We don’t too get many Thoroughbreds at the Haven. There’s no shortage of regular horses who need new homes, so we let the specialists handle the racehorses. We see a lot of Quarter horses, Arabs, nothing-in-particulars. Once we had a zorse. Sara and Eileen manage them, no problem.
But whenever some old racehorse with beat-up knees and pinned ears climbs out of the trailer, I get called over to gentle him. Sometimes they ask me to ride him, too, but I always shake my head no. I haven’t been on a horse, Thoroughbred or not, in twenty years. Just thinking about it makes my jaw hurt.
Barn work suits me fine. I have it good here—stall mucking and pasture mowing, feeding and grooming, a day off a week, enough cash to keep my trailer and my couple acres of empty pasture—so I teach the ex-racehorse a few riding stable manners and don’t complain. But I still wonder—what do folks find so mysterious about Thoroughbreds? Old Charlie, my first trainer, he said it best: “They’re fast, they’re smart, they’re ornery, they’re flighty.”
The Haven has been the first place I don’t feel like running from.
What else do you need to know? They’re beautiful, that’s what. The kind of beauty that’s irresistible. The most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen was a Thoroughbred galloping through a misty dawn, tail flagged and head high. I just wished I had still been in the saddle instead of watching that filly head back to the barn without me. She had been so beautiful, I’d hardly noticed the pain until I was sure a groom had caught her safely (then I passed out).
I wasn’t mad at her, either. She was just a runaway. I’m a runaway, too. Caught the bug at sixteen—felt like I needed to bolt, so I bolted. Right to the nearest racetrack, where Charlie put a lead-shank in my hand and told me to walk until he said to stop. Been bolting ever since. When I have deep thoughts, philosophizing while I muck stalls, I think I was never really mad at that filly because I was more like her than I’d care to admit. Always taking fright and taking flight. Florida to Canada, California to New York, I’ve picked up and left a hundred times, and I never thought I’d change. Until I got to the Haven.
The Haven has been the first place I don’t feel like running from. I’m settled here, like some of the old broodmares Sara has on permanent retirement. I have a comfortable routine, I have a roof when it rains, I have food when I’m hungry. My boss is nice, my coworker is nice. No one’s threatening to break arms or bust heads or corner me in dark tack room. I reckon I’m out to pasture, puttering with my muck rakes and my buckets. Sara does the books and rides the toughies; Eileen rides the rest and helps me when she has the time.
It’s good feeling settled here, but that’s not to say I trust the feeling.
Sara has her own horse, and so does Eileen, the pick of the rescues, they like to laugh. Sara says it was too hard to run a rescue and watch horses disappear one by one, adopted here, put down there. She says you have to have one to love. She points each time a new horse comes off the trailer, looks at me and says, “This one?”
I shake my head every time. I’ve never had my own horse. How could I move on if I had a horse holding me down? When I want to bolt, I have to bolt.
There’s a banging from the shed across the yard, a quarantine stall with a mighty unhappy customer inside. Mach Seven’s his old name, but Sara shortened it to Mac, and then I lengthened it again to Mack Truck. It suits him — he’s big and shiny and powerful, like my uncle’s Mack Truck when I was a kid, and mean and unpredictable, like my uncle was when I stole the truck and crashed it into a hay-barn. Mack Truck wants to go back to the racetrack. The bay colt has been here a week and he’s mad as hell about it. I can see those little sidelong glances from Sara when he blows up at the end of his lead-shank. She’s looking at me, begging me, Beth, get over here and handle this racehorse.
But I never volunteer.
He wants to bolt, he has to bolt.
Lucy from the eventing barn down the road has come to take a look at Mack Truck. Sara has me haul him out of his stall and stand him up in front of the barn, because he knocked down Eileen and now Eileen is scared of him. Sara stands next to Lucy in her best boots and breeches, aiming to look in charge and professional, but I know she doesn’t want to mess with him either. I don’t like working in view of potential adopters, but Lucy knows me, and understands. She showed me an almighty scar on her ankle and told me she never wears sandals because of it, even at the beach. I can’t cover my scars, so I stay hidden.
I have a shank on his nose, but Mack Truck barrels out of his stall and aims his bulging white-rimmed eye at everyone and everything except me. I have to dance to keep out from under his ragged hooves — no one has dared climb under him to trim them yet — and then I give the shank a sharp tug. A nose-chain he understands. Mack Truck stands up like a bronze statue, four hooves planted in the everlasting mud, and stares into the distance with his ears pricked. I’m just starting to relax when he starts flinging his head up and down. This horse needs to go-go-go all the time. He wants to bolt, he has to bolt. I jiggle the chain to remind him I’m still attached.
Lucy is studying him with a frown on her face, saddle on her hip, bridle over a shoulder. I know what she’s thinking. Gorgeous but crazy, what a shame.
She steps forward to give Mack a pat on the neck and he leaps reflexively, nearly knocking us both down.
When I have him steadied again Lucy’s putting her tack back in her truck. Sara looks agitated. She wants this horse gone or working or both, and no one will ride him.
“I’ll come back in two weeks,” Lucy promises.
As she leaves, Mack Truck has gone back to gazing into the distance. Looking for his race, I guess. Looking for somewhere to run.
Mack Truck only gets more ornery when we move him to a stall in the main barn. The stalls look over the yard where Eileen and Sara ride the sound ones, and have short walls besides, so Mack alternates his time between biting his neighbors and kicking his door every time someone rides by.
After two days of this, Sara gives Mack Truck a long hard look and then smiles at me and I know what’s coming.
