A broad field, barely visible from the road, sat just behind the arena. A quiet breeze tickled the grass, bending the blades to its will. The bleachers surrounding the arena were quiet and casted early morning shadows on the field. The few movements that did happen at this time were from the contestants, who busily groomed and warmed up their horses for the long day ahead. Within the sandy arena beams and walls were set angularly, outlining the course the riders would be required to perform.
My tall black boots stole morning dew from the grass and it left tear streaks on my toes as I walked through the field towards the arena. The chilled gate to the arena screeched when I pushed it open. My gloves stuck for a moment to the icy metal, but then were released. The sand in the arena made a soft “koosh” with every step I took. I centered myself and counted with my steps, pacing equally from jump to jump to determine the number of strides that separated each one. Frilly plants and ribbons with all kinds of distracting bright colors adorned the jumps and shifted unpredictably in the wind. The judges knew that an undisciplined animal or rider would startle from such movement. The course held many possible challenges. The triple left no room for error since only one stride separated each jump from the next. A sharp turn in a deep corner could slow the pace down and waste a few seconds. Tight corners and overlapping jumps could be dangerous. All of the competitors were whispering about the brick wall, nearly six feet tall and two feet thick, and no mercy to whatever ran into it. My back began to ache just thinking about it.
“Are you sure you’re ready for this? These walls can be pretty unforgiving,” said the tall older woman who ran the stables. Her eyes creased and revealed her age while she inspected me and my horse, Ellie. “You’ve never jumped a wall this high before. I just don’t want you to get hurt.” Her eyes rounded to show her concern and she seemed, for a moment, to be a sweet lady that baked with her young grandchildren, although I knew she never had children. She had horses.
“I think we’re ready,” I said. We had jumped fences that high before and my youthful cockiness was at an all time high. “Aren’t we, Ellie?” I said in a baby-voice reserved only for her. I pressed my cheek against hers, wrapped my arm under her head, and placed my hand on her face.
“These walls don’t topple as easily as fences with rails do. Walls are built sturdy and heavy,” she warned, looking down at her coffee while she stirred it.
“But if Ellie clips her hoof on it, it’ll still fall,” I said.
“Yeah. It’ll fall because she hit it from the side, but that thing isn’t going anywhere if you go sit on it.”
“What could happen that would make us land on top of the wall?” I asked.
“I don’t know, but I’ve seen a lot of things I never thought I’d see around horses.”
“I think we’ll be okay. We’re a darn good team. Aren’t we, Ellie?” I said patting Ellie’s neck.
“Well if you feel that way about it, then I’m sure you’ll be fine. I think you should try it,” the lady said raising her cup of coffee to us and nodding.
I eagerly got on Ellie and jumped over some fences we had been practicing earlier in the day. We turned and headed for the wall. Her strides were perfectly spread to have us jump with enough space to clear the wall. I felt like nothing could ruin this shining moment. We were only one stride away. I squeezed tightly with my legs and leaned forward in the saddle with my seat no longer touching Ellie’s back. I was ready to soar through the air, but Ellie stopped and stuck to the ground, and sent me in a front flip over her head and landed me directly on top of the wall. I wished someone would put me out of my misery. My heart was racing and I couldn’t catch my breath. I wondered if I could move, but I was afraid and lay still. My helmet felt too tight around my chin. I still couldn’t breathe. Shouting faces blurred in my eyes. Ellie stood looming over me with her nose pressed to my stomach until a stable hand came and led her away.
Tied to an old, rusty horse trailer, in that grassy field, Ellie danced: ready to run, ready to jump. I placed my hand gently on her face. She breathed deeply. The worn tack was polished to look new and expensive the way it once was. Still, it looked much older than the lively creature that wore it. As I pulled down the metal stirrups they chimed in the air and left noise that didn’t belong with the beating noises: beating hearts, beating hooves, beating lungs.
I took the bridle in one hand and gently eased the bit into Ellie’s mouth with the other. She chomped on the foreign piece of metal for a while before letting it settle behind her teeth. I laced the reins in my fingers and placed my foot in the stirrup slowly. Carefully I eased my weight onto her back and found our center of balance. My feet felt safe in the stirrups: much safer than they did on the ground. Ellie’s contagious energy spread from my toes through my tightened legs and up my well-postured spine.
While we went over some warm up jumps, Ellie took gingerly strides, not as long as usual. I thought there could be a rock in her hoof. We stopped and I jumped off which sent pains, the kind of sharp pains you get from jumping off a swing with cold feet, running up my ankles. The pain subsided as I focused on Ellie. “What’s wrong, girl? Can you show me?” I firmly ran my hand down the back of the leg she was favoring. She shifted her weight for me and I lifted her leg revealing a sharp pebble wedged into her hoof.
