2018 Piper J. Klemm Emerging Authors Prize
BY NOA LEIBSON
They were the ugliest horses I’d ever seen; the pony-sized mongrels grazed on the rough terrain without care, and those that grew bored chewed on the ropes that held them, saliva rolling down their whiskered muzzles and all over the herdsmen that kept them awake. The first one I picked had a white-speckled muzzle, just like one of the notable mounts of Genghis Khan. A herdsmen tossed a saddle specially made for their flat backs, and I was off. But everything began to hurt earlier than I expected, and I didn’t care as much when I picked my other mounts that first day as we raced across the steppe.
My last mount of the day was a muscled little pinto with a cropped mane and braided tail. He perked his ears when the other mounts bared their teeth, and not wanting to get tossed off and die, I decided he was my best bet.
I picked up a trot and headed towards some rocky hills. It was a far cry from my regular ventures in the states, my jumper mount swapped for an ancient pony breed, my refined show clothes exchanged for camping gear and duct-taped thighs, as they’d already begun chafing. I wanted to feel the warmth from those who lived forever ago, but instead I only felt sweat and pain. My family tried to warn me against it.
“It’s not like anything you’ve known, Yisu,” they told me.
“I know,” I answered, and I left all the same.
Maybe they were right. Maybe the fundraisers, sponsorships, and endless hours training all held up nothing but a fantasy. Maybe the Mongol Derby wasn’t what I was actually looking for. Maybe it wasn’t who I was at all.
“Hey! Whooooa there! Over here! Hey!”
The yelling returned my focus. I snapped my head in the direction of the voice, and my eyes landed on a young man in riding gear running towards me, but completely horseless in the middle of nowhere. I trotted towards him, and when I got closer, I noticed a cut on his cheek and patriotic red, white, and blue colored clothes and kits.
“Oh thank goodness there’s someone, I- oh! Oh, you’re… Uh, s-sain, sain u-u, uh…”
He attempted to speak Mongolian. It had to be because of my face. “Oh! I’m an American. What are y- wait, are you wearing Ralph Lauren?”
He brushed dirt off the immaculate gear. That was when I recognized him not only as another rider in the Mongol Derby, but a fellow American and only other A-circuit rider as well, a boy named Otto. He was fresh out of his junior years, years that brought endless success, season after season filled with the nicest hunters and jumpers, medal final finishes on his resume. I’d seen him around. He was aloof, always keeping his chin in the air, those blond curls of his always kept and tucked into his spotless helmet. He spent the training days for the derby cracking jokes and cringing at our mounts. We came from the same place, but I didn’t understand him. I couldn’t see why he’d come to this place.
“Yes,” Otto snapped. “Listen, the little chestnut mare I picked got all emotional on me just a few minutes ago, and she stuck her head right in the ground and tossed me. I mean, their necks are so short, how could I have sat to that? How could I? Regardless, the little demon just bolted, and I mean bolted towards the rocks over there, but I’m just one dude, with two dumb little legs, and I really have nothing on some wild pony that was birthed out of the steppe, and I’ve lost her.”
“First mistake,” I chimed in, “you picked a chestnut mare.”
“Yes, yes, very funny, I know. I thought she’d be fast and spicy. She’s fast, but she’s too spicy, the habanero. Anyway, would you mind helping me out?”
I exhaled, irritated at the thought. “What could I possibly do?”
“I know which way she went. If you maybe could just spare a few minutes and give me a boost, it’d mean the world.”
“A boost? This horse is tiny. It’s going to be dark soon. Haven’t you got your panic button?”
“Please,” Otto’s face sank. “She’s got all my gear, and if she’s gone, then I’ve already lost the race by the first day. I need to do this.”
I need to do this. I didn’t believe him, but I still shrugged and said “fine, hop on.”
“You’re an angel,” said Otto, and he scrambled aboard. “I’m Otto, by the way.”
“I know,” my quiet voice nearly disappeared on the growing wind. “I’m Yisu.”
“Otto. Oh! I already introduced myself!”
“Are you concussed?”
“Hopefully, it might numb the pain. This saddle is rubbing me wrong in bad places. Luckily, I’ve got duct tape.”