“Beth, why don’t you hop on Mack Truck and stretch his legs a little?”
She’s asked me before. I’ve always shook my head.
So I do it again.
“Beth, please.” Sara is pleading now. “We gotta get this horse adopted. We can’t take a three-year-old on for life. He’s too young to be retired. But no one’s gonna take him if they don’t know whether he rides or not.”
This time it takes real effort, but I shake my head again.
“Beth. You know you can ride him. And we need you. Mack needs you. Look how unhappy he is. You can help him. You’re the only one who can save him.”
Come on, now. No one can stand up to that sort of flattery. I caved.
So I tie Mack Truck up close to the stall wall so he can’t bite me, and he stands there, trembling, with a bulging eye watching my every move, while I knock off the dirt and throw on old barrel saddle on his back. It’s good to have something to hold on to in cases like this. He kicks at me when the cinch touches his belly and I kick him back, a knee in the gut, like old Charlie used to do. It stops the kicking but it sure don’t make friends. I get a little scared, hands shaking as I tie the knot, pull it tight.
The curb bit slips over his tongue, the cheap bridle slips over his halter. I step back and regard him and he quivers and slavers like a rabid dog. He’s craving this — he wants out so badly, it’s making him crazy. The dingy nylon bridle and battered saddle make him look like a prince in rags. I put a hand on his hot neck, unable to resist his beauty.
He strikes out, his fore-hoof slamming into the wall with a sound like a gunshot.
I take two big steps backwards and regard this joker with new eyes. He could’ve snapped my leg in half if he’d wanted
Sara’s face appears over the stall door. “You need help?”
I’m about to shake my head no, that I don’t need help because I won’t be riding this big crazy horse.
Then I look back at him. Legs stiff, eyes round, body quivering. He needs something, and I know what it is: he needs to run, he needs to bolt, he needs to do what he knows before he can learn something new. And I’m the only one who can give him that.
If I can only get close to him.
What would Charlie have done?
Thrown up his hands and found someone younger and less breakable to handle the monster, probably.
Sara snaps her gum, and I smell a waft of mint, and the memory is triggered, just like that.
…there’s no reasoning with him, not yet, not even with peppermints.
I hold up a finger to Sara. Wait. I dart out of the stall, not so fast I can’t hear her big sigh.
Charlie would’ve rocked back on his heels, just out of reach of a set of big yellow teeth, and dug down in his pocket, and pulled out a mint. “You gotta show them you’re sweet,” Charlie would say. “But ice-cold, too.” And the whole shed-row would erupt in whinnies at the sight of that peppermint.
Half inside my old truck, I rummage through my glove compartment, the passenger seat, and finally my purse (why didn’t I look there first?) before I find one lonely mint, red and white and wrapped in plastic, just like Charlie’s always were. I snatch it up and run back through the mud, where Sara is tapping her toe and looking like she has very important other places to be. Over the stall door, Mack Truck has his wide eyes focused on me.
I hold up my hand and crackle the plastic candy wrapper between my fingers.
The effect is electric. The horse’s eyes widen, but in an interested way. Recognition. This language, he understands. Finally, something he knows. I crinkle the wrapper again, and Mack Truck nickers. A real live honest-to-goodness nicker, as sweet as an old gelding at supper-time.
I slip inside the stall. Mack greets me and my candy with an excited whuff of hot breath.
Sara’s eyes are the big ones now.
Mack is crunching the candy. The stall smells of mint. I hold up the wrapper to Sara, raise my eyebrows. More?
“In my purse,” Sara manages to say around her unhinged jaw. “Be right back.”
As soon as she’s gone, I swing open the stall door, untie Mack, and hoist myself into the saddle.
We’re out of the stall in a rush and I know he isn’t warmed up but there’s no reasoning with him, not yet, not even with peppermints. We’re suddenly galloping around the oval of the yard and I feel a shivering electric thrill roll up my spine as each stride eats up the ground, his mighty legs a powerhouse beneath me. He might be full of go but the steering works fine, and I decide to let him stretch out on the driveway. And after he eats up the driveway I let him swing down the dirt road, half-a-mile of soft sand thrown up behind us while we pelt towards the county highway, and it’s only there that I manage to ease his speed enough to turn him around and point him back towards the Haven.
Shame though. If it wasn’t for the asphalt and the trucks of the highway we could’ve gone forever, two runaways.
Or maybe we couldn’t have. Mack Truck’s out of shape or maybe he wasn’t much of a racehorse anyway. Either way, by the time we emerge from the driveway and back into the yard, he’s only loping, and his ears are lopsided. He’s ready to stop running. And the way my legs are shaking, I am too.
Sara is standing there with a tin of mints, looking sort of stunned, so I pull him up next to her and lean down and take the tin.
Mack seems as interested in the rattling tin as he was the crinkly plastic and when he turns his head towards my knee I offer him a palm full of tiny strong mints. He gobbles them up and his ears waggle contentedly as he chews. I sigh a sigh of pure joy. Why did I quit riding horses, again?
Sara, who has been adopting out rescue horses for ten years, has seen enough cases of true love to know. “You’re keeping this one, aren’t you.”
I nod, and then I feel my face stretching into a grin, which isn’t easy for me because it shows all my missing teeth and my crooked jaw. I never got used to my ruined face, though I never could get mad at that filly for destroying it. I understood her then, her need to go was as big as mine, though she took me out in the process. And now I understand this: Mack was willing to stop running away, and I reckon that for a horse that makes me feel like this, I can too.