June 6, 2004 Author's Notes: This story/essay was for my English class and has been edited since the first time I posted it on 4/8/04.
Horse Around the Gate
For three summers from after 6th grade to before 9th grade I cleaned horse paddocks in exchange for horse riding lessons in my hometown of Anchorage, Alaska. Lessons were a bit expensive, especially after returning from Seattle where my family and I lived for four months for my dad's cancer treatment.
Cleaning paddocks wasn't the best job one could have, but I love horses so it was worth waking up at seven in the morning and working until around two or three in the afternoon. My instructor, Julie Eaton, offered me the job, knowing my family's situation and probably taking that into consideration.
Julie spoke with friendliness, unhesitating in all she said. She had a laugh that came from somewhere between her chest and throat, a weathered face resulting from many years of this special laughter and the outdoor lifestyle of a horse lover. She had been robust and stood tall before I left for Seattle, but in that short time she had withered, the arms that had controlled animals many times her own weight now made only small movements, thin fingers curved together. My mentor is confined to a wheelchair because of a training accident.
My father and I visited Julie in the hospital. Her dark hair had been shorn so it was easier to care for and it looked gray.
"Hi," Julie greeted from the bed, her toothy smile stretching cheeks no longer rounded by youth, rather a soft slight droop. The top half was elevated so she could see around her. I didn't know what to do. I wanted to hug her, but I didn't know if that would be fine since it was perhaps only a couple months since her back was broken. I would no longer hug her after every lesson, and I was sad at my own growth and changes.
Dad and Julie compared their heads.
"How did your hair grow in? Did it turn gray like mine?" Julie asked Dad with a smile in her voice.
"Nope, it came in nice and dark. I have a new head of hair after the chemotherapy," Dad joked; he had removed his hat and showed the peach fuzz growing on his pale head.
We enjoyed the pleasure of company even while I couldn't quite believe that the strong woman I knew was on that narrow white bed. Julie asked if I would like to clean the paddocks and I would be paid in riding lessons. I can never say "No" to Julie. She has been someone I looked up to for years and I trust her judgment. Even now she will always be the strong woman I have known.
I don't remember dragging myself out of bed so early, or feeling sleepy on the short drive through the thick trees that lined the roads over to Eaton Equestrian Centre where I have been riding since I was eight years old. But I do recall how hopeless I would feel on days after the dirt soaked up heavy rains and turned everything to mud, my load that much heavier on the wide, plastic shovel which I would try to throw onto the flaking chocolate painted cart that I pulled behind me, how it would rain, and I wore a baseball cap and a jean jacket that didn't stop the chill wetness on those gray days.
There were also days that were perfect, but so hot after fighting dust raised by trotting horses or the dirt and manure I threw over my shoulder with the shovel. In either case the ground was littered with hay. Sometimes you had to worry about slipping on the dried grass since the ground beneath it was packed like rock bed.
Most paddocks were small and only had one horse, but there were two big ones between the metal sheeted indoor arena and Julie's ranch-style house. Those paddocks had at most three horses in each. Often times I worked while horses were in the paddocks and had no problems since the cart would wedge into the gateway, blocking any possible escape for the horses within the paddock, but the large rough wood gates of the large paddocks were wide enough for three. This paddock was so large that the dirt was never dry and was always like a giant fly paper, except in winter when it all froze over into lumpy ice.
One day I was leaning forward, straining to pull the over laden garden cart (my attempt at lessening the amount of trips to the dumping site) behind me up the two-foot slope at the gate way. My hands were slipping on the slick metal handle splotched with mud water. Movement at the edge of my sight caught my attention. He was already halfway out of the gate when I dropped the cart handle the catch him. Sunny, the off-white appaloosa, decided to take the irresistible opportunity an open gate gave him.
Sunny tore up a clump of juicy dandelion leaves and chewed while I tried to get to him quickly through the sucking mud and muck that always tried to devour my leg and sometimes grabbed my rubber boot. In the panicked and harried state I was in I was surprised that I hadn't spooked Sunny, but of course a horse busy with food is rather single minded.
I threw my arms around his wide neck, the gate squealing closed behind me, and quietly begged him to return to the paddock while Rascal and Whiskey, the other two horses in the large paddock, looked over at us. We were directly behind Julie's house by fifty feet. I prayed that nobody would see us.
"Come on Sunny, please get back in the paddock. I know you want to eat the dandelions, but you need to go back in," I whispered furiously as I looked him in his right eye, every couple seconds glancing at Julie's house up the short hill.
Sunny continued chewing, eyes hooded and as un-budging as a furry, warm boulder could be while I pulled at his neck, severely wishing that all the horses had halters when they were outside. My dirtied t-shirt pressed onto my front side by the small horse's rounded shoulder. It was an eternal five or ten minutes when some higher being (Sunny, a half-foot taller than me at the time) finally deigned to move and allowed this grateful twelve-year-old to move him and point his nose at the paddock gate.
I didn't want to allow him to stop and settle again so I kept one arm around his neck and moved him around the arc of the swinging gate I pulled open with my free hand. He stopped and seemed to have reconsidered his kindness of movement and locked legs for a heart stopping moment on the downward dirt slope of the paddock entry. The red-spotted appy gave in seconds later and walked back into his paddock, lazy eyes and all.
I praised Sunny on how good he was until my heart beat closer to a normal rate. I bent over and pressed my hands against the tops of my jean-clad thighs and closed my eyes briefly. I smelled of dirt and the smell of Eaton horses. It's strange, but Eaton horses smell sweeter than others, of hay and horse sweat. My tiredness faded into resignation and I continued my work,
but not before I picked an armful of dandelions and placed them in the very back of the large paddock. Making sure the horses stayed there, I strained against the metal bar of the cart to pull it up the packed dirt mountain at the gate.
Nobody ever found out about that little incident. Sunny is still around, but he is a quiet friend and I certainly won't tell Julie about what happened, even if it has been about seven years since it happened. I can barely remember actual incidents, only the general experiences like how my oversized rubber boots would slip against the mud as I pulled the heavy garden cart, or how I feared that the two-wheeled cart would tip over backwards (and it did happen every now and then if I didn't evenly distribute the horse dung and muck towards the front). I vaguely remember the hot, dry days when all that I threw over my shoulder into the cart would fly apart into dust and enter my nostrils and go down my shirt where the dry dirt would then stick to my skin with sweat and itch.
No, it wasn't very pleasant with the early mornings, all the body aches, the rain, the sun… but I loved the horses, the green days, the sweet smell of hay mixed with the sound of twittering birds, and how it seems that anything negative is much hazier in my memories than the bright days. I guess that's why I keep going back, because the good things outweigh the bad and because I still want to make Julie proud of me.