I’m not sure that the man in the hat hadn’t already forgotten me. Even if he had, as hungover as he looked, I don’t think he minded the extra help.
He pointed at the two plastic bins overflowing with assorted grooming tools and directed that I, “ Start brushin’.”
I scanned frantically for a rubber curry. Having always started with a rubber curry on my grandmother’s thin skinned arabs, and having always read never to use a metal curry for anything other than to clean other brushes, I stood there at a complete loss. My confidence began to dwindle.
The cowboy emerged from the ever growing cloud of horse dust behind me. He handed me a shedding blade and a stiff brush and pushed me toward a big brown gelding.
I used the shedding blade ever so gently on the crest of the horse’s neck. I wondered how on earth I was going to get the hard caked mud off of the horse’s delicate skin. The man appeared again and in a flurry of brisk movements the horse’s back and belly were clean.
“Just worry about where the saddle goes.”
And again he was gone.
Saddles started trickling out. I followed the direction of movement and found him with a saddle in his hands. He unceremoniously dumped it into my arms.
“Big roan gelding tied to the lone pine.” He directed as he brushed passed me with another saddle in his arms.
I gasped and struggled under the weight of the saddle and blankets. Tripping over leather strapping as well as my own feet, I made it out of the tack room, where I stood, blocking the doors and thus progress, scanning the area for the correct horse.
Finally I saw him. Thank God there was only one roan! He pricked his ears at me as I bumbled toward him. Once I made it to his left side I dropped the saddle on the ground. I tried to make sense of the jumble at my feet, and sorted through it until I found the pad.
I flung the pad up on the horse’s back. He sighed, cocked a hind leg, and wrinkled his nose.
After that, things went downhill. Try as I might, I could not get the huge saddle up on the tall horse’s back.
I had spent much of my childhood looking through tack catalogues. Having no idea what “quality” was in the horse world, I equated it to “lightweight” and “mild”. I was sure that a 19lb western saddle had to be better, and thus more widely used than a 40lb handmade rig.
Even if I hadn’t made this mistake, intellectually knowing a saddle weighs 62lbs (that’s what that first saddle weighed, I found out later) and physically hoisting it on onto a 16 hand horse for the first time are two completely different things.
I didn’t pull it off that day. In fact, in the time it took me to figure out that I couldn’t saddle one horse, 30 other horses were made ready for their day.
The man again appeared, effortlessly flung the saddle up, showed me the order to do the cinches in, and hustled me toward a wheelbarrow and manure fork.
“Okay, I may not know how to brush a horse and I may not be able to saddle a horse, but THIS I know how to do!” I thought to myself.
And with that in mind, I dove in. I filled wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow, and as the day began to warm up, it became apparent to me that I had bought a size too small of boots.
My enthusiasm weakened about five loads in. It turns out that 30 horses make quite a lot of manure in one day. Eventually the task was complete though. Then, of course, came shoveling the pile into the dumpster.
“At least there was no walking involved in this.” I told myself, as I once again fell into the rhythm of shoveling.
The end of the pile came and I puffed up with pride, and what little air I had left.
“Hey, bring the wheelbarrow over and get around the hitching rails.”
I deflated and looked behind me.
It turns out dude horses are not house broke, litterbox trained, or in any other way concerned with where they leave piles.
The area around the hitching rails had been pristine when I headed to the corrals. Now, behind each and every horse there was a pile.
I had a whole new conundrum to chew on.
“How on earth am I supposed to get those piles up when everyone knows you’re not supposed to stand behind horses?”
I brought the wheelbarrow along side the hitching rail and glanced around nervously.
Once again the man appeared. He grabbed the fork out of my hands, walked behind a horse and began scooping. When the horse felt the rake against his foot he politely stepped aside. The rake was emptied into the wheelbarrow and handed back to me. And so I learned another lesson. It’s okay to walk behind a horse, sometimes.
I worked my way around the rail over to the side. There I found the man and began asking horses’ names. He used the phrase “second string” and I asked what differentiated first string from second string horses. I was informed that second string horses were “sorrier horses”.
Experience with a scrawny second string bay horse named Chapo soon taught me that the rule about walking behind horses still had merit. I scooped his pile up and bumped his foot the way I had seen the cowboy do with a horse in front. Instead of a gentle shuffle out of the way, he shot that foot straight back at me. He then flung himself forward and then straight back.
And thus, I added a real life mental image to “setting back”
And so my day went. I began learning horse names and each horse’s idiosyncrasies. I made sure to keep the area around the horses clean and the water troughs full. I also tried to watch when rides went in out, trying to soak up all of the experience I could for when it was my turn.
Occasionally I was handed a horse’s lead rope and directed to give the horse a drink. I would lead it over to the nearby half barrel full of water and the horse would drop it’s head and gratefully begin slurping. Time would stop as I watched ears twitch with each gulp. Sometimes water would trickle out of the corners of their mouths. Sometimes a horse would raise it’s head, mouth full, tongue sticking out, and dribble water onto my arm. I was in heaven.
Way sooner than I would have liked, the afternoon came. The fatigue I felt was washed away by the excitement I felt knowing it would soon by my turn. I’d watched riders come and go all day and could barely breathe in anticipation. I had WORKED! I had earned a ride! I was going to ride a HORSE!
As if reading my mind the man appeared yet again.
“Well, which one do you want to ride?”
I marched, okay, maybe hobbled, back to the second string horses and pointed to a little buckskin mare named Carmella. Not one to argue when he saw that I was setting myself up for a wreck, he untied Carmella and put her headstall on. He showed me how to check my cinch and helped me up into the saddle. He stepped back and told me to, “Kick her and have at it!”
I nudged the little mare in her sides. She swished her tail. I tried to neck rein her. She pinned her ears. I kicked her again and she walked off in a circle and parked herself back at her spot on the rail. I tried in vain to steer her away but she very clearly told me the stables was closed and the kiddie rides were over. I sat up there a moment and went deep within myself.
All day what I thought I knew had been peeled away. And, I was left with this final lesson. I didn’t know how to ride. Instead of filling me with defeat however, learning all of these lessons throughout the day had sharpened my focus.
I would start from the beginning, and learn EVERYTHING. Not just read it, LEARN it, and before it was over I would ride Carmella, and she would listen to me (so there)!
About that time my boyfriend pulled up. With help I stepped off of the mare and was shown how to unsaddle her. The light black Wintec slid off of her back and into my hands. Familiarity was beginning to grow. Slowly but steadily I helped unsaddle. We then led horses by twos and threes back to their corrals and turned them loose.
We fed flakes and flakes of hay off of a tractor to the hungry horses, and I watched the pens I had cleaned so meticulously get ruined.
On the ride home my adrenalin began to wear off and the pain began to set in.
At home I took a handful of ibuprofen, ate a bowl of ramen, and fell asleep.
Sometimes success is based on survival.
I know it was that day.
Reality was beginning to sink in in a quite dramatic matter. The fact of the matter was all dreams aside it was time to find out what I was really made of.