Always looking up at the sky, her earnest face searched the southern French skies for her father’s plane. He was due back from Peru any day now, she said. She knew each plane by owner and color. Whose was whose and whose was not. A pale, make-up-less face peering from behind a wild mane of dark, unruly curls. Lisa is 15 but with all the confidence and independence of a woman who has been on her own for 35 years. Bounds of childlike energy with an air that demands respect not only from horses but from everyone.
The day was bleak - the sky grey and the earth brown, barren trees and muddied fields. I had been living in Eaunes in the South of France for approximately 5 days and today was the first I’d done any living. Everything was cold and wet, dismal. Even the white coats of the horses were muted, matted with caked brown earth.
I hadn’t seen a saddle since I’d arrived at this place and my heart raced as we approached the horses without them, but I followed Lisa with a false confidence never-the-less, willing an aura of horsemanship credibility that I had promised but absolutely lacked.
She tossed me a bridle and lead and nodded towards Telissa - preposterously tall and proud, her chin held in the air, jerking away from me each time I tried to fit the bit into her mouth. She hated me already. I watched as Cochise ran towards Lisa, the stumpy and short male of the three, a fat canvas of reckless white and brown paint. The pony had been given to Lisa as a child and he rejoiced in her homecoming. Eagerly, he allowed her to fit him with the reigns. Failing miserably with Telissa, Lisa stepped in and struggled with the youngest, untamed, white lady for me, bridling her and handing me the lead, I followed as she led Cochise out of the messy field, undressed and unsafe.
“Mom wants you wear helmet,” she said tossing me a classic English, her sentences broken and restricted. I put it on without hesitation albeit noticing that she did not have one on herself. “Try get on,” She instructed while holding Telissa’s lead still.
Laughing nervously, I looked from her collective face, porcelain and cloaked in youth under a black hood, to Telissa’s white coat high above my sight line. Um ok.
“Go,” she nudged. Three embarrassing jump attempts had me bouncing off the horse’s side backwards as Lisa giggled.
“I show you,” she said sweetly as she backed up and with a fistful of Telissa’s silver mane, swung her body on top of the great beast. “Now you,” she dismounted.
Several failed attempts that left me feeling at least 700 pounds and not the least bit athletically coordinated had Lisa lending me her hand as she hoisted me atop Telissa’s back.
We started off slow as Lisa assessed my bareback skills, which were little to none. (And by little I mean once. And by once I mean nearly dying in a Fijian stampede.) I held my head high and did all I could to look in control but my body swayed with every step of the horse beneath me, each of her hips sending mine upwards, swaying left to right. Side by side, I looked down at Lisa, my feet at the level of her seat on the pony.
“She feel what you feel,” Lisa cooed from Cochise once front of me, “You need feel peace.”
I was terrified. The woods were muddy and the trail scattered with fallen branches. Telissa tripped over the rocky downhill terrain constantly, stopping at a whim and turning on will, determined to dispute any commander. Riding without a saddle was worse then riding a bike without peddles, a motorcycle without breaks, a rollercoaster without a seat; like driving a car with your hands tied behind your back. My legs hung limply against her muddied white sides and Lisa’s boots hung off my heels, far too large for my feet. With every sway of her hips, my body rocked, unbalanced and unsure. With no stirrups to brace myself in, every trip of her feet sent my legs instinctually clenching around her sides to keep myself afloat, sending her mixed signals that I wanted to go faster. I did not want to go faster.
“Desimo,” Slow. I repeated as she pushed to trot.
“She know if you scared,” Lisa called back and I strained to make out her words soaked in a French smog. “You think oceans and calm days and she feel that.”
Telissa’s knees buckled underneath me reminding how high and fragile I was atop her - completely at her mercy. I watched as Lisa yanked and scolded her pony in commanding French, owning this wild horse completely. Closing my eyes, I breathed in deeply - all the fear and uncertainty- envisioning the slow lapping of breaking waves on an abandoned beach, the caress of soft sea breeze against my face- swallowing the feeling and breathing it out slowly, demanding that it leak through and out of me, trickling down through the horse, calming both of our nerves. Over and over again.
Dusk began to fall and the mud trenches of the uphill climb had the horses sliding and begging to turn around. Lisa called out a command in what must have been her mother’s harsh German, slapping the backside of Cochise, urging him forward and I reluctantly pressed Telissa to follow, although completely on the horse’s side and inwardly begging to turn back. With every slip of the hooves in the sinking mud and heart-dropping buckle of the knees, my life flashed before my eyes. Breathe in. Ocean waves. Warm sand. Soothing breeze. Breathe out.
