High Horses


The smell of air would be rancid to city folk, but to me it smells like making sweet memories. My old boots slip in the mud as I walk past the arena with my lead rope tight in hand. I hear the announcer call out the name of a contestant, and horse and rider shoot out of the gates to make their clover-leaf pattern around the barrels. The rider’s mother and father scream on the sidelines in lawn chairs they brought from home. I can see the father’s beer-filled gut spill out from his unbuttoned flannel as he shouts. Their other child, a boy no older than six, takes the opportunity to escape from them on his miniature pony.

I pause just outside the line of impatiently waiting contestants in front of the arena’s entrance. A few of the young girls look down on me from their high horses and stick their noses in the air. I look like fresh meat to them. I’m not part of their pack that comes here every weekend to Lovern’s Arena to show off my skills to the dip-spitting country boys in the area, so, they hate me already.

“Nice blue,” one of the girls says, smacking her gum on top of her pinto mare. The other girls mounted around her giggle.

My gear is all a matching teal blue, from halter, to bridle, and on to the blanket and barrel saddle. She was, of course, being sarcastic as she said this. Somehow having a bright matching set of tack was amusing to her.

“Thanks,” I mutter, pulling myself high above her and onto my palomino Quarter Horse. “I use a different one in the Dixie Nationals. You might’ve seen it.”

She stops popping her gum and the giggling hyenas grow silent.

I, of course, have never evented in professionals or even semi-professionals before, but it shut her mouth. Besides, I had seen her unloading her dad’s horse from his trailer earlier. She was complaining the entire time until a boy had ridden by and waved at her. Suddenly she was interested in saddling up the mare and getting into the arena. She didn’t know a thing about those barrels or her mount. She took pointers from her friends on what exactly to do and looked around for that boy to impress.

A pickup truck with a trailer full of angry bulls backs into the arena beside us, and while my experienced mount ignores it, the gum-popping girl’s mare becomes agitated, swinging her hips around and raising her head up above the others. The whites of the mare’s eyes show as the black bulls stampede out of their trailer and squeeze into the sorting pens. Shock falls on the rider’s face as she, surely, cannot control the animal.  I’m tempted to spook it further until it barrels out of control, but I sympathize with the nag.

“Up next, Stephanie Shay,” the announcer calls out over the microphone.

Stephanie and her agitated mare begin to walk in panicked circles as her friends exchange glances beside her. At this point, it is not the bulls that scare the mare, or anything in particular. She simply knows her rider is not in control now and does anything she can to get that fat tick off.

“Stephanie Shay. I repeat, Stephanie Shay. One more minute and we’ll move on to the next contestant.” Though the announcer cannot see the chaos ensuing from his spot high above in the stadium, others on the ground do, and I can see them laugh. Stephanie’s cheeks look red hot now, from both embarrassment and exercise in trying to rein the mare in.

A minute passes and her mount still tosses its head to and fro, slinging phlegm from its bit. “Come on, stupid horse,” she keeps growling, slamming her entire legs into the creatures side to urge it foreword. I try to keep my composure, but it is a comical sight.

“Alright, Stephanie, we will call you again after the next five contestants. Abigail Proctor, come on in.”

I click my tongue and my palomino Aslan drives foreword. His ears prick up as we enter the long passage leading into the arena, and without needing my que, he picks up his gait until we are in a full gallop towards the first barrel. It’s funny what little things you notice when rushing at thirty-five miles an hour on a thousand-pound animal. The raging black bulls they’re teasing in the corral. The overweight dad sipping from a red cup, the alcohol he is not allowed to drink on the grounds. And of course, more sniveling girls waiting for their knights to ride up to them and introduce themselves.

As my partner heaves with effort, I force my attention on my ques, not knocking over the barrels, and not falling from the saddle. Red dirt slings from his hooves below us. Its color is burned into my memory.

When I make the last dash towards the exit, I pass Stephanie as Aslan slides to a halt. She’d dismounted as soon as I left, when her pride wouldn’t hurt as bad. Her mare is now content and calm, having succeeded in removing her rider. She now chews on stolen hay and shows interest in Aslan as he takes a step forward to sniff her.

The announcer calls out my time, and Stephanie sticks her nose in the air after asking her friends if it was decent. “Nice blue,” she repeats, but her friends don’t laugh this time.

“Thank you.” I give her a genuine smile. “I can’t wait to see how you and your mare do when your turn comes around again. If she lets you back on her.”

She gives me a frown full of furrowed brows and bared teeth that I will never forget. I raise up on my horse high above her and send him forward with the click of my tongue.