I raised a brow. “So you learned that trick too.”
“The Aussie taught me that. Hey, go down that route. That’s where she took off.”
I picked up a slow canter, and Otto instinctively grabbed a hold of me, his hands around my waist. I picked up one of his hands gingerly and placed it back on the straps of the saddle. His other hand then followed. He coughed, then I coughed, and we went about for a few moments in silence. I caught a glimpse of hoofprints on the dirt surrounding the rocky hills, but there was no sign of the chestnut mare.
The sun brushed the sky with red, and I knew darkness was just around the corner. We were so close to the next urtuu, a checkpoint, but if we were caught out, we’d be forced to stop and camp anyway. I was towards the front of the pack. I couldn’t allow that.
Otto turned his head and looked out at the rolling steppes, the grasses dancing and whispering secrets of those who had come and passed hundreds of years ago. They held so many stories, stories that I’d only been told, ones that could only be passed down and that could only exist in the way a horse gallops and the warmth in a rider’s chest when they follow. Otto sighed and began to hum a tune that sounded familiar, but I couldn’t name it.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“One of the herdsmen was singing it,” he answered and put a hand out to stroke the grasses when we passed them. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s nice.”
“I think it’s a lullaby. I’ve heard it before.”
“How can you tell?”
“Never mind. The hoofprints are going towards those trees.”
Otto put his hands back on the saddle. “You’ve taken me plenty far. I can get off.”
“No, it’s fine.”
The silence continued, and my little stallion’s breath seemed to form a beat with the drumming of my own heart. Every time his legs came off the ground, there was a touch of electricity in my veins. My form melted into his own, his canter, and I thought he was more delightful than he was an hour ago.
I thought to my fellow rider behind me, to his fine, jumper clothes he’d barely modified for the journey, to the incredible sum he had to have paid to get out of his realm of comfort. But I felt him behind me, and I felt how he, too, naturally sank into the strides of my steppe pony, and how he gazed at the mountains and the grass instead of simply honing his attention to our GPS.
He wiped at the blood on his cheek that he’d only just noticed. “This place has a lot of secrets, doesn’t it?”
I slowed to a trot. “Why are you here?”
“The Mongol Derby. Why’d you sign up? It’s nothing like what we do in the states.”
“That’s not true. It’s the same for me.”
“The horses,” his voice quieted, too. “What we do with them. You know, there’s that feeling you get on every single one, every time you gallop, or jump, or anything. You know that feeling?”
I stuck my hands in my horse’s tangled mane and nodded.
“It’s everywhere here,” said Otto. “This country was made by it.”
I knew exactly what he was talking about. He began to describe it, but I reflected on it, too. His words faded into the horizon as I glanced down at my dirty, gritty pony, and still understood. Of course. It was why equestrians stayed, why they chose to devote their lives and devote their time and suffering to a sport that could be so draining. It was why kids stayed up watching videos of their favorite riders, why they begged their parents to go to shows only to watch, simply to exist there. It was why the sore-kneed amateur left their day job to go straight to the barn despite the hours of night, for it was the only time they could go, and without it they’d never rise from bed. It was why the professionals chose to make horses their forever despite people who didn’t understand well enough yelling at them blaming them hating them for the imperfections horses had, the same imperfections that kept them so interesting, that kept their riders so young.
That feeling. It was a lightness in the chest, a deep heartbeat. It was the little sting that came with acceleration, the cold that came when all four hooves lifted, then inevitably tore up the ground. It came with the jumps, when a horse rises with inches to spare, when a rider’s hands snag the mane so as not to completely lose their balance and fall, another Icarus. It created the smiles on rider’s faces when they accelerated and accelerated, when those hooves kept hitting the ground with more momentum, more speed, a gallop, a gallop that riders say is the way they want to die, because nothing is more fleeting, more free. It was the greatest sickness. It was poetry.
“Are you alright?” Otto asked me as I sniffled.
“Yes,” I shot back, “some bugs just got in my eyes.”
“What about you?” he asked.
“Same as you, I suppose.”
I went to a halt so to check for more signs of the lost horse. “I was adopted from Mongolia when I was very small.”
