I always wanted to go fast.
On a horse, I mean. Ever since I was a kid. Back during my childhood, whenever summer would finally reach Newfoundland, my mother would take me out for our yearly trip to Prince Edward Park, where I’d get to ride a big black mare with a white diamond on its forehead named ‘Bucky’.
I loved those days. Led by one of the riders, we’d walk worn trails shadowed by dense forest for an hour or so before returning to the stable. A stop would usually be made at the playground afterward, and ice cream would follow for the drive back home.
Glorious though it was for a young girl to simply be astride a horse, where she could imagine herself to be a royal princess (though I was more often Zorro or Robin Hood), the thing I most remember from those days was the short, recurrent argument I would always have with the lead rider.
“Can we go faster?”
“Krysta, don’t be rude.”
“Can we please go faster?”
“Sorry honey, you don’t know how to ride.”
“I am riding.”
“But you don’t know how to ride fast.”
I would sit and contemplate this frustrating equine Catch-22. I couldn’t ride fast because I didn’t know how to ride fast. I didn’t know how to ride fast because I’d never ridden fast. Not yet grasping the concept of riding lessons (and the copious amounts of money said lessons and the equipment one would need to take them would cost), this seemed terribly unfair. I was certain I’d ride fast good. In fact, I was probably the best rider that stupid woman had ever seen.
That rider is damn lucky the trail was too narrow for me to pass her or she’d almost certainly have had a situation on her hands involving a thick-headed 6-year-old, her panicking mother and a mad, cantering mare. But because the trail was narrow and the rider set the pace, I made it through my childhood without the experience of clothes-lining myself with a low-hanging branch.
I also made it through my childhood without learning to ride.
Flash forward about 20 years and travel over 4000 km south-east to Monachil, a small mountain town about 8 km outside Granada in Spain. I am at the start of my travels, backpacking in foreign countries for the very first time. I have followed an Australian lover I met in Ireland to Spain via Portugal. We are guests in the cave house of Fred, a friend he met at a commune in India. I don’t know anything about India. It has never occurred to me to go there. It will not occur to me until I do, 4 years later.
Fred’s next door neighbor has horses.
He doesn’t use them. I don’t know why he has them. All I know is he has horses and the country is beautiful and when I ask Fred if he thinks his neighbor would let me ride one the answer is ’20 euro and he’ll take you up the mountain path’.
The wide-eyed little 6-year-old girl inside me went ‘squee’.
His horses were in a very small stable. Straining both my ears and mind to try and follow his quick Andalusian Spanish, I managed to understand the horses didn’t get out much, and were restless as a result. So, before we rode, he would need to exercise them first. After making circular motions with his hands, he handed me the reins of one and began to walk away, motioning for me to follow.
My horse tried to mount the other.
It was (as things mounting other things tend to be) enthusiastic about the idea, and I almost lost the reins. The man irritably shooed the excited stallion off his mare and we continued walking to a sandy lot. As I held on to one horse, he ran the other in tight, fast circles until it was panting. He did the same with the other, saddled them both, and we were off.
The scenery was stunning and the man extremely generous with his time. As we walked, we tried to make conversation. But he spoke no English, and my Spanish was but weeks old, and my known vocuabulary did not include the phrase, “Can we go fast?”
So we didn’t.
2 years more, further south-east still. I am staring into the limestone eyes of the Sphinx with Cairo at my back. A Dutch traveler I’ve just met and I are walking towards the pyramids of Giza down a path edged by touts promising they’ve exactly what we’re looking for. Sweets? Drinks? Stuffed camel toys? Tiny replicas of Tut’s infamous burial mask?
Yes, I will take a horse.
Eddie chooses a camel, and we begin to ride. Our guide is amiable, and talkative. He is talking in English. His English is very good.
We see the pyramids. We take touristy photos.
. . .we take a lot of touristy photos.
We haggle over price. As was often my experience in Egypt, the guide looked displeased, despite our being generous. We begin to ride back.
With every fiber of my inner child twitching with nervous anticipation I ask, “Um. . . can we go faster?”
He glances over at me with a mixture of surprise, confusion and, now that our journey’s almost complete and no further funds seem likely to come to him, slightly bored. He shrugs.
“. . .sure, whatever.”
There will of course be no lessons. So I muster all of my equine knowledge, gleaned from hours spent watching westerns and epic fantasy films, and make a plan. I will flick the reigns, say ‘he-yah!’ and dig my heels into the horse’s ribs. It will whinny, possibly rear up on onto its back hooves, the pair of us a majestic silhouette against the Egyptian sun. We will explode forwards in a cloud of golden dust and ride, gloriously, toward the sand seas of the distant horizon.
‘He-yah’ again. Rein flick. Rein flick. Snicker from man beside me. Furrow of eyebrows. Rib kick.
That does it. The horse goes faster. It gets up to a steady trot before I start sliding off the side of the ramshackle saddle, my eyes going wide and my panicked mind just repeating, over and over again, “Oh God, Christopher Reeve, Christopher Reeve. . . .”
I pull the horse up, and we go slow again.
It is 2 years more, a little more than. Further South, much further East. I am in North Queensland, Australia, at a cattle station named Mellish Park. I am here, now.
PJ has been giving me a lesson, on a horse named Jaspur. I have learned to trot without sliding off the side. I have learned to stop. I have learned that flicking reins as though you’re shaking out a dusty blanket does nothing but piss off the horse. I have learned about proper stirrup length and moving with the rhythm of the horse’s footfalls, keeping my hands low, the reins tight and my posture straight.
We are going for a ride.
With the station at our back and the bush before us, he asks if I feel up to trotting. I nod my head. We go.
Trot trot. Trot trot. I don’t want to ask. I don’t want to seem eager. I still feel that being here is a daydream and worry that if I try to force anything I will wake up or, if this truly is real life, be scolded with a ‘BAD Jillaroo!’ and condemned to stay home while everyone else gets to muster the cattles.
PJ turns to me and asks, do I feel comfortable trying a canter?
A 6-year-old child is eagerly staring out from the eyes of a woman at the end of her 30th year, and she is hungry. I nod. Yes.
PJ’s horse breaks into a gallop and mine quickens its trot. I am uncomfortable. I don’t feel balanced. I’m starting to bounce a bit too much in the saddle and the horse is continuing to speed up. I’m contemplating pulling it up to ask what I’m doing wrong when it happens: Jaspur breaks past the point of his lopsided trot into the smooth ease of an easy canter and my world is suddenly made of glitter.
There’s no bouncing. There’s no nothing. There’s not even a world beyond me, this horse and the wind at my face. I am not riding any longer. I am flying. I am Robin Hood. I am Zorro.
The wind whips the hat from my head and it tumbles into the dust behind me. My tangled hair dances around me, strands tickling the sunburnt flesh of my lips and the stupid smile they’ve formed. With my blood still racing and my heart now singing, I whisper to Jasper,
*I cantered on Jaspur several times more, once memorably at high speed through scrubby bush after a mob of cattle gone rogue, a helicopter above us, its blades beating wind down upon us and sending leaves darting in all directions. My stirrup caught a short tree and I almost spun out from the saddle. I was still wearing the same stupid smile. Except wider.
Eventually I rode a horse named Banch and fell in love even more deeply and wouldn’t ride anyone else after.
I am still at Mellish. I obtained the visa that was my initial reason for coming here, and decided to stay another month more.
I am leaving next week, and am told I cannot take Banch with me, as he would not do well on Sweers Island, and would do even less well in Melbourne.
Despite my protests, it appears we will be parting ways. There will be tears.