A gusting wind shook the fall leaves from the trees and the cold air was a flurry of oranges, reds and yellows. The canopy was quickly yielding to the cloud-streaked sky. Bending branches swayed and shuddered. Already some were bare. Everywhere, everything was in motion, driven by a vocal, northerly wind. Leaf piles lifted, flew and swirled, then resettled into the calmer corners of the farmyard. Goldenrod stems bowed, their dried flower-tops shattering one another as they twisted and quivered and then tumbled into the air with Milkweed silks and seed shafts from Joe-pye and Purple Aster. Dust devils of feathers and hay whirled in the chicken yard. A barn door swung and flapped. The noise, the wind and the motion spooked the horses nervously pacing the paddock. Dust swirled in circles around their feet as they fretted.
Brother-in-law Dick spoke calming words as he approached the wooden fence of the paddock. He patted the face of one of the horses leaning over the fence. A second horse came over the fence and nipped gently at Dick’s green coat sleeve until it also had his face patted. “They’re a little jumpy today,” he said. “Must be the change in seasons they sense. It won’t be too long before they’ll be cooped-up for the winter. A good run will do ‘em good.”
Dick slid the rickety door on its rollers and the three of us entered the barn. The barn had been used for decades to house dairy cows. Though it had been five years since the last cow spent time here, the barn was still sharp with the odor of cow manure. The smell of fresh hay was also in the air as the coming winter’s hay bales had only recently been put into the upstairs mow. The barn was tidy, the ancient whitewash on the columns and beams had been swept clean and kept that way since the departure of the cows. Stalls for the horses had replaced the milking stanchions on part of one side of the cavernous room. Stanchions lined the opposite side. Saddles and other paraphernalia for horses were neatly arranged on one side of the room that Dick called the tack room.
The horses crowded into a single stall closest to the door, and three heads curiously peered over the top board to see what was going on. Gretchen approached them and put her hand out to pat one. The horse lunged at the outstretched hand and attempted to bite it. Dick slapped it hard as a punishment. Its ears went back and the animal snorted. A second slap and the other two horses turned and retreated to the paddock. The offending horse snorted again, shook its head and glared at Gretchen out of one eye. Not wishing a confrontation, Gretchen turned and started to move away. The horse struck. It grabbed Gretchen’s hair that lay in a long braid on her back, snapped its head and threw her to the floor. The horse then bolted the stall and ran to the far side of the paddock. Stunned, Gretchen stood up, brushed herself off and felt the back of her head to see if her hair was still attached. She was unhurt. Surprised, but not hurt. Dick ran into the paddock and made an attempt to punish the horse, but was only able to chase it around and not get close enough to be a physical threat. Returning to the barn, he asked about injuries, apologized profusely and shook a fist at the unrepentant horse.
“That’s Sir Rah, my wife’s horse,” he explained. “He’s the oldest. He’s cocky and has my wife's temperament. Somehow he feels threatened by you guys and took it out on the first thing he could. Unfortunately, Gretch, you were first. It’d be best to watch out for him while you’re here. He may not be done.”
At that point, prudence should have dictated that we suspend plans for a horse ride, but Dick reassured us that the other horses were gentle, and that he would ride Sir Rah and keep him restrained. Dick persisted and we consented.
Gretchen was to ride Eleana, a chestnut colored Morgan. She and Sir Rah had wed a couple of years ago and produced a foal. She was due again in the spring.
I was to ride Jerry. Jerry was a retired racehorse, steel gray with no tail. He appeared to be a tired, old swayback. He had been spared the dog food factory after he left the race circuit and been given to Dick as payment for some artwork. He seemed to be a gentle horse to Dick, he was passive in the pasture and got along well with the other horses, so he agreed to take him. Jerry hadn’t been ridden since his move to the farm, but Dick had put a saddle on him several times and Jerry hadn’t complained. Nor did he this time. Even Sir Rah behaved when it came time to be saddled, though Gretchen and I kept well away while that was happening. Dick led all three horses out of the barn and partially closed the door to keep it from flapping in the wind.
We walked the horses slowly down the to the end of the drive and onto the dirt road. Dick was in front, then Gretchen, then me. Jerry was fine. He walked with his head lowered and kept up with the others without any encouragement on my part.
After a couple of minutes on the dirt road, Dick prodded Sir Rah into a trot and Gretchen and I did the same to our horses. The three of us trotted a mile or so to the crest of a hill, where we all stopped to admire the view. We were at the end of a long valley. The valley sides were a beautiful patchwork of farm fields and woods. The colors were magnificent against the darkened sky. Dotted about were old farmsteads. In the valley bottom was a creek and a small settlement of houses and a whitewashed church. Dick said that this was Wetona. The tiny village had once been a bustling farm town with a famous horse-racing track. Not much was happening there now. From where we sat, Wetona was as pretty as a postcard.
As we gazed, the wind came up and a cold chill went down the center of my spine. I hunkered down into my coat. A gust rattled the Maple tree beside us and a blizzard of orange leaves rain down upon us. Sir Rah spooked and stood on his back feet. His front hoofs hit the ground with a loud clap, apparently like the sound of a starter's pistol to Jerry's ears because Jerry bolted. I had been inattentive, gazing at the valley and hadn’t noticed that Jerry had pointed his nose toward the farm and was now heading home at breakneck speed. His initial charge threw me off the saddle and back onto his rump. My feet were still on the stirrups, but I had dropped the reins with Jerry’s initial jump and grabbed at the saddle-horn and held on with both hands. Jerry was at full speed. Racehorse speed. I felt myself slipping off his rump, his stub of tail was in my crotch. I pulled myself up a couple of inches with the saddle-horn and squeezed his belly as tightly as I could with my legs. That caused him to go faster. I squeezed tighter and Jerry went faster. The faster he went, the tighter I squeezed to stay on. That only seemed to make him go faster. He made the turn at the farm drive and I pitched onto his right side. My left foot slipped out of the stirrup. I was going to fall off and die, I thought. I thrust my weight onto my right foot, pushed hard on the stirrup and squared myself on Jerry’s rump. I looked up just in time to realize that the horse was headed for the barn and the door on the barn was open only a couple of feet, not wide enough for Jerry to get through, I didn’t think, and certainly not Jerry with me on his back. I ducked and closed my eyes. The horse hit the door opening dead center and at full speed. This was the finish line. Jerry’s shoulders splintered the rickety boards on both sides of the opening and my knees did the same. Once inside the barn, Jerry skidded on the concrete and came to an immediate stop. I did not. My momentum carried me back onto the saddle, through the saddle-horn and onto Jerry’s neck, about mid-mane. I came to rest eye-to-eye with my mount, my arms hugging his neck. My right foot was still in the stirrup. I swung my left leg over and fell off of the horse. I was shaking so bad that I couldn’t stand up. Jerry nonchalantly grazed on a bale of hay.
Outside I could hear Dick and Gretchen ride up and they rushed into the barn to see if I was still alive. Once satisfied that I’d not broken anything except the boards on the side of the door, I stood up, slapped Jerry on the rump and thanked him for the ride. On the shaky walk back to the farmhouse, Dick exclaimed “Holy crap, man, that horse had all four hoofs off the ground a couple of times.”
I knew that. I glared back at Sir Rah. I somehow felt that he was responsible for spooking Jerry and for my wild ride.
Don't care much for horses any more.