I came out here to remember it all
You would know by now that I like horses. You know a little about horses past but little about where I began. I'm sure you don't care. But this I am writing for me. I need to remember what ended on June 1, 2007. I am writing this because I need to. Not for you, but in case I forget about it. So that these horses, these people that did so much for me can be remembered in some small way.
I started to learn how to ride eight years ago, nearly nine. Back then I was nervous about everything. I felt everyone was judging me. Back then, I was really me. Nowadays, I am not. I grew up, and out of that era of my life. These personalities, these horses, gave me this.
One wintry morning mum drove me to the place that was to give me nearly every memory I still cling to with love from my younger days. The dogs were outside the car. These days they are buried, one from age, the other from fox bait. My instructor came, wrapped up in a dressing gown, her dusty boots sticking out from underneath. This was typical of her, I found out later. She was one of the sisters, the one who would wake us up at midnight to have bareback rides in our pajamas.
She led me into the stable and introduced me to Gee. He was the first horse I ever rode that wasn't made of plastic. He was a wonderful gentlemen, the first of many to teach me about life.
It's summer, and it's holidays. The best time of year. I put on short shorts and a t-shirt with enough collar that I don't have to get sunscreen in my hair. My work boots and thick socks go on my feet. My hair is pulled up and a cap is put on. In a bag I put my pants, my helmet and my riding boots. A drink bottle follows, but no food. I never get time to eat up there. If I'm really hungry, I'll take a carrot bought for the horses. I'm like that. I'll even eat their pellets, though only to see someone's face as I do. They're sweet, with just a hint of salt. Never give them something you wouldn't eat, unless it's hay. And then you better be willing to smell it for the rest of your life if you're going to feed it to them. That's one of the rules I learned.
It takes twenty minutes to drive there, and at this time of year it' a sad, yellow trip. I like it in winter, because the ground is a thick, dirty brown and the grass is a rich green that you wish you could eat. You could dive into it all and never come out. But in summer the streams are dusty hollows and the sheep are sad yellow smudges against sad brown stalks.
I get there and check the diary. No one is there yet, the instructor, let's call her Lisa, is making calls or is out. It doesn't matter. I'm on my own until the first lesson arrives. I tell my mum when to pick me up, and I get to work. First I see what horses are needed. All of them. No surprise. It's been busy these last few weeks. I see who I get to ride, it's Lushain, my latest favorite. I measure out pellets for them all and tip them in, leaving certain stalls open. I shut the front of the shed and walk out the back, to the main paddock.
"Com'on, boys!" The shout is loud and practiced and it carries across the acres of land. Only the right horses look at me. The smallest, Bella, my little unicorn, looks at me and steps eagerly to the gate at my second call. She only gets a handful of food because she's fat but that doesn't mean she doesn't hope for more. The other horses slowly follow her, Sharni moving last because his rank demands he moves last. I love him. He's the gentleman of the group, the beginners' horse, the one who tries so hard to please.
I open the gate and stand out of the way. They wouldn't intentionally run me over, but the big boys, Archie, Bill and Lushain get a little feisty on the run into the stable. Bill isn't in here today, so its a blur of brown not mixed with gray. They've been doing this for years, it's not often they go into the wrong stall. I wait for Sharni to come out and close the gate. I catch him up and rub his ears and neck and talk to him. I don't ride him any more, but I remember his lessons. He was a good teacher.
I lock them up and take a walk. The property is not huge, but its big enough to give me blisters and a sunburn from a single walk. Bill is down the very front of the property, the one with the stream and a dam and Patrick. I like Patrick, a big chestnut bully who is really very sweet. Bill keeps him company while he relaxes between shows. Bill ignores my call, as he always does, though I do try. I walk past the dam, down the thin trail over the branches to the grass and catch him. Once he's following me I take him off the lead. Once I didn't, and Patrick decided to race him to the gate. I nearly got dragged; I nearly got pushed into the dam. This way, if he runs I can just follow and catch him at the gate.
But not today. Today Patrick stays at the grass and Bill respects the narrowness of the path and walks behind me. His head never moves more than two inches from between my shoulder blades. Bill is my Centaur horse, my gray buddy that who pretends to hate the world, but get close to him and he just wants your love.
Once all the horses are munching away I check the list. There is always a list. What I need to do, when I need to do it. Stables are most important, but today it there is a new person, and then a private lesson, a group lesson of beginner girls and lastly the lesson that I don't have to help with. The new person I have to help tack up, and by that Lisa means teach. Once I got a new person, but I didn't realize they had been riding for 3 years until after I told them how to put a saddle on. Now I know better. I can read the nervousness, and the unsure mother. It's normally the mother. Either that or the whole family. I wish they didn't bring younger siblings. They scare the horses or, worse, the rider.
I have a little time until then, so I clean stables. This is the most relaxing part of the whole afternoon. There is no pressure, once my rhythm is set it's simple. Poop, pee, rake to sides and add new sawdust. I love the smell of fresh sawdust, I love how it looks, I love covering all the ground in it. I love being the first person to walk a horse on it, so that only footprints and hoof prints show in the clean beautiful stuff.
