Reprinted with permission from Tin House
It was an early morning like any other at the upstate polo club: Danny, Carlos, Victor, Leah, and I were readying the ponies for the gallop track. I was put on a horse I’d never ridden named Tequila, who, from the moment we left the stable, nerved and twitched beneath me with unbridled energy. I could feel her exuberance and restlessness through my tack as we danced out of the barn with the extra horses at our side.
“I’ve got a runner,” I yelped, hoping that if I voiced my fear, I’d be better equipped to fight it. But true to form, none of the grooms acknowledged my doubts, because it would only coddle those doubts into becoming an actual problem. Victor had told me time and time again that he would never put me on a horse I couldn’t handle, and I reminded myself of that as we headed out to the track, repeating another mantra that my coach Alison was always yelling at me: “Believe, Courtney! Believe!”
Believe and breathe, I thought. Don’t let her feel you’re anxious. But Tequila’s energy only mounted as we approached the racetrack. I was too embarrassed by a scenario in which we all had to turn back so that I could switch horses to try speaking up again. Inconveniencing my friends was a greater mortification than having mounted an animal that was too much horse for me.
But once we hit the track, I knew I was in trouble. Tequila’s head was high, her steps prancy. Her mouth pulled at the bit and her body surged. I managed to control her at the walk, but as our trot approached our fourth lap, when we habitually moved into the canter, she strained at the tack. We burst into a canter that soon became something else in the slow-but-fast-moving way you recall an accident. I can still feel my own reckonings with the quickening pace: This is fast, but is this too fast? Yes, it is too fast. We were racing by this point, Tequila, a high-goal polo pony, at a professional-grade gallop, faster than that, actually, because she had my panicked legs goading her on. Later, the grooms would tell me that I was clenching her too tightly: when the going gets rough, that’s when you relax. This proved to be a challenge on the gallop track with three horses on a line.
Around and around we went, the other barns’ grooms yelling out, “¡Más despacio!” as we whizzed by. “¡Tengo un problema!” I knew enough to answer. “I’m in trouble!” I called out to Danny when I overtook his string, as well. My team’s speed was worsening, not slackening. I had so many horses with me and we were going so fast: whatever accident befell me, it was going to be bad. I hadn’t known slow, predictive fear like that since I saw the tree our car was headed for during our pivotal crash, a fear nearing hysteria, a fear so belly-deep it almost made me laugh. If I fell at the speed that we were going at, I would be trampled, if not by my own ponies, then by one of the strings behind me. I tried to breathe but couldn’t. My body was ramrod-straight, my chest pitched forward (which only made those horses faster), my belly in my throat, all signals of distress that further freaked the horses. We were tearing up the gallop track, pushing by the other grooms, several of whom had come to a full stop to try and sort out what to do. Even though the nylon lead lines were cutting into my hands, I refused to drop the ropes. I couldn’t lose those horses—they could run off, panicked, toward the main road, injuring themselves or someone in a screeching car. I figured if we just kept circling the track, Tequila would eventually stop, wouldn’t she? But she was a trained polo mount, trained to go until she dropped—literally—to the ground; if I couldn’t stop her, she might not stop herself.
We were going so fast my eyes were tearing, every pace for-ward a new launch down a roller coaster. My stomach felt as if it had been hollowed out and replaced by an eel that was sucking at me and electrocuting me at the same time. I looked down the far side of the arena where the entrance gate was, wondering if I couldn’t figure out a safe way to fall, when I saw that Carlos had halted his horses and was arranging all six of them in a line across the track, effectively creating a wall out of horseflesh. Tequila knew these horses, exercised every day with them. She wouldn’t recoil in terror, and there wasn’t a path forward—I couldn’t jump my string of horses over Carlos’s. We would have to stop. We did.
I was choked up when we halted, from fear of course, but also from the realization that one of those grooms was going to lead me back to the barn, watch me put away the horses, and tell me that I could never ride with them again. My proud cover was blown—everyone on the track that day had seen what an amateur I was.
But that wasn’t what happened. Victor had me ride the same string of horses behind him and Danny for a few laps at the canter. That was all he said: “Again. You get behind us and you do it again.” This approach to riding—the get-back-in-the-saddle attitude—is something that separates horse enthusiasts from real horse people for me. It feels callous when it happens to you—my heart was racing, my pulse still in my throat as we picked up that canter—but making me do the exercise over was a public act of forgiveness and inclusivity, a nod to the fact that we all lose control and make mistakes, sometimes. That what had happened was part of riding, that it wasn’t a big deal. That they let me keep riding with them, that was the big deal.
“What happened, nothing happened,” Carlos said, shrugging, when I flouted our new rules and hugged him once we’d dismounted at the barn, thanking him for nothing less than the saving of my life. “No pasó nada,” he repeated, blushing. “You stayed on.”
And I did stay on. I didn’t let the horses go. “You were going fast,” Danny laughed. “I would have let go of them. It’s because she had her grain.” He pointed to the bucket Tequila had been eating out of before I rode her.
“It’s because you were gripping her,” said the less euphemistic Victor, who accompanied this statement with a grimace and fists curled. “You have to … relax. Breathe, you let go a little. Don’t hold on to them so tight.”
My rigidity and panic were a disappointment to us both. I wanted so terribly to break on through to the other side, to a place where I could become relaxed in the face of fear. I wanted to build up to a riding ability where the more unsettled my mount was, the calmer I became. Where I sat back instead of forward in tense moments, and breathed fluidly instead of holding on to breath.
Victor—ever the intuitive when it mattered—could see that I was near tears. “You need to get better, and you’re not riding a donkey,” he said, reaching for a post-ride beer out of a cooler. “These horses have blood. You have to be more open.” He reached across the trash barrel that separated our chairs and touched two fingers to my heart. “You have to be more open here.”
Excerpted from The Year of the Horses: A Memoir
by Courtney Maum. ©2022 by Courtney Maum
*This story was originally published in the April 2022 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!
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