Horses: Everything You Never Wanted to Know
Author: Reb Hay

Chapter 5
They Are Way Too Big

‘Any dirt?’ Instructor Woman asks.

‘What?’ I stare at her.

‘On his tummy.’

‘Oh no, he’s good.’ What a relief. I thought she was expecting me to spill the goss on the inmates.

‘Let’s saddle him up then, shall we?’

I wonder who is going to be made to ride him. I was under the impression there were only two inmates and they were already mounted. Maybe there’s a boy here? I think with sudden interest. I’m currently on the look out, back in the game after Todd. Todd the Sod I now call him. Actually I always called him that … after I worked out his name was Todd and not Ted, that is. Anyway he is ancient history and I am officially available.

‘Is someone going to ride him?’ I ask, all innocent, as Instructor Woman lowers a saddle onto his back.

‘Yes. You are.’

I laugh. This has to be a joke. ‘Shouldn’t I be helping out with the kids? I could be leading their ponies for them, watching for any funny stuff, you know—being there.’

It would seem that Instructor Woman is ignoring me. She’s fiddling with The Shitter’s saddle. I might as well be talking to a wall.

‘Ava, let me show you how to do this up.’ She beckons me in close and gets me to reach under The Shitter’s tummy again. I hold my breath so he doesn’t make me sneeze and grab the girth. I buckle it up like Instructor Woman shows me. She’s scarily quiet. 

‘I’m not getting on,’ I say. ‘I don’t care what you say.’ Actually, I just want her to say something. I want to get her arguing. I want be on familiar territory. You know that scene: Mum says, ‘Blah, blah. You say, ‘F— off.’ Mum says, ‘Don’t you dare talk to me like that.’ You say— etcetera, etcetera—and then you storm off, slamming the door behind you. That scene, you know it? Or is that just Mum and me? We’re great at it. We act out that script nearly every day. But Instructor Woman is not playing fair. She’s not saying anything, unless you think, ‘Tighten the girth a bit more,’ counts. I don’t think so.

She passes me a helmet.

‘I can’t wear that,’ I say. ‘It’ll wreck my hair. I don’t want a hat-head.’

‘Put it on.’

Arguably this is the opportunity I’ve been looking for. This is my chance to let rip with a few choice expletives and be fast-tracked out of here. Though, if I abuse the instructor, I might get fast-tracked to juvenile detention rather than counselling.

Now don’t judge me for this. I know you’ll be disappointed. I don’t quite understand it myself but I say nothing. Instead, I push my hair aside to minimise damage and put on the helmet. Maybe I’m over all the fighting. Lost my appetite for it. Instructor Woman’s hand brushes my cheek as she does up the clip under my chin. My breath catches in my throat. I don’t do touch. But, as it was so quick and fleeting, I let her get away with it this time. It could have been an accident.

She leads Ben to a mounting block and I get on, quiet as a lamb. Are lambs quiet? Don’t they bleat all the time? Anyway, forget lambs. Let’s say: I’m as quiet as Mum when she’s dosed up on Vallium. 

‘Do you want me to lead you for a bit?’ Instructor Woman asks.

‘Duh. Do I look suicidal?’

She gives me this funny look. How can I describe it? It’s a bit like—You know that kid in your class, the dorky one with the hair? You know how she gets picked on and her lunch gets stolen and strewn across the yard at least once a week? You know how sometimes you look into her eyes just as her cheese sandwich goes flying past and you think to yourself, life’s a shit. Instructor Woman never says it in words. But I can see it in her eyes—that very same thought.

‘It was a joke.’ I bite my lip and look away. ‘Just lead the horse, will you?’

‘Sure. Walk on, Ben.’

Shoot! When The Shitter moves I nearly wet myself. I lurch like I’m on rough seas. This could give a whole new meaning to motion sickness. I clutch hold of his mane and try to breathe. The ground is further away than I like it to be. Heights and I have a bit of a thing. We don’t get on. The feeling in my chest is achingly familiar. There’s a pounding that starts in your rib cage and tracks upwards to be a throb in your head. It feels very similar to when you are still in primary school and your Mum forgets to pick you up. Or maybe you don’t know what that’s like? Let me tell you just in case you’ve missed that life-enhancing experience. It’s the full double dose—scared and unloved all in one sobbing mess outside the school grounds. The official excuse: caught in traffic. How can cruising along a couple of suburban streets and crossing one set of traffic lights equate with ‘stuck in traffic’? At least lie with imagination, woman. Not that I’m still bitter—much.

Anyway, I’m not sobbing. I wouldn’t give Instructor Woman the satisfaction but I may have just let rip with a quiet whimper, which I am not proud about.