I hobbled slowly past the filled stalls in the newly painted barn towards Ellie. When I got to Ellie I stopped and stared at her and she playfully put her head out reaching for me the way she always did when I paid her a visit before bed. I shied away from her. I didn’t want to pet her, to pet that thing that had done this to me. I shied the way she had shied from the wall. Ellie kept reaching her head towards me, but I stood just barely out of her reach. I leaned forward slightly and her nose hit the hard brace that the doctors had wrapped around my torso. When she felt that cold, stiffness her head suddenly retreated back into her stall. I didn’t feel the way I once had. “See what you’ve done to me girl? Why would you do this?” My tears fell so rapidly; I gave up trying to wipe them away. It hurt to lift my hands anyway. “Weren’t we friends, Ellie? Didn’t you love me?” I shouted. I opened the door to her stall and went in with her. She wasn’t used to hearing such loud sounds come from me. I wasn’t used to it either. I slapped her at hard as I could in my condition and I kept slapping her and yelling at her. I didn’t care that hitting her was causing me more pain than her. My back and neck seared with stabbing pain, but I kept beating her. Tears blurred my vision so I couldn’t even see where I was hitting her, but I didn’t care. I just wanted her to hurt the way I hurt.
A pair of arms pulled me away from her. “It’s ok. It’s ok.” The arms consoled me and turned into a hug. I cried into those arms for a while before looking up to see whom they belonged to. They were that stable hand’s arms: the one who had led Ellie away when I got hurt. “There was a rock. Ellie had a rock in her hoof. That’s why she didn’t jump. She was hurt.” I looked up at him for only a second and then stared at the woodchips that covered the stall floor to hide my shame. I began to cry different tears and shake with different sobs. I reached out to Ellie who seemed unsure of my raised arms, but I wrapped them around her neck and whispered, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry, Ellie. I should’ve known. Forgive me.” I heard the stable hand exit her stall and walk down the hallway. My body collapsed from weeping. I had no more energy to give that day. Ellie carefully lay down next to me and kept me warm.
The rock was stubborn in coming out, but I soon got it loose. Ellie placed her foot back on the ground eagerly the way a sailor who hasn’t seen land in years kisses the earth.
“Better girl? Do you feel better?” I asked, rubbing her leg. I got back on and we finished our warm up. I felt her muscles under me and the pressure I felt from her body painted a picture in my mind of what we looked like. The arena was now bustling and the once silent bleachers now creaked and cracked from the heavy feet of onlookers. The announcer had been updating the crowd on each competitor’s score for the past hour. Five pairs had completed the course, but not a single perfect score was handed out yet. The dance to this course was not loopy or kind, and the trick was to make it elegant. That’s what really impresses the judges.
Our insides weren’t cold anymore, but the air was still chilly and it nipped at my fingertips. It was our time. Our hearts were beating so loudly, I swear the crowd could hear. Through that same screechy gate, we trotted as I bridled our energy. We circled the course in preparation and with a kiss to the air we quickened to a canter.
The rush cleared our mind. Four strides to the first jump. One, two, three, four. Lift. We held our breath until we land back on the sand. Clean. Her ears framed our next target: a jump about four feet wide, meant to test distance and not height. It was covered in pink peonies and purple and red striped ribbon. I knew this part would be a challenge and she knew it too. Lift, breathe, hold, clean. Tightening my legs, we hurried to keep our time competitive. We turned and I shifted my balance slightly to guide her. Quickly a deep corner came and a nudge behind the girth told her she needed to move quickly. Only three strides to the next jump and in order to make it, we needed to increase our stride by about a foot. I couldn’t hear anything except the beating things: beating hooves, beating hearts, beating lungs. The crowd seemed to be silent, but I could hear Ellie’s hooves throwing sand at my boots. My hands felt a pulse through the reins from Ellie’s head that moved up and down slightly with each stride. No one moved except us and even the clock stopped ticking.
We approached the brick wall. My back began to throb and my neck muscles tightened. My heart skipped. She heard it. Ellie’s breath evacuated before mine and I could no longer hear the sand thrown to my boots. The crowd was roaring. Ellie jerked her head and each beat became a stomp and we ran jagged. I searched desperately for the beating noises that had filled my ears, but all I found was clatter. I breathed deeply and begged her forgiveness. We had three strides to go. One, “I’m sorry, Ellie. I’m sorry… for everything.” Two, Ellie took a deep breath, I almost smiled. Three, lift. We seemed to be in the air for minutes and much higher than we needed to be to clear the jump. Koosh.
After we got over the wall, nothing else seemed difficult. We finished our dance for the judge and I could feel the pressure of his eyes on us. We circled three times to cool down, each time slower, each circle bringing back more and more noise that clattered in our ears and jarred us. Cheers and clapping bashed into our brains and separated us. Clean.
~ Ashley Dye