We moved to Vancouver Island when I was ten. One of the selling features for the new location offered by my dad was horses – I could learn how to ride. Lessons arranged, I showed up at the barn on Saturday morning. The group lessons had started the week before and so the trainer gave me the last horse available – a 16 hands tall beast named Jet. I needed a leg-up to get into the stirrups.
Jet controlled the show. He wandered into the middle of the ring when we should have been trotting in a circle. He stopped whenever he wanted, sauntered to the side of the barn, nuzzling the turf for stray bits of hay. The trainer yelled at me constantly “Take control.”
At the end of each lesson I hauled off Jet’s saddle and blanket and brushed him. My head hardly reached the top of his butt. As I brushed, he swung his head around to watch, one ear up, one ear down. The situation felt like when my mom scratched my back and I wanted her to move left or right or up or down and she never hit the sweet spot. I feared his hooves. I quit the lessons.
My sandaled feet turned the colour of the pretty Palomino mare whose flank I stroked. As I walked around the informal paddock – trees with tethered horses – deciding whether or not to go on a trail ride through the hills on the outskirts of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, the dust covered my calves and made them look like the socks on some of the horses.
Shorts and sandals don’t make good riding gear so I opted for a swim off the back of a boat in the quiet bay nearby. I dove in and immediately felt the sting that drove me back out of the water like a flying fish. A welt the size of the mouth of a teacup rose on my thigh. The boat owner gave me some ice and a beer. I lounged on the deck and watched the circle on my leg rise, volcano-like and chugged the beer to quench my fear.
Mist drifted off the ocean over the Todos Santos sand dunes and hovered on the far side of the dirt road. I watched its progress and wondered if it would reach me a few hundred yards away. To do so, it would have to travel across a piece of desert sharp with thorn bushes and cacti. It held to the beach side of the road which is probably why I noticed the horse.
He stood still, profiled against the white gauze, and gazed down the road. A white pick-up truck approached. A man got out. The horse bucked and reared and stomped the ground between them. The man stepped towards him and the horse walked into the desert. The man stood there for a while and then paced along the road while the horse neighed and nickered at him. After 15 minutes the man got back in his truck and drove away.
By ten o’clock the sun had burned away the mist. The horse crisscrossed the road all day, head down, grazing on something in the hardpan.
At 4:30 the man came back on foot. He called the horse and the horse came. The man walked down the road with the horse following behind. No rope held them together. Who was in control?
Yes, it was probably best that I chose to swim that day in Puerto Vallarta 22 years ago.