“So I wasn’t completely off in mistaking you for a local.”
“No. But because I wasn’t raised here, I had no idea how the people and the horses here were, or who I even was, my ancestry, you know? I do jumpers in the states. I love the speed. But, I didn’t see other people like me, those who looked like me or came from this place. I didn’t know who to look up to, or who to be. I was doing one thing, but my heart was telling me another. It said… well it said ‘go see those places from the stories, Yisu.’ So I saved up, I got the sponsors, got the… look, it’s not so different here, is it? I took a plane here, and now I’m on a horse, and you’re right, you’re right because horses are horses and anyone who thinks some are better or worse doesn’t understand what it is between us, do they?”
“You had every right to feel that way.”
“I… The sun is really coming down. We haven’t got much time. Do you see her?”
“I’m looking, I’m- there! Look! See that?”
I peered where Otto pointed and saw the red, ambling form moving amongst the sparse trees and long grasses. My hands tingled and my heart began to race.
“I’ll gallop as fast as we can go,” I whispered. “Try and grab her.”
“Fly,” he told me.
I pressed my horse forward and the landscape blurred. He bolted forward despite already going several kilometers on the rough terrain, but suddenly that meant nothing, not to the breed that conquered nations. He flew, but then the chestnut mare galloped forward too, and the ground was torn up as the mad chase began. I weaved through the trees and guided the little pinto like I thought my ancestors might, and then we gained, gained, broke even…
She was fast, faster than my horse. The trees grew sparser and with the grasses being an open chute, we could not catch her. Otto beckoned us on, leaned forward to break the wind. The sun melted against our horizon, and that mare was red, redder than any color I’d seen, her coat shinier than any jewel. She shone like a beacon against the sky that suddenly appeared so much darker than it was before. Night called out and tried to put the daylight away, but then there was another light, a glow of a horse and rider, the emergence of someone else.
I glanced left just in time to see the new rider pull out a colorful, curved bow. Even with the fading light I could read their form, and the rider was a woman, small and light like me, but she was a woman in ceremonial dress the same color as her dun pony. Her form blurred against my own vision, but I noticed her notch an arrow to that creaking bow that only released once all four of her steed’s hooves were off the ground, a moment frozen in time, a moment the stories talked about, a moment that resulted in an arrow pinning the chestnut mare’s reins to one of the trees.
The mare slid to a stop, and Otto leapt off of my steed and grabbed her just as she tugged the reins back into her control and tried to bolt again. Otto patted her at the same moment as I stroked my own horse, and I slowed the stallion to a walk as I looked over my shoulder in awe. I wanted to grab the hand of the woman and shake it, certainly ask her who she was and how she learned how to do that, but I lost sight of her.
“Did you see…” my voice trailed off as I frantically looked about. “Tell me I didn’t… I… what?”
Otto swung himself into the saddle of his horse and wasted no time. “Wasn’t someone there? I couldn’t see too well. I was a bit smushed into your back.”
“There was…” but I replaced words with breathing. I blinked my eyes closed and pictured her long strides and flowing dress. My eyes grew glossy. “Otto, I think we’re dehydrated.”
“Are you crying?”
“Yes,” I stared into the sun. “This is crazy. I can’t feel my legs, but it’s so good, and this place is really creeping me out, but we’re on horses and it’s so… it’s so… good.”
Otto smiled and pointed to the path we came from. “Come on. We’ve got half an hour to make it to the urtuu.”
We set off at a brisk walk for the horses to catch their breath. Otto dabbed at his cheek and fidgeted, but turned to me once we rounded the biggest rocks.
“Hey, want to partner up?” he asked. “The Aussie recommended doing that as well.”
“Sure,” I smiled. “Just try and stay in the saddle in the future.”
We set off at a trot, sore, thirsty, bloody, and loving every second of it. That was the way of the Derby. And that was the way of the horse.
The inaugural $2500 Equestrian Voices Creative Writing Contest celebrated stories written by and for horse lovers from all over the world. We were inundated with amazing narratives about triumph, loss and the deep emotional experience that is being with an amazing horse. To learn more about the 2019 contest, visit theplaidhorse.com/write.