jason’s grandfather listened intently to his stories of horseback riding. I walked on Jason’s back and massaged the knots out of his muscles with my hands. Jason said he felt so much better, that I was a master masseuse (I wasn’t, but I was so proud that I was able to help him).
After I became pregnant, I stopped riding because it could be dangerous for our baby.
After Jason died, I went back to the plantation, ready to beg for my time with the horses. I was desperately seeking the outdoors.
They had a new mare. Her registered name is “I Love Lucy,” but they called her “Lucy Liu,” you know, after the actress who played in Kill Bill and Charlie’s Angels.
Lucy was a little nervous, but seemed docile enough. The little history I was told is that she was a former polo “pony.”
Pony in quotations because I’m tall, but let me tell you, she is very tall. She is a Thoroughbred—with the high intensity breeding you need if you wanna win yourself a match.
Miss Lucy and I went off on our first solo ride, because that’s all I did, solo rides, at that time.
I was a willing guinea pig, not worried about the danger of an unknown horse.
Nothing in life could be worse than what I’ve already been through. No physical injury, no fear for myself could be worse than missing my husband.
We turned a corner, and a switch was flipped in Lucy’s brain. I think many horses share in this innate geographical, pinpoint location—it was a no-turning-back mark of “home,” the worst time for me to experience the ultimate manifestation of “barn sour” with a powerful Thoroughbred.
I, however, thought it was the perfect dirt road for an easy and safe “little trot.”
Lucy amazed me. It was the first time I was riding a sound, well-bred horse, and her trot was smooth, even if it was anxious. I was not compensating for being bounced out of the saddle as I was accustomed to…so I couldn’t resist letting her move into a canter.
Lucy moved with such grace. I could not believe how level, how perfectly and evenly she cantered…but I had never ridden full-out on such a great horse before.
She was not tired. She was not willing to stop. I was swept away, and I did not resist as she moved into a gallop…I was mesmerized with a “perfect” horse.
I’m a book lover. All of this moved through my mind, very quickly: I loved my Black Stallion series, the super-fast race horse, the one who moved from gallop to full-out run on the beach.
I had never had the space, or such a great horse, to blow into a gallop, let alone break the gaite and run!
I felt that she would run all the way back to the barn, and I thought about myself for the first time in months: either you will settle into the rhythm, or you will stop her, and I felt that soon I would lose the rhythm.
I wasn’t prepared for this. I wasn’t so experienced. I will fail.
It was so much speed, so much going through my mind, so many technical decisions. If you shift in any direction by too much, you will lose balance, you will fall. How fast are we going?!
Stop this horse!
Desperately, I tried turning her toward the trees, thinking the solid, impending flora would make her think twice, but no, she was headstrong.
Lucy Liu charged forward, and I adjusted my reins while struggling to keep my balance, poised on 900 pounds of animal acceleration.
I wasn’t prepared or trained for this, but instinct, and some bit of knowledge kept me in the saddle. I see-sawed the reins against her rubber-covered bit, gently, right, left, right left. She paid no attention.
I increased pressure, steadily, feeling like I was doing it to save my life, but somehow I was still careful with Lucy’s mouth. Steadily, steadily, she slowed. She went to a gallop, a canter, a trot.
We cooled down the ride like a pair of pros, and I pretended that I meant it to be that way when we walked into the barnyard. She was breathing normally. I did it. We had a successful ride.
“Tomorrow, we’ll go again, I told her with feigned confidence,” shaking.
A couple years later, I was riding with my friend Desiree and one of the men who worked on the plantation. We had become friends, and he was riding a hunt horse, a Saddlebred named Red.
Red was a character, I have no idea where he came from, but he could dance. He was recalling some kind of classical dressage training. Every once in a while, he would take a few dancing steps, then settle back into the rocking-horse stride of the beloved plantation horse.
I thought he was charmed, like he was meant for me to see. Like he was an animal blessed with happiness beyond his understanding.
We came to the same road where Lucy took me for that “impromptu ride” a couple of years earlier.
I was always and forever nervous to let her run, but I ignored fear for competition. Red wanted to race, so I nodded at my friend. He couldn’t resist, and we took off.
Lucy’s innate speed was finally matched with my will, and I felt like we barely touched the ground. Her short mane grazed my face, and I did not hold her back. I would not let someone beat us.
Really, it was only a few seconds before we reached the turn toward the barn. I lost my stirrup half way through the run, but I had confidence and experience to balance with the horse this time.
How cliche right? I was one with the horse, right? I was.
That was part of my healing. I wanted to race a horse since I was a child, and I finally overcame my fear. I quit standing in front of the horse. I quit tightening up the reins. I got out of my own way.
I raced a Thoroughbred.