When I brought Feather home, I immediately started riding the vast network of trails looping around the scrub hills around Mt. Diablo. Sometimes I could not stop Feather, and sometimes I asked her to go one way and she went the other, but my previous horse had run off with me all the time, and I was not greatly concerned. Feather was a mountain goat in horse form. She might drag me under the occasional tree branch, but she wasn’t going to fall over.
The problem was that the problem continued to get worse.
One evening, I was riding around in the big arena. On the sidelines, the usual assortment of barn biddies, my nickname for the snobby middle-aged women at the barn, sat around chatting on the row of stools. The barn biddies often had lame horses or only rode at the walk, so I did not think too highly of their opinions, which was a shame because they sure had a lot of them. I asked Feather to turn left, and, like usual, she stiffened her bull-thick neck and kept going. I pulled on the left rein harder. Feather threw her head in the air and took off to the right at a canter. The barn biddies sat up in interest.
I tried a few more times to turn left. Each time, Feather put on another burst of cranky speed, until we were tearing around the arena at a pretty good clip. I decided to stop. I pulled back on both reins. Feather’s ears flicked back in irritation. She went a little faster.
“Turn her in a circle!” called one of the biddies. My stomach knotted with embarrassment and annoyance. Trying to turn the horse had caused the horse to run away. Still, after another lap of canter, I tried to turn Feather again. She stiffened her neck and kept right on going.
What eventually stopped Feather, as you might expect, was Feather. I sat on her back and waited for a good ten minutes until, huffing and puffing, she broke into a trot and then, when nothing continued to happen, slowed to a walk and stopped. She stood in the middle of the arena, sides heaving, nostrils flared. The barn biddies shook their heads at me.
“Good girl,” I said through gritted teeth, and patted her sweat-darkened neck.
“Feather’s a little hard to steer and stop,” I told Nancy, “but she really likes to go. It’s great!” For years, I’d watched rides where horses bolted and spooked and threw their heads. I always wanted to find out how I would do if I rode them, hoping that I’d have that special, horse-whispering magic. I’d get on with my quiet hands and seat, and the horse would heave a sigh of relief and do whatever I asked. Now I couldn’t control even a fluffy little Icelandic horse, and I was terrified that if I didn’t pretend everything was fine, everyone would realize what a bad rider I was.
Nancy gave me instructions to make sure Feather did what I told her to. If I asked to go in a certain direction, Feather had to do it. No getting away with anything. I nodded desperately. I’d gotten to the point where I shrugged it off if Feather didn’t turn. Pulling more made her run away with me, which looked worse than acting like I hadn’t meant to turn anyway.
Maybe I hadn’t been trying hard enough.
One day, a storm broke out, an unusually heavy rain that thickened the air with the scents of adobe clay and wheatgrass. I could picture myself out there, astride my brave and sure-footed mare, exulting in that wild, alive smell.
“I’m going to ride,” I said to my mom, grinning, “on the trail.” Wisely, she only nodded. As often as I was glued to the computer, she was probably grateful that I was voluntarily leaving the house.
I saddled up Feather and rode out into the pouring rain, ready to throw my will against weather and horse, and determined to prove how much fun I was having. Feather was especially squirrely that day, fussing and twisting under me. I’m pretty sure she was wondering what kind of idiot goes out in a storm. Crossing the road to the trails, I got her pointed up a hill and kicked. She went, marching up at a surly walk, and turning her head one way and then the other to look back the way we came. Each time, I got her straightened again. She wasn’t comfortable turning around on the hill, so she didn’t put up too much of a fight.
We got to the top, the flat top where her balance was just fine. She whirled a neat 180 and bolted right back down the hill.
The trail was not so much a trail as it was three hundred yards of mud. With every leaping stride downhill Feather took, I could feel her hit the ground and slide about a foot. I thought about trying to stop her. I thought about what would happen if my pulling made her slip in that mud on that steep hill. I stayed off her face and let her canter all the way down the hill. We didn’t die. We stopped at the bottom, splattered in mud and soaked to the skin.
I remembered my trainer saying that you shouldn’t reward a horse for being disobedient. I hadn’t listened to a lot that she’d said, but I’d taken that advice to heart. Trembling with adrenaline and anger, I turned Feather back around and kicked her up the hill again. No way was I rewarding by taking her back to the barn.
She slugged up the hill, apparently caught off guard by how far my questionable judgment went. This time, Feather didn’t wait until the top to turn and bolt. She spun around even as I yanked on her and jumped into a canter. It was just as scary going down the second time, and Feather must have been frazzled, too, because she stopped as soon as she could, at the bottom of the hill.
We stood there, looking longingly toward the barn, Feather’s sides heaving, my hands knotted in fists around the reins. Don’t let her get away with it. Better to do a little bit right than a lot wrong. I turned her up the hill once more, an iron grip on the reins. After a few steps, I called it good and turned her around myself. We stopped at the bottom of the hill, and I sat, too shaken to cry. My horse’s hot back steamed, and my fingers and nose were numb with cold.
My grand trail adventure had become a pyrrhic victory over ten feet of mud. I slid off Feather, pulled the reins over her head, and led her back to the barn on foot.