State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
When I was about 15 my sister, Jill—a trophy-festooned equestrian—took me horseback riding. I was uneasy with the whole deal because I’ve always been scared of horses. Always. As a seven-year-old I’d lived on Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming. That being Cowboy Country (and Missile Country, but that’s another story), it was deemed culturally de rigueur to have the children on the base learn something about horses, so my parents moved me like a helpless pawn into horseback riding lessons. Every lesson was a nightmare in which I sat astride a foul-smelling, crapping colossus, my ill-fitting little blue jeans parted like a baggy wishbone to either side of a beast so massive my dumb little legs were nearly perpendicular to my torso.
Pegasus Was a Jerk
I know literature and art sympathetically portray horses as magical creatures, spirit guides, and emotionally available companions. I also know that when Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney convene by the fading light of an ineptly painted sunset at the end of National Velvet, my heart, like yours, breaks with that piercing combination of melancholy and gladness that is the very foundation of our strange shared humanity.
But I also know that horses are deranged and gigantic. These terrible animals are cute and docile and doe-eyed when seen from a middle distance or on the silver screen. Up close and personal, a horse is an enormous leggy cylinder of thrumming bunched muscle waiting to do harm to whatever hapless ninny has the temerity to sit on its terrifying back. It is covered with satyr fur and its outlandish horse’s ass is the size of a proctologist’s’ second car. When one is perched atop this thing the ground below ratchets away like a scene from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. I remember it well …
“Jeffry, give me your foot. Let’s get you up on that horse, little man! Now, lightly grasp these delicate leather strings. They’re affixed to an iron bar in the monster’s mouth.”
“Oh, and Jeffry?”
“Pray the beast doesn’t get spooked by an anthill or some other dumbass thing. In that event the snorting giant will fearsomely rear up and become the spirit-breaking sum of all your most penetrating nightmares.”
Courage, Faith and Hope Better Scurry
The damnable lessons! For several hours our horses would walk single file, clippety-clop, through endless fields of scrub at the undeveloped north end of the base.
These expeditions were fraught with horror since, without warning, the horses would routinely break into a leisurely trot and there I’d be: a panicked little sissy with a buzz cut, perched atop this maddened, bouncing beast with nothing between me and it but a decorative puddle of tooled leather; no seat belt, no helmet, eyes squeezed shut as for a death blow, my fat little air force hands desperately clutching the knob of the saddle horn.
This is when the horse was amiably trotting, you understand. Even when, to my relief, the horses spent the whole outing just peaceably walking, periodically the animal ahead of me would, without ceremony or preamble, lift its tail, open its fantastical anus and let loose a lazy succession of vivid green, twiggy, slime-covered spheres—a gumball machine from Hell.
So it was that, at 15, I accepted my sister’s invite with some trepidation. “Jeff, I’m going horseback riding. Wanna join me?” “Naw.” “Saturday at around 2.” “Naw.” “What do you think?” “No.” “I’ll be by at around 1.” “Okay.”
At that time I lived in Boulder, Colorado, and had managed to put some years of healing between myself and Equus. When we arrived at the locale, I stepped out of the car on trembling foal’s legs. I saw that the place was a stable, row upon row of shadowy stalls, each housing a cursed minotaur, the air fragrant with the overpowering smell of injury and death; or “hay” as the unaffected refer to it. I was beside myself with fear.
I was assigned a friendly little horse named Fancy Pants. Smaller than Jill’s horse, Fancy Pants seemed manageable and calm. I even dared reach out my shaking paw to touch the unearthly, bony, boot-shaped head of the thing. I’m telling you Fancy Pants slowly blinked, as if in acknowledgement of my companionable gesture. “Be gentle with me, Fancy Pants,” I strained to convey with a facial expression that must’ve looked like a weeping man chewing spaghetti. Fancy Pants’ almond-shaped eyes gazed knowingly upon me through long lashes and adorably Beatlesque bangs.
Hi Yo Lily Liverrrrr
In short order I was astride Fancy Pants, lightly grasping the reins in a willed gesture of confidence. My sister and I began slowly exiting the corral on our horses, and it felt terrific.
I was a man, the best kind of man. A man on horseback! I turned to my sister to remark on my delight in the moment, and with a terrific jolt Fancy Pants took off like a rocket sled, my fool head jerking back like a puppet’s, my arms briefly flapping in empty air. “Hhbbblaaaaaaaaaaaay!” I cried, ignoring the reins and grabbing at saddle, any saddle, momentarily waving one unanchored arm like a rodeo champ. Fancy Pants was tearing for the horizon like a flame-trailing black stallion sprung from hell itself. What had happened?!? It mattered not. I lurched forward like a penitent and grabbed the saddle horn, my girlish screams torn away in rushing air as I sped like a bullet across the prairie. “Fancy Pants!! FANCY PANTS!! FANCY PANTS!!” I bleated imploringly.
But my horse, probably named Carl or some such, seemed not to hear me. Indeed, my Fay Wray screaming seemed to urge Fancy Pants to still greater speeds. I had to get off Fancy Pants!! I raised my right leg and made as if to dismount from a full gallop. My sister managed to smoothly pull up alongside on her own locomotive steed. “Stay on the horse, Jeff! STAY ON THE HORSE.” Something in the way she said it…I reluctantly swung my right leg back into its wildly gyrating stirrup and hugged the saddle horn with renewed vigor. “Grab the reins, Jeff!” I stared straight ahead and shook my head no. “Jeff, grab the reins!” I vigorously shook my head again— NO NO NO—hunkering down and more firmly grasping the saddle horn in a death grip that set my knuckles to popping.
Finally, Jill expertly maneuvered her horse in such a way that she headed off Fancy Pants, who was made to slow, and then stop. I was breathing harder than Fancy Pants when I finally managed to dismount. I walked around to confront my horse to its long face. “What the heck, Fancy Pants? What. The heck?!” The animal’s expression was placid, emotionless, all innocence and Beatle bangs. Aww. I surrendered to my heart, hugged Fancy Pants around the neck the way smitten kids do in the movies. I could feel Fancy Pants’ reply as surely as any Horse Whisperer might.
“Sorry, stupid,” she answered.