When Grandpa-down-the-hill was a young man, there’d been herds of livestock spread across the mountain, and they were tended on horseback. Grandpa’s ranching horses were the stuff of legend. Seasoned as old leather, they moved their burly bodies delicately, as if guided by the rider’s thoughts.
At least, that’s what I was told. I never saw them. As Grandpa got older he ranched less and farmed more, until one day he stopped farming. He had no need for horses, so he sold the ones that had value and set the rest loose. They multiplied, and by the time I was born there was a whole herd of wild horses on the mountain.
Richard called them dog-food horses. Once a year, Luke, Richard and I would help Grandpa round up a dozen or so to take to the auction in town, where they’d be sold for slaughter. Some years Grandpa would look out over the small, frightened herd bound for the meat grinder, at the young stallions pacing, coming to terms with their first captivity, and a hunger would appear in his eyes. Then he’d point to one and say, “Don’t load that ’un. That ’un we’ll break.”
But feral horses don’t yield easily, not even to a man like Grandpa. My brothers and I would spend days, even weeks, earning the horse’s trust, just so we could touch it. Then we would stroke its long face and gradually, over more weeks, work our hands around its wide neck and down its muscular body. After a month of this we’d bring out the saddle, and the horse would toss its head suddenly and with such violence that the halter would snap or the rope break. Once a large copper stallion busted the corral fence, smashed through it as if it weren’t there, and came out the other side bloody and bruised.
We tried not to name them, these beasts we hoped to tame, but we had to refer to them somehow. The names we chose were descriptive, not sentimental: Big Red, Black Mare, White Giant. I was thrown from dozens of these horses as they bucked, reared, rolled or leapt. I hit the dirt in a hundred sprawling postures, each time righting myself in an instant and skittering to the safety of a tree, tractor or fence, in case the horse was feeling vengeful.
We never triumphed; our strength of will faltered long before theirs. We got some so they wouldn’t buck when they saw the saddle, and a few who’d tolerate a human on their back for jaunts around the corral, but not even Grandpa dared ride them on the mountain. Their natures hadn’t changed. They were pitiless, powerful avatars from another world. To mount them was to surrender your footing, to move into their domain. To risk being borne away.
The first domesticated horse I ever saw was a bay gelding, and it was standing next to the corral, nibbling sugar cubes from Shawn’s hand. It was spring, and I was fourteen. It had been many years since I’d touched a horse.
The gelding was mine, a gift from a great-uncle on my mother’s side. I approached warily, certain that as I moved closer the horse would buck, or rear, or charge. Instead it sniffed my shirt, leaving a long, wet stain. Shawn tossed me a cube. The horse smelled the sugar, and the prickles from his chin tickled my fingers until I opened my palm.
“Wanna break him?” Shawn said.
I did not. I was terrified of horses, or I was terrified of what I thought horses were—that is, thousand-pound devils whose ambition was to dash brains against rock. I told Shawn he could break the horse. I would watch from the fence.
I refused to name the horse, so we called him the Yearling. The Yearling was already broke to a halter and lead, so Shawn brought out the saddle that first day. The Yearling pawed the dirt nervously when he saw it; Shawn moved slowly, letting him smell the stirrups and nibble curiously at the horn. Then Shawn rubbed the smooth leather across his broad chest, moving steadily but without hurry.
“Horses don’t like things where they can’t see ’em,” Shawn said. “Best to get him used to the saddle in front. Then when he’s real comfortable with it, with the way it smells and feels, we can move it around back.”
An hour later the saddle was cinched. Shawn said it was time to mount, and I climbed onto the barn roof, sure the corral would descend into violence. But when Shawn hoisted himself into the saddle, the Yearling merely skittered. His front hooves raised a few inches off the dirt, as if he’d pondered rearing but thought better of it, then he dropped his head and his paws stilled. In the space of a moment, he had accepted our claim to ride him, to his being ridden. He had accepted the world as it was, in which he was an owned thing. He had never been feral, so he could not hear the maddening call of that other world, on the mountain, in which he could not be owned, could not be ridden.
I named him Bud. Every night for a week I watched Shawn and Bud gallop through the corral in the gray haze of dusk. Then, on a soft summer evening, I stood next to Bud, grasping the reins while Shawn held the halter steady, and stepped into the saddle.
SHAWN SAID HE WANTED out of his old life, and that the first step was to stay away from his friends. Suddenly he was home every evening, looking for something to do. He began to drive me to my rehearsals at Worm Creek. When it was just the two of us floating down the highway, he was mellow, lighthearted. He joked and teased, and he sometimes gave me advice, which was mostly “Don’t do what I did.” But when we arrived at the theater, he would change.
At first he watched the younger boys with wary concentration, then he began to bait them. It wasn’t obvious aggression, just small provocations. He might flick off a boy’s hat or knock a soda can from his hand and laugh as the stain spread over the boy’s jeans. If he was challenged—and he usually wasn’t—he would play the part of the ruffian, a hardened “Whatcha gonna do about it?” expression disguising his face. But after, when it was just the two of us, the mask lowered, the bravado peeled off like a breastplate, and he was my brother.
