Tracing the Title

BY Haley Kollstedt

My heart thunders in my throat. Little bubbles shoot up my esophagus like raindrops downpouring in reverse. I shove three fingers in the soft divot above my sternum, desperate to make it stop.

“Haley and Tracing the Title, you’re on deck. Be ready at the chute.”

The announcer shatters my thoughts. I hold my breath and look over my shoulder at the team running before me. A half-rearing palomino horse charges into the arena. With ears pinned, he shuffles around the first barrel, then launches into a canter again as he runs for the second. The rider grunts. She clutches the horn and leans so far over the horse’s shoulder that I wonder how in the world she manages to stay on.

“Square breathing.”

“Huh?” I turn to Paul, my horsemanship mentor, who spawns below me on my right. He places a rugged hand on the crest of Frank’s mane.

“Remember the triggers we talked about? Every time you hear your name, you do another round.”

I nod and inhale. 1… 2… 3… 4… Hold. 1… 2… 3… 4… Exhale. 1… 2… 3… 4… Wait. 1… 2… 3… 4…

“Haley and Tracing The Title, You’re up. Last run of the night.”

My chest tightens again. I glance down at Paul, wide eyed, desperate for some last minute reassurance.

“Hey,” he says. His cowboy-hat protrudes from the little window between Frank’s ears.

“Just have fun. It’s the last run of the night. Literally, the last run of the whole show. Give the crowd what they came for. Don’t worry about anything. Just have fun.”

I half-grin. “Thank you, I will.”

During the previous runs of the night, Paul had walked us up to the chute, but this time we went up ourselves– me and Tracing the Title. I reach out a clammy finger and smooth his mane, all aglow beneath the buzzing fluorescent lights. I give him a reassuring pat on the neck. He jumps a little. He’s feeding off of my energy.

I take another deep breath. No, not a square breath, just a single, quick, last minute gulp of air. I think of being back at the barn– clicker training beneath the simmering July dusk. I remember the first time he came under me at the mounting block with no ropes attached. I remember all the times we’ve run side-by-side across the field at liberty, knee-high goldenrod slapping at our legs.

Here, at the Warren County speed show, I want this horse to be known as Tracing the Title. It is the most beautiful registered name I’ve ever heard. Tracing the Title– the offspring of Titleist, one of the greatest Tennessee Walking horses ever to have lived. Tracing the Title, a promise of something great to come– a title yet to be attained.

To me, however, this horse is known by his barn name– Frank. Just Frank. Frank, the terrified nutcase who’d been beaten so bad he would hardly let himself be touched. Frank, the horse that arrived home with his head lifted so high you needed a ladder just to put a halter on him. Frank, the horse that changed everything for me.

In this fleeting moment before takeoff, I remember how far we’ve come. I remember all the mistakes I’ve made, all the times this horse has forgiven me– over and over again. But then, I second guess myself.

I remember where we came from. I think, for a split second, of the risk factors. I could fall and break my neck. I may never walk again. What if I don’t make it? What if this is a mistake? Am I putting Frank through too much? Am I running him too hard? Am I overexposing him? Should I be taking it slow?

My fingers crawl up the reins like two spiders preparing to swing away on a strand of silk. I tighten my grip. Frank stiffens, but his legs are steady. He is ready for this, I realize– far more ready than I am. I narrow my eyes and rehash my last minute checklist. Look for your pocket. Remember to sit. Keep your eyes glued to the next barrel.

Frank steps into the arena. I perch forward (way more than I should), and make a soft kissing noise. That’s all the cue he needs. He leaps up into a canter. Impulse kicks in. I spring into action.

Look for the barrel.

We head for that first can. Are we going to make it? Are we going too fast? Are we too far from the barrel?

Find the pocket.

I sit deep, as deep as I possibly can despite the fact that I want, so badly, to hunch forward. It makes no sense. Why would my body try to protect itself by forcing me to curl up in a ball? Why do my instincts choose a posture that will, by the laws of physics, get me thrown from the back of a horse, as a means of protection? Is it because something in me, a small voice of caution, is desperately begging me to dismount and have a little sanity?

I ignore the thought and grip the horn and my neck-rein in one hand, my direct rein in the other, and crank Frank’s head around. I simultaneously bump with my outside leg. I am not a multitasker. Yet somehow…

He begins to drift off the barrel. It’s the same problem we had earlier tonight. He falls apart on this left turn. He drifts sideways like a feather in a storm. It is as if some invisible wind is pointing his hind end towards the out-gate and blowing us off course. I know it’s not his fault. It’s my fault somehow. It has to be. Nothing is ever the horse’s fault, ever. What am I doing wrong? Am I forgetting to look? To sit? To find the pocket? Am I forgetting to breathe? Am I not adding enough leg? Too much leg?

I lean over the saddle and point his nose towards the next barrel. He’s light to my touch, always has been. I bump his right side, then both sides, and kiss. Yesss! Fixed it! Frank lunges. We throttle towards our target.

A thought flits through my head. Last time, he spooked a little at this barrel. No, it wasn’t a bad spook. All he did was bulk– just the tiniest bulk that resulted in a slow-down so minute nobody but myself and Paul noticed. I whisk the thought away. Frank rounds the barrel with enough precision to cut butter. I smile and send him off towards the top of the arena. It’s time for my favorite part.

Our turn around the final barrel is swooping and balloon-shaped. I don’t care. I’d rather have a wider turn than make a tight one and lose all our momentum. We cut around to the front face of the barrel. There’s no stopping us now, it’s go time. Relying once again on my faulty instincts, I perch way too far forward. At this point though, it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters except home.

I give Frank a tiny squeeze with my calves as though he is an overflowing ketchup bottle, bound to ooze out more than enough for me. He extends his neck. I can feel him beneath me– a keg of dynamite about to explode. My rear-end begins to bounce up and down like popcorn in a skillet. I steady myself, my arms extend to let out the reins.

With each stride, I squeeze two clenched fists on the sides of his neck in a pulsing motion. It helps me find rhythm in the madness. It creates a heartbeat between the two of us, even if that heartbeat only lasts for five seconds. My body ceases to resist.

I melt into the motion and fix my eyes on the gateway between those velveteen ears. Shivers vibrate up and down my arms and legs. There is something about this moment that, despite the chaos, begins to scratch an itch for something I long for, yet can’t articulate. There is this title I trace, a title that nothing in this world could ever satisfy.