My horse's feet no longer touched the ground. We floated over the
dusty, powdery surface as we responded to the ringmaster's instructions.
The noisy crowd, the dusty arena, the other horses and riders, all
disappeared. We were in a featureless, peaceful place, as if we were
riding within clouds in the sky, a universe where boundaries intermingled,
merged, dissolved. The horse and I were one, in thought, in action,
in being. My thoughts were her only commands as we reacted to the
ringmaster's instructions without consciously hearing them. I felt
my heart open and expand in the bliss of this ineffable experience.
It felt timeless, yet it was not. Eventually the ringmaster called
the riders to line up in the center of the arena to await announcement
of the winners. I gradually became aware of the voices of the crowd,
the jingling bits, the snorting horses and the muffled shuffling of
their feet stirring up the tan dust. I nudged my mare into place,
feeling a bit dazed but relaxed and calm. Even my horse was calm and
quiet, standing square and still. She displayed none of the excited
dancing that usually accompanied a sudden end of activity.
While my mare was a sweet-natured horse, she was young, energetic,
sensitive and not easy to ride. She definitely was not a "pushbutton"
horse and not the usual type for a moderately green rider like I was.
My riding instructor was surprised at how well we seemed to work together
when I tried her out before buying her. That didn't last long after
I bought her, though, and we had many instances of frustration and
miscommunication that upset us both. To call our performance rough
is exceptionally kind.
However, over time, with a lot of hard work and sweat, we learned
a lot from each other. I discovered patience and self-control and
trust; she learned trust, self-confidence and calmness. We would still
make mistakes but when we did, she was forgiving if it was my fault
and she seemed to understand when it was her fault. Then we'd try
again, without the emotional disturbances and upheaval we once would
have had. In due course, during the 20 years we were together, we
developed an affection and interdependence that's hard to describe.
However, all of this came about only after our remarkable experience
and, I suspect, was a result of it.
This episode occurred during a local horse show that we entered nearly
30 years ago, now. It was a typical Texas summer day, bright, stiflingly
hot, humid, and dusty. The guest judge was a woman known nationally
for her strictness and tough requirements and I was eager to ride
for her. Nevertheless, even before the competition my horse and I
were already displaying our tension by our awkward performance in
the warm-up ring. Almost nothing was going right.
Our competition class would begin very soon. Hoping to take the edge
off our nervousness, I went behind the show arena to a lane overgrown
with tall, sere grass that stretched away up a low slope for half
a mile or so and I set my mare into her ground-eating canter. We could
do this one thing well.
We burned off the adrenaline that was causing our jitters but my timing
to return to the arena was a bit off. The last of our group had already
entered the ring and the gate was closing. To add to my revived anxiety,
several hecklers who thought my English style of riding was amusing,
if not ridiculous, decided to block our way with their quarter horses
and make sport of us. I quickly realized reasoning with them wasn't
working and I desperately plunged my heels into my mare's sides. She
surged forward and our harassers parted like water before the prow
of a boat. She was a very big horse.
The gate had nearly closed when we thundered through it at a strong
trot. My horse's neck was arched, her head high, and her power evident.
We were a great contrast to the riders already in the ring. They plodded
along, their horses in a lazy heads-down walk, as if peering nearsightedly
at the puffs of dust blurring the outlines of the feet of the horse
ahead of them. I saw the judge's head whip around toward us. Her eyes
locked onto us, and my heart sank.
Hoping to avoid that intense stare, I tried to tone down our action
and blend in with the others but every time I'd sneak a peek at her,
her eyes were boring tunnels at us through the choking clouds of rising
dust. She never let up. As she began to put us through our paces,
I quit worrying and simply rode. After all, I'd already blown it.
No longer trying to impress her, I just concentrated on doing the
things I knew to do but wasn't always able to, like keeping a light
touch on the reins and sitting quietly in the saddle.
Nearing 30, I'd come late to learning to ride and it wasn't uncommon
for the more experienced local teenagers to outperform me. One 17-year-old
girl in particular almost always took first place, practically a forgone
conclusion. I, on the other hand, could look forward to maybe a fourth
place or even a third, if lucky. Mostly, I was interested in seeing
how much I improved from show to show. Moving from sixth place to
fifth to fourth, etc., was very gratifying.
When, on this unusual day, we received the first place trophy, I wasn't
elated or even surprised as I walked my horse forward to get it. I
was a bit surprised that I wasn't surprised and I even felt vaguely
guilty about not being surprised. All I felt was a serene sense of
rightness. Afterward the 17-year-old wunderkind came up to me and
rather than congratulating me she simply said sharply, "I didn't
ride worth shit today." She jerked her horse's head around, gave
it a swift kick in the ribs, and off she went.
Although her inelegant remark took me by surprise I had to lower my
eyes and try to hide my grin. I knew that she'd probably ridden as
well as or better than she usually did. It simply wouldn't have mattered.
Our perfect oneness wasn't just in my mind; it was visible to others,
too. If we'd not even placed, though, I wouldn't have cared. Our ride
had been its own reward. For that perfect time there had been no time,
no effort, no dust, no heat, no other horses and riders. I was about
to say, "There was only the two of us," but that's wrong;
there was only the One of us.