‘All ok up there?’ she asks.

‘Yeah, yeah, just enjoying the view.’

‘Breathe deeply and let Ben rock you. Feel how your body sways with his stride.’

Excuse me, have I just strayed into some zen Buddhist yoga class or what?

I realise that Instructor Woman is leading me to join the inmates. This could be more than a little embarrassing. Both Charlotte and Lily seem to have got the hang of horse riding or at least they are not asphyxiated with terror like myself. Nor are they being led. In the case of Charlotte I would have thought we would be talking OH&S nightmare. From wheelchair to the back of wild beast—does Instructor Woman reckon she’s Jesus or something trying to pull off a stunt like that? Given that she doesn’t look like Jesus, I’d just call it irresponsible.

Charlotte goes past at break-neck speed. That expression just gained a whole new layer of meaning. Her horse is nearly as massive as mine and it seems to have legs going everywhere.

‘Hi, Ava,’ Charlotte calls and waves. 

No, no, don’t wave. Just keep hanging on. I offer an encouraging smile. If I wasn’t so spit-less with fear I would have added an encouraging, ‘Great work, Charlotte.’ If I was on the ground and not 5000 metres above it, I could be really helpful.

‘Should I hop off now and help with the kids?’ I suggest to Instructor Woman. 

‘Let me lead you a few times around the arena and then, when you’re feeling relaxed, I’ll let you go.’

‘Excuse me!’ I know a lot about not being listened to. My Mum, for instance, she never listens. But this—this is worse than not being listened to. This is a deliberate ignoring of my screaming body language, which is clearly stating: ‘Get me off this beast before I die of a heart attack!’ What does she want? Tears? Well—she’s not getting them. I don’t do tears particularly not in front of the inmates. Cry in front of them and I die tonight. Shut up in a room with them—I know how the jungle works—they’ll form a pack and turn on me.

I survive lap number one and then lap number two. The throbbing in my head dies down and I rediscover breath. It is easing in and out of my lungs almost in rhythm with The Shitter’s stride. After a third lap, I unfurl the cramped fingers of one hand and then the other. ‘Knuckles white with fear’ is not just a funny metaphor, you know.

At the completion of lap number four, Instructor Woman unclips The Shitter and stands back. ‘Tell him to “walk on”,’ she says.

Like hell, I will. I press my lips into a very tight, very disapproving line. I am not saying anything to anyone. Least of all a horse.

‘Walk on,’ Instructor Woman commands and The Shitter sets off like a trained monkey.

I once borrowed Mum’s car for a laugh. I’d watched a You Tubevideo so I knew how to drive. I backed the car out of the driveway as smoothly as a pro. But then the thing started off down the hill. I eased my foot onto the brake, as the You Tubevideo had instructed, but nothing doing. Or should I say—way too much doing and no stopping! I pressed my foot harder and harder until I was virtually jumping on the pedal. The back of a parked car was the only brake I found that night. Turned out, I’d watched a video on how to drive an automatic and Mum happened to drive a manual and I had clamped my foot hard to the floor on the clutch. Mum didn’t see the funny side. 

Anyway, back to the situation at hand—where the hell is The Shitter’s brake? I haven’t got any pedals to choose from and the straps in my hands look as helpful as ribbons on a birthday present.

I will not do tears. I will not do shrieking. I will not threaten to ring DHS. I will do calm. Stupid Instructor Woman—I’ll show her. Lap number five is an epic journey of self-control. I force myself to feel my breath, to fill my lungs and let the air all out again. Slowly. Slowly. The Shitter’s gait is steady, his rhythm unchanging. I know better than to look down. Instead I fix my gaze on the middle distance, between his ears and think about something else. Or, as it happens, someone else.

Todd, Toddy, Todd. He was the sort of boy only mothers would love, all nerdy and pimply and more Pretzel than Dorito. It was never going to work. A disaster from the start. I don’t know what he was thinking even trying. Like what—exactly—did we have in common? Not a thing. Zilch.

The Shitter, after an interminable age, completes the circuit and halts in front of Instructor Woman. ‘You did it,’ she says.

I shrug. But inside, I’m tripping. I did it. No stuff ups. No failures. No pain.

‘Why don’t you give him a pat?’ Instructor Woman suggests.

I carefully move one hand to The Shitter’s neck and stroke him, all the hair, all the right way.

‘I think that’s enough for today, girls.’ Instructor Woman opens the gate. Charlotte and Lily guide their horses back to the hitching rail. I let The Shitter follow on behind. And I breathe.


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