It was his smile I loved best. His upper canines had never grown in, and the string of holistic dentists my parents had taken him to as a child had failed to notice until it was too late. By the time he was twenty-three, and he got himself to an oral surgeon, they had rotated sideways inside his gums and were ejecting themselves through the tissue under his nose. The surgeon who removed them told Shawn to preserve his baby teeth for as long as possible, then when they rotted out, he’d be given posts. But they never rotted out. They stayed, stubborn relics of a misplaced childhood, reminding anyone who witnessed his pointless, endless, feckless belligerence, that this man was once a boy.
IT WAS A HAZY summer evening, a month before I turned fifteen. The sun had dipped below Buck’s Peak but the sky still held a few hours of light. Shawn and I were in the corral. After breaking Bud that spring, Shawn had taken up horses in a serious way. All summer he’d been buying horses, Thoroughbreds and Paso Finos, most of them unbroken because he could pick them up cheap. We were still working with Bud. We’d taken him on a dozen rides through the open pasture, but he was inexperienced, skittish, unpredictable.
That evening, Shawn saddled a new horse, a copper-coated mare, for the first time. She was ready for a short ride, Shawn said, so we mounted, him on the mare, me on Bud. We made it about half a mile up the mountain, moving deliberately so as not to frighten the horses, winding our way through the wheat fields. Then I did something foolish. I got too close to the mare. She didn’t like having the gelding behind her, and with no warning she leapt forward, thrusting her weight onto her front legs, and with her hind legs kicked Bud full in the chest.
Bud went berserk.
I’d been tying a knot in my reins to make them more secure and didn’t have a firm hold. Bud gave a tremendous jolt, then began to buck, throwing his body in tight circles. The reins flew over his head. I gripped the saddle horn and squeezed my thighs together, curving my legs around his bulging belly. Before I could get my bearings, Bud took off at a dead run straight up a ravine, bucking now and then but running, always running. My foot slipped through a stirrup up to my calf.
All those summers breaking horses with Grandpa, and the only advice I remembered him giving was, “Whate’er you do, don’t git your foot caught in the stirrup.” I didn’t need him to explain. I knew that as long as I came off clean, I’d likely be fine. At least I’d be on the ground. But if my foot got caught, I’d be dragged until my head split on a rock.
Shawn couldn’t help me, not on that unbroken mare. Hysteria in one horse causes hysteria in others, especially in the young and spirited. Of all Shawn’s horses, there was only one—a seven-year-old buckskin named Apollo—who might have been old enough, and calm enough, to do it: to explode in furious speed, a nostril-flapping gallop, then coolly navigate while the rider detached his body, lifting one leg out of the stirrup and reaching to the ground to catch the reins of another horse wild with fright. But Apollo was in the corral, half a mile down the mountain.
My instincts told me to let go of the saddle horn—the only thing keeping me on the horse. If I let go I’d fall, but I’d have a precious moment to reach for the flapping reins or try to yank my calf from the stirrup. Make a play for it, my instincts screamed.
Those instincts were my guardians. They had saved me before, guiding my movements on a dozen bucking horses, telling me when to cling to the saddle and when to pitch myself clear of pounding hooves. They were the same instincts that, years before, had prompted me to hoist myself from the scrap bin when Dad was dumping it, because they had understood, even if I had not, that it was better to fall from that great height rather than hope Dad would intervene. All my life those instincts had been instructing me in this single doctrine—that the odds are better if you rely only on yourself.
Bud reared, thrusting his head so high I thought he might tumble backward. He landed hard and bucked. I tightened my grip on the horn, making a decision, based on another kind of instinct, not to surrender my hold.
Shawn would catch up, even on that unbroken mare. He’d pull off a miracle. The mare wouldn’t even understand the command when he shouted, “Giddy-yap!”; at the jab of his boot in her gut, which she’d never felt before, she would rear, twisting wildly. But he would yank her head down, and as soon as her hooves touched the dirt, kick her a second time, harder, knowing she would rear again. He would do this until she leapt into a run, then he would drive her forward, welcoming her wild acceleration, somehow guiding her even though she’d not yet learned the strange dance of movements that, over time, becomes a kind of language between horse and rider. All this would happen in seconds, a year of training reduced to a single, desperate moment.
I knew it was impossible. I knew it even as I imagined it. But I kept hold of the saddle horn.
Bud had worked himself into a frenzy. He leapt wildly, arching his back as he shot upward, then tossing his head as he smashed his hooves to the ground. My eyes could barely unscramble what they saw. Golden wheat flew in every direction, while the blue sky and the mountain lurched absurdly.
I was so disoriented that I felt, rather than saw, the powerful penny-toned mare moving into place beside me. Shawn lifted his body from the saddle and tilted himself toward the ground, holding his reins tightly in one hand while, with the other, he snatched Bud’s reins from the weeds. The leather straps pulled taut; the bit forced Bud’s head up and forward. With his head raised, Bud could no longer buck and he entered a smooth, rhythmic gallop. Shawn yanked hard on his own reins, pulling the mare’s head toward his knee, forcing her to run in a circle. He pulled her head tighter on every pass, wrapping the strap around his forearm, shrinking the circle until it was so small, the pounding hooves stood still. I slid from the saddle and lay in the wheat, the itchy stalks poking through my shirt. Above my head the horses panted, their bellies swelling and collapsing, their hooves pawing at the dirt.