“Okay we switch,” Lisa hopped off of Cochise at the top of the hill. The gutted trail stretched forward before us in a slow and steady increasing slope. I looked down at her confused. “Switch. We run now. Galoper” She urged.
My eyes grew wide and I shook my head, realizing what she meant, “No, I’m not ready.”
“You good balance. I watched,” she nodded in reassurance.
“I’m scared,” I laughed to mask my panic. All of my insides clenching up in pure fear. Falling off of a galloping bareback horse on a beach in the open was one thing, but here in the woods with the fallen tree branches and muddy hills was entirely another. All the lies I had told Ursula on our first Skype meeting to obtain this helper position piled up in my head like sudden overdue library books. Yes, I’ve been riding all my life. (Once a year on a guided walking tour where I don’t have to do a thing.) Yes, I’m comfortable riding bareback. (Once. A few months ago on a beach in Fiji and almost killed myself.) Of course I am comfortable riding alone when you are away. (Never have I done such a thing.) These were not the American stable horses I had ridden before. They were anything but. Wild through and through, just so happened to be owned by people but free to roam the land, resisting any control what-so-ever.
“Oui,” Lisa nodded calmly against my resistance, her feet in the mud with Cochise’s reigns in her hand. He pulled against the lead, back tracking and stumbling, pushing forward, eager to run. “They know galloper here always,” she responded in answer to the horse’s eagerness.
I had no choice now. Lisa was either trustworthy or completely reckless and I couldn’t decide which but there was nothing to do now but to obey. Alone in the forest with this girl I had just met who I could barely communicate with and a horse who hated me that I absolutely could not communicate with. I relinquished Telissa’s reigns to Lisa and dismounted; the borrowed. oversized rain boots sinking into the mud underneath my feet. With no one atop them, the horses bucked and yanked against us; Lisa’s arms stretched between the two holding both of the reigns. The mud beneath us like a river sliding - a quaking foundation - and my heart raced harder. Everything in me told me to refuse this but there was no way back but to ride. Lisa crouched and locked her hands next to me, and propping my left knee in them, she sprang me atop Cochise. He immediately disliked me, resisting anyone but his beloved Lisa, tramping in the mud, hoof after hoof, shaking his head and yanking against the bit, dark hair like fence wire whipping against my arms in a temper tantrum.
We struggled to get a footing on the incline, Cochise and I, while Lisa attempted to mount a rebellious Telissa, and suddenly I was relieved to at least be given the smaller stouter Cochise in comparison to the white haired wild beauty.
“You grab some hairs, like this,” Lisa nodded to her own fists, her hands on the rains, open palms and spread fingers, she clutched the horse’s mane at the roots, “You hold tight.Won’t hurt them.” I craned my neck backwards watching and waiting as Lisa situated herself atop Telissa, steadying her rampage. She was stomping like a race horse behind the gate waiting for the gun to go off but Lisa didn’t seem to notice. She spoke calmly and patiently.
Before I had time to turn and tangle my own finger’s in my beast’s mane, it was too late. Cochise took off, thundering weight against the slinking earth, beating loudly into my chest. My feet flapped against his brown and white stained sides as I bounced above his back, desperately resisting squeezing my legs around him - God forbid he go any faster. I yanked on the reigns, pulling backwards, begging him to slow but to no avail. Terror flooded through my veins. I couldn’t hear Lisa behind me. I could see nothing but brown forest, nakedly cracked and aching trees leaning in on each other above my head like death traps, I ducked out of the way as the path curved and waned in-between them. Completely out of control with no ocean waves or calm breeze within me. White knuckled, I clutched my fingers deep into Cochise’s salt and pepper mane at the roots and closed my eyes. I was immediately anchored into his strong body, mine pressed down against his, I leaned forward, opening my eyes, now secure, as he led me wildly through the forest at speeds I had never imagined reaching, propelling us forward, leaping through the air.
Holding myself steadfastly against him now, I let it all consume me. No longer was I clumsily bouncing along against this creature, but gliding with him. I felt wild. Insane. Instead of falling through the sky at a million miles an hour, I was flying. We were one. Man and beast. Rising and falling together. Our breath heaving through our chests in rhythm, punctuating grunts each time we hit the earth again, the weight sending pressing punches against my lungs like a dropped beat. I could feel the overwhelmed smile spreading through my being before I knew it was on my face and I if I had any breath to laugh with, I would have. For I was truly, completely and wholly alive. Finally.