Good Girl, Damnit, Part 3: Happy Trails to You

Smokey and Alex
Smokey and Alex, c. 1999

I was a wreck for the next year. I hadn’t been in great shape to begin with, and now I had failed my best friend. I figured, if Nancy didn’t care enough about me to get better, then I wasn’t really worth caring about. The fact that I’d abandoned her just reinforced my feelings. I lacked some essential value if I could not help my friend when she most needed help. “I hate myself, I hate myself, I hate myself” chanted relentlessly through my thoughts. I spent almost every free moment online, trying to escape from my own brain.

I didn’t want to be miserable, and I made the occasional, flailing attempt to befriend other students and to find a focus other than escape-from-emotion. I declared theater to be my One True Passion, although I was mostly too depressed to practice outside of class, and the drama teacher was indifferent to me. Finding friends went better; I cobbled together a little group of people to sit with at lunch. I couldn’t talk to them like I’d talked to Nancy, though. Gradually, I began to resent her (as I saw it) refusal to be a good friend and take care of herself.

After a year, I talked myself back into horses. I thought about all the fun Sharon was having with her Icelandics. “I don’t want to do dressage anymore,” I told my mom. “I’m tired of going in circles in the arena. But I want to ride.” The idea of wild and carefree galloping appealed to me, especially as it meant spitting in the face of Nancy’s efforts to refine my riding abilities.

I dragged Smokey out of his irrigated pasture and away from his best friend, Carrot, with the purpose of making him into a trail horse. Nancy still trained at our barn, and we awkwardly said hello and how-are-you, but it was polite and distant.

Sharon was delighted to have someone who, as she put it, could keep up with her. She’d seen me riding Smokey, and after a year of my training with Nancy, she’d decided I knew what I was doing. I was thrilled by this recognition, and with her offer to go riding with her and Katy.

As it turned out, Smokey passionately hated trail riding. The second we were twenty feet from his beloved barn and horsey friends, he started screaming his head off: loud, tense, unhappy neighs that he’d keep up as long as we were out. I didn’t have anyone to ride with regularly, so we mostly had to go out alone. Smokey kept trying to turn around and run home, so I rode with a stronger bit. That stopped the running off, but not the tragic neighing.

Even when I went out with Sharon, Smokey was a pain in the ass. He neighed even with the presence of her Icelandic horse, Stimpy, and moved at a jigging, fidgety walk as soon as we turned for home. Worse, Sharon liked to zoom on the trails, and I didn’t dare let Smokey run with Stimpy; I knew a 19-year-old horse with a history of ligament injuries shouldn’t gallop on packed clay trails.

“How’s Smokey?” Nancy asked me one day, and I complained all about my barn-sour little horse. We found that we could still talk about horses enthusiastically, without either of us having to mention our former closeness. I felt my wounded feelings ease a little; Nancy still liked me.

Sharon wasn’t too impressed by Smokey, and after about a year of my noodling around with him, she  finally took me aside. “Why don’t you ride Haagen Daaz?” she asked. Haagen Daaz was her spare Icelandic horse, a sensitive but obedient bay gelding. I almost blushed; I hadn’t thought that I was good enough to ride one of her horses.

When we started out on the trails with Stimpy and Haagen, I patted Haagen gently, told him he was a good boy for every tiny thing he did right, tried to be tactful with the reins, and otherwise did my best to be worthy of riding Sharon’s horse. Sharon went along with this until we hit the canyon.

“Let’s go!” she said, and gave Stimpy his head. He took off at a gallop. Haagen Daaz leapt after him, and we tore down the canyon, up and down the gentle hills and the wide curves. I shifted my weight into two-point, putting myself over Haagen’s center of balance as he sped along. It felt a bit like flying in a stiff wind; I had to keep my guard up for the unpredictable long stride and lean of the horse’s body that came with going fast on uneven terrain. Eventually, with the horses breathing hard, we slowed to a walk. I told Haagen Daaz that he was wonderful. I barely stopped myself from hugging him.

Sharon was busy coaxing Stimpy back to a walk; he would have cheerfully kept on running the whole trail ride. We walked until we came to a dry riverbed, a stretch of flat limestone trail alongside it. “This is a good place to tolt. Lift your hands a little and lean back. It’s easy to get Haagen into the tolt,” Sharon said.

I’d never tolted before, and I was sure I’d screw it up, and Sharon would reconsider letting me ride her horse. Flustered, I hesitantly followed her directions. Haagen knew his cue, and he immediately lifted his head slightly and scooted into the tolt, also known as a running walk. It was effortless to sit the smooth, rapid gait, and Haagen’s head bobbed jauntily in front of me. It was easy, and it the most fun I’d ever had on a horse.

When I got home, I breathlessly recounted the whole trail ride to my mom. I think it was the happiest she’d seen me in years. “Mom, I got to ride Haagen Daaz!”

Without Smokey to slow me down, I got to see what Sharon and Stimpy were made of. The scraggly little Icelandic horse was no joke, despite the name. Stimpy’s black hide was marked here and there with scars and scrapes from his days as a breeding stallion in a herd. Faster than any horse his size (about 13.1 hands) had a right to be, he knew what a race was and liked to win. Sharon had trained him into a Trail Trial Champion and invented all sorts of games to entertain herself on the trails.

My personal favorite was the rollercoaster. Miles and miles of twisty, single-track trails snake their way up and down, over and around the Mt. Diablo foothills. On a rollercoaster, we rode them at a canter, regardless of how hairpin the turns and how steep the downhill. The feeling, at times, was not unlike the drop of a rollercoaster.

Another good one was the blitzkrieg. To quote Sharon, “It’s a horse race down the canyon, and cheating is mandatory.” Katy, Sharon, and I galloped hellbent for leather, harassing each other by poking each other with our whips, cutting off each other’s horses, and otherwise stirring up trouble. If you were behind the other riders, you swung off onto a fork in the trail and declared it the new track. If you were in front, it was hard not to glance nervously over your shoulder.

One time, the three of us were strolling along. The trail narrowed too much for us to be three abreast, so I moved Haagen Daaz out in front of Katy and Sharon. The next thing I knew, a whip flashed in the corner of my eye, and Haagen Daaz leapt forward. Haagen hated anything so much as brushing his hindquarters, and Katy and Sharon had both whacked him together. As Haagen and I sped off, I heard them laughing hysterically. Haagen, not about to let them get near him again, fought me as I pulled him down from a gallop. When he finally consented to walk, Sharon and Katy picked up a canter and swept by me, leaving me swearing, laughing, and trying to catch up.

We had a glorious summer.

“Don’t tell Nancy,” Sharon said, grinning.

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