“The tragedy of life is what dies inside a man while he lives.” ~ Albert Schweitzer
July 4, 2001
I know an old cowboy. His blue eyes sparkle when he talks to me. “Where’ve you been girl?” I stare at the ground, knowing there are no words to describe the barren places I’ve occupied lately. “Why don’t you come ride with me sometime?” he says. The sun hurts my eyes as we stand outside in the parking lot of the farm supply store. I hesitate and shift a bag of chicken feed from one hip to the other trying to formulate a response. He’s the kind of person that wouldn’t understand not wanting to live, so I agree to go on the pretense of not wanting to have to explain not living.
The next day I am standing next to one of the tallest horses I’ve ever had the privilege to ride. Her name is Cheetah. Running a soft brush over her sleek muscular body I start to anticipate the ride. Harrold and I pass the afternoon on horseback, riding through fields of tall prairie grass, meandering through dry creek beds, galloping up steep embankments. I feel the saddle creaking beneath me and a sheen of sweat darkens the mares’ necks in the summer heat. We pull our horses beneath the shade of a mulberry tree and pause there to pick the ripe sun-warmed fruit. The sweet, sticky juice stains my fingers and lips. From Cheetah’s back I can reach the dark purple berries. They are perfect and delicious.
In the months that follow, I let Harrold’s horses carry me through my own personal “valley of the shadow of death.” Harrold follows me through that valley. I think he knew all along that I needed an escort out of that dark and formidable place. I think he knew I needed a fire lit under me and that Cheetah had it in her to light it.
“Horses get bored just like people” Harrold tells me.
So we drive cattle and take rides down by the river. We go out for long moon-lit walks after dark in the snow or take treks through the hilly pastures, winding our way over fallen trees and splashing through small streams. The older horses get ridden when we need to break the “green” ones as we pony them through plowed fields and knee high lavender blossoms of alfalfa. Our favorite thing to do though, is to let our horses run.
We have raced the mares a time or two before. I can feel Cheetah pulling at the bit of her bridle when Harrold’s mare, Sugar, gets a few paces ahead of her. That’s’ my cue.
“Harrold, this mare sure feels good today.” I hint.
He looks at me with a knowing wink, and tips his head in the direction of the road ahead of us. “What’dya say? From here to that driveway up there?”
I fix my eyes on the spot indicated and reply, “You’re on!” and I swear Cheetah knows what we are talking about because immediately she starts prancing, her body tense and her hind legs coiling up beneath her like springs.
On Harrold’s count of three we “GO!” and our horses bolt like lightening. The mares are neck and neck at first. I never even kick Cheetah in the sides… I just lean forward and let her run. When Sugar starts to pull ahead by about a half of a horse length, I lay on Cheetah’s neck; still not kicking her but gently pulling my legs in tight to her sides. I use my voice to encourage her. “C’mon Cheetah, Come on!” “Let’s go girl- they’re beating us!” She seems to catch the fervency in my voice and I feel her stretch her neck out and her whole body is flattening lower to the ground. We are flying and the thunder of her hooves and surge of muscle beneath me are exhilarating. In a flash she has pulled ahead of Harrold on Sugar and we win our back road derby. We stroke our mares on the neck and walk them to cool down.
On the slow ride back to the ranch Harrold looks at me and Cheetah with admiration and says, “Boy that mare’s got a lotta want. Look how proud she is!”
I know. I can feel how she carries herself. Her head is curled around like a swan and her feet step high and light with this little bounce that wasn’t there before.
“I told you she feels good today,” I remind Harrold.
He nods and smiles. He knows it’s more than that.
“It’s easy to run races when you’ve got the want. Lots of people try to live without that,” he says, “but not me. I can’t live like that.”
He pauses. Then he looks at me squarely in the eyes, like only a cowboy can, and says “and neither will you.”
“There is nothing so good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse.” ~Ronald Reagan
“When God wanted to create the horse, He said to the South wind, ‘I want to make a creature of you. Condense.’ And the Wind condensed.” ~ Emir Abd-el-Kader