How many of you former children remember having your ass handed to you in front of the entire universe when you were in middle school? In most cases, other kids were the culprits—perhaps they shoved you into a locker or gave you a swirly between classes. In my case, a horse named “Peaches” was behind all the mortification and the lessons that followed.
My little school threw benefit horse shows each spring to raise money for our sports program before insurance forbade public fun and diving boards. In addition to allowing horses on our soccer field, we had a Jack Russell terrier as a school mascot. “Bandit” hung out in our classrooms in the days prior to chronic animal dander allergies. Childhood had more dog hair and philosophical potential before humans developed an intolerance for the same lead paint I used to nibble from my crib slats. I personally believe all the fun stopped when that douche with the coffee burns sued McDonald’s and won. Liability has certainly taken the kick out of kids’ memories these days. We’ve all turned into, like, total pussies.
Anyway, I had just learned to ride horses when the first spring show rolled around during my eighth grade year. I’d also become a proud horse owner thanks to my “second parents,” dear family friends who owned the farm right next to the school. Peaches and I had very little experience together as a team. She was young and considered “green,” or not at all well-trained. We were definitely not ready for a horse show, so I planned to watch and see what I could learn.
The weather stunk on the day of the benefit. Since clouds, wind, and a blowing drizzle had set in on the show, few riders had shown up. My eighth grade friends and teachers urged me to go get Peaches and try out the walk-trot class. Lord knows, they’d all heard enough about her. I’d bragged about that little chestnut mare until they all thought I was riding the Great Speckled Bird.
What the heck? I thought. Hardly anyone is here. We can walk and trot—we don’t have to canter or anything. Let’s make today our first horse show together.
With all haste, I headed across the field to throw a saddle on Peaches. My classmates and I had to perform in a play for the parents and alumni to round out our fundraiser later in the day. I had just enough time to compete in the class before I had to get ready to play Martha Washington or something. I don’t remember.
By the time I got Peaches in the barn, the breeze had become even gustier. The little mare danced around as the wind ruffled her mane. When I finally got her ready, I climbed on her back. She set off at a stiff-necked trot, her ears pricked straight forward. She sidestepped a blowing leaf and whinnied loudly several times as we crossed the field.
“Your class is starting,” cried the headmistress of our school. All my friends and my teachers were lined up along the swaying rope strung around the makeshift riding ring. Peaches jumped to the side quickly to eyeball the rope, and we swerved into the show ring.
“Trot, please, all trot,” the announcer commanded. Another gust of wind rustled Peaches’ mane. Suddenly, I found myself flipping through the air. The ground rose up quickly to meet my helmet. As I rolled like a car off a bridge, I could see Peaches bucking her way the rope fence. The birds and stars still circled my head while she spooked the other two horses in the ring with all her kicking. As she rounded the final turn, she farted loudly, skidded through the opening in the rope, and galloped back across the field to her barn.
My dad ran out to help me up. It wasn’t until I became a parent myself that I fully understood the look on his face. It was that look parents get when they know their child is in for a psychological beating, and there’s nothing they can do to fix it. The shit was mine to shovel, and he had to back off and let me do it.
I began the Walk of Shame across the field just as I heard the headmistress say, “That child needs to teach that horse some manners.”
Dad put his arms around my shoulders, trying to make me feel better. Mom followed closely behind.
“I’m never going back to school again, and I’m NOT doing that play,” I told him. He stayed quiet.
When we returned to the barn, Peaches hung her head over the open stall door, looking quite pleased with herself. My dad backhanded her across her muzzle. Then he took me by the shoulders.
“You will go back to school, and you will do that play. You will not let your classmates down. And you will get your ass back on this horse and make her mind,” he told me, handing me a riding crop.
My mouth dropped open. I had been certain that my mild-mannered daddy would pack me off to the house and let me lick my wounds in the privacy of my bedroom. My mother, who had slipped in the barn and quietly parked herself on a hay bale, turned pale.
“I can’t face all those people!” I whined. I looked at Mom. She shrugged–no bail out there.
“You can, and you will with your head held high,” he told me. “I didn’t see any of them out in the show ring with a bucking bronco. Now get back on this horse and show her who the boss is.”
And I did. I also performed in that play because Daddy threatened to use that same riding crop on my butt if I tried to weasel my way out of it.
So began a long relationship between a girl and a horse, each one trying to out-stubborn the other. We won a few ribbons, and I got the satisfaction of proving that I could, in fact, teach that horse some manners. I also learned that I should have waited to brag about my bucking bronco until I was a good enough rider to stick her for at least eight seconds. What I hope the most is that I’ll have the guts as a parent to force my kids to get back on and fight when life bucks them off in front of God and everybody else. Thanks, Mom and Dad.