I hear a car, and I know it's not Lisa because there is no dog, and no sound of diesel. I brush off my hands and lean the rake to the side of the stall. A mother and her daughter are walking nervously into the stable. I know the look well. It's the same look me and my mum shared the first time I came here. I put on a big smile, I don't have to pretend, and go out to meet them.
"Hello. You must be Emily." (Let's call her that, I like the name Emily.) I look at her mum and smile. "Lisa's going to be here soon. I'm going to get you ready for your lesson." They do not ask if I am qualified, they never do. Not that it matters. Anyone can give ground lessons, as long as the student is not riding nothing wrong has taken place. I lead her to Mess, this dear old man is going to give his first of two lessons for the day. He's 27 or some such age, and he doesn't do much anymore. This lesson will be walk, maybe trot. The next one won't be much more strenuous.
"This is Mess, he'll be your horse today. Have you done much riding?" The mother answers that she's done nothing. That's not good. I want the kid to speak, but when I was her age I didn't say much. Horses changed that. They give you confidence. I show Emily how to lead Mess out of the stall, and how to tie him up. I make her do it, though I'll be doing it for her again if she comes again. But I show her how to do everything. Hooves, brushing, saddles, bridles. I have gotten her talking a little, about school and about why she likes horses. Mostly I'm talking though, but while I do I watch her. She is careful, scared of hurting Mess, but willing to do what I ask her to. I take note and smile to myself. She's a good kid, I know that already.
Lisa arrives in a rumble of dust and dog. I love her dog. She comes and says hello to me. She doesn't say anything else. It's time for the lesson and if there was something important she needed to know she couldn't be able to park before I would be out there, telling her. She knows that and I know that so she introduces herself to Emily and her mum and takes them both to the indoor arena. My job is done. The next rider will be here soon, but between now and then I clean more stalls.
The next person is different. Its one of the parents, a dad, and he brings his kid, who is in the next group lesson. She gets her horse out and I keep an eye on her while I help her dad. He's had a few lessons, and he's a nice guy. Adults are always more willing to try the hard things. They also know their limitations and aren't embarrassed to ask. Last fortnight I had to help him with everything, this week all I do is rub Bill's ears and watch carefully. We chat a little, and his kid comes and talks to me to. Simple stuff, about how Sharni moves his lips when you tickle his chin, and how Archie's lying down in his stable.
The father is ready, Emily has finished and leaves with promises to call about the next lesson. Just as the next lesson starts they all start coming. There are four girls in this class, and I can't leave them too long without being called for help. Often its the mother who asks because the daughter doesn't want to say that she can't get a hoof up, or a mouth open for the bridle. I impart my wisdom, wisdom that was passed onto me in this same stable, by people since gone and horses since retired.
Between their calls I rub the horses' necks and promise a carrot to each if they are good. The kids smile, of course their horse will be good.
Time passes quickly and a new lesson starts. Bill comes back to be tied up. He has another lesson, but he will only be alone for a little while.
Finally, in this quiet, I can ride. I get Lushain and tie him up. I spend a lot of time rubbing his neck and shoulders. He gets hot very easily when he is inside in summer. Sweat is forming under his mane, but he can survive the work.
I tack up quickly. I am always quick now, because Lisa will ask for horse after horse sometimes when I come in the morning to help out. You get good at tacking when a horse is needed five minutes ago. The parents of the kids riding stand around and talk a little while before moving out to the arena. There are three here, the indoor, the outdoor and the other outdoor. The other outdoor isn't used very often anymore, and I'm probably one of the only students who is still here who remembers going down there. I'm the only student who remembers a lot of stuff, like Lucky, a pretty black horse who died from cancer, Gee who was retired at a lovely age, and those other instructors who left for other lives.
I go to the indoor arena and lock the gate. I use a block to get on, because I am slightly too short and not flexible enough to get onto Lushain's back. He is the tallest school horse. I warm up, skipping the laps that normally come with the group lessons. Instead I use the whole arena, criss-crossing and circling around it. Finally, with just a breath of rein, I do not really care if he is in frame, today I just want to have fun. I normally I ride for only forty-five minutes when I ride alone because I cut out the stops and starts and explanations that a group lesson has.
He has a nice canter, big and groping and comfortable. I work on it, trot to canter back to trot again. I do circles, serpentines, leg yields. The father comes in while I am coming towards him in this wonderful canter. He looks as though he needs something, so I turn towards him and slow to a walk.
"That was amazing. I've never seen anything like that."
The compliment glows in me, though I know what I was doing was easy. I remember standing where he stood and watching someone else and being wowed.
The day continues as normal. I help untack and carry saddles back to places. I make a coffee for Lisa, I clean stables, I walk to paddocks with horses and return with none. I check a sore leg and watch the sun set. I take scared kids into the dark to the paddocks and stare at the Southern Cross, so high above the valley. I listen to the whisper of the trees and I smell the horses and fresh grass and dust and dirt and know that I am more at home here than anywhere else in the world.