Monday, July 1, 2013

the feather and the arrow

The air smells of growing corn and cut hay, last year's dust and this year's wishes. 

Sadie, our white German Shepherd (or, to be more accurate, our son's white German Shepherd :)), follows me to the pasture with mischief in her eyes and trouble in the brush of her tail. I snap my fingers and tell her to sit outside the gate; she sighs and drops to her belly, resigned but whiny. She hates it when I walk amongst the horses. She would rather chase them, herd them, drive them away from me. But she lays in the patch of grass by the gate like a good dog should, and waits for me to get bored.

Gypsy and Maisy, the two Grumpy Old Mares, doze in the shade of the cedars. They stand nose to tail, almost but not quite touching. Like flame and shadow, one blazing red and the other a fading black.

Brisa nickers at me, impatient for attention. She shoves my hand with her nose and then takes two steps back - clever pony knows she isn't supposed to push my personal boundaries, but she thrives on physical contact and affection. This is the compromise we've reached - she can (politely) nudge, but then she must back up and wait for acknowledgement. 

I climb the gate, because who has time to unlatch and relatch a mustang-proof lock? I rub the little white feather mark on her soft, soft nose and scratch behind her ears and between her legs and beneath her belly and the base of her tail, and she sighs and snorts and lets her eyelids droop. Her lips twitch and soon she's almost dozing.

I have my saddle with me, because today is supposed to be a Riding Day. But she looks so blissfully happy and in the meantime Ranger has approached and stands behind me, quietly waiting.

I turn and lift my hand, slowly, offering him a rub and a scratch too. He cocks a leg, flicks an ear, purses his lips and thinks about it. After all this time, he still isn't sure he is meant to be tame. Trading wind and wildness for human touch and free carrots isn't, always, a deal he likes.

But we've gotten to know each other in the years we've spent together, and lately he has changed his mind about some things. Today he bends his proud neck and breathes into my palm. I run my hand over the arrow on his lip, the star on his forehead. I untangle his knotted mane and smooth my hand across the whorls of his crushed-velvet coat - I've never seen a horse with hair like his, growing in all different directions, but I think he's beautiful.

I offer him the saddle because, with a horse like him, you can't tell or ask or order. You offer, and wait, and hope, and know that if you've done your work well he will accept. And he does. Ranger nods his head - I swear he does, twice as if to be clear - and I don't bother with a halter or lead because once he gives consent he means it. He stands while I set the pad across his back and place the saddle and adjust the stirrups and fasten the breastcollar. He stands while I tighten the girth and stretch his legs and smooth the cowlick of hair just above his withers.

I'm curious, now, about what we might do. I climb on without a halter or bridle or sidepull or bosal - it's just me on his back and my hands in his mane and my soul filled with the scent of his sweat. I'm half-afraid because this horse - this wild, wild horse - is spooky and distrustful and yet also the bravest, noblest, most earnest horse I've ever met. He worries, and now I'm on his back and feeling vulnerable. I know he might panic and dump me off and I'm thinking about my ankle and my hip and my middle-aged bones and knowing I'm making a mistake even as I feel my face grin.

He tenses, braces, raises his head and pins his ears. I can feel that moment - that compression of a second - where all the energy in the world is contained within his body. His muscles quiver and I'm just about to jump off when he breathes and the quicksilver ebbs. Softness fills the space left behind and he steps off, lightly, carefully, his ears flicking backwards to make certain I'm okay and still with him.

We walk, and trot, and wander the pasture - he goes where I look, my hands balanced lightly on the base of his neck, my hips melting against his back. 

My ankle starts to ache and when I take my feet out of the stirrups Ranger spooks - just a small skiff sideways, a step and snort and tail-swish, but the spell between us is broken and I can feel him twitching. Perhaps I've pushed my luck far enough. I let him stop and I slip off, thanking him for the ride. He stands and waits for me to remove the saddle, to brush the sweat off his back, to check his hooves and legs, and then follows me back to the gate. 

He watches me, and when I lift my leg to climb back over the gate he nudges my hand - once, with slow deliberation - and then takes two steps back.

He never does this. This is Brisa's trick. Ranger is all about dodging, evading, escaping touch.

I step toward him, hand raised, and he lowers his head to the ground. He lets me rub him everywhere - everywhere - and when my arm gets tired he curls his neck around to rub my back with his lips - softly, so, so, softly - and then he breathes his clover-breath into my hair and backs away.

When I was a girl I dreamed of a magic horse.

And now I think I've got something even better, because this? This is real magic.

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