… which is not entirely inappropriate, as our Mercury was a famous TV star, playing Henry VIII’s primary mount in The Tudors. The shrieks that ensued the first time I saw him on the telly! [Mercury, not Jonathan Rhys-Meyers.]
The sad news was shared in the yard today: Merc, who was probably around a thousand years old and crippled by arthritis, was put down this week. He was the first horse I ever rode in a lesson, properly; fittingly, here’s the first post I ever wrote on this blog, below. It’s seven years to the week that I took to horseback, and if it wasn’t for Mercury, I wouldn’t still be here writing about it all. Heart U, beastie.
9 SEPTEMBER, 2006 The wee girls circle round and round, legs pounding the sides of their ponies, and I am feeling breathless.
As excited as I was to take my first horse riding lesson, I’d actually have to be on a horse to take it, wouldn’t I, and they’re big, aren’t they, and watching those kids flying around the ring, I feel increasingly fluttery and anxious. As little as I know about horses, I knew this anxiety was a bad thing. On top of all this, I was already feeling under the weather: I had a headache, a scratchy throat, exacerbated by the heat of the day that had turned the number 63 bus into a trundling sun trap… ah, hell, I could always come back another time…
I can’t come back another time. I spent the entire week, in the run up to this day, talking about it to the girls at work. I have been yearning for this for years. A month ago, I got the yen yet again, and the day before I finally Googled equestrian centres in Dublin, I saw: horse statues on a house on the coast road that I’d never seen before; a horse trailer; an actual horse; and on the way home from work, my iPod opened the evening’s commute with Land from Patti Smith’s Horses.
Okay, okay. I get it.
So I’m here. I walked up the long, long road to a long, long hill. I don’t know where anything is, I don’t know who to make myself known to, I don’t— I need a helmet, I know that much. I wander a little; I’m an hour early, thanks to the bus. I’m intimidated by the thoughtless ease with which a clutch of girls in white hard hats inhabit the entrance to what must surely be the barn. I can’t go near them; I don’t have the right.
I drift back to the door of the inside thing, the ring, whatever. Parents chat amongst themselves and happily compliment their daughters as they pass. These kids are jumping, effortlessly. Jesus God. I drift away again.
Then an older bunch of riders come back from somewhere, the horses enter the inside ring place, everyone slips effortlessly to the ground, ponies are lead away, voices are raised simply to be audible, I back away — I need a helmet. I go to the portakabin again, and the guy in charge is there, I say who I am, he says, “You’re late,” and a helmet, stinking with hours and hours of strangers’ sweat, is jammed on my head and I’m told to go back to the arena (ah), and I do, and the teacher asks me who I am and have I done much riding, and I tell her my name, and none, and she says get on up on a black horse, and I do, and she shows me how to hold the reins, and I hold them, and she tells us all to walk on, and—
And the horse takes one step, and I think to myself, “Fuck,” and he takes another and I think, “Fucking hell get me the fuck offa this fuckin’—” and another step and another and I am no longer a human woman but a sack of frozen potatoes sporting a fetid black hat.
I don’t even know the horse’s name — how am I supposed to bond?
I can hear myself breathing, air is whistling in and out of my nose, and it’s about all I can hear. I hear a voice shouting but it’s not language: it sounds like short, sharp raps, there’s a sensation that it’s the same series of sounds over and over — rap rap rap. The other people understand and are obviously responding to these sounds, because one minute, we’re going in one direction, and then we’re not, we’re threading our way from one corner of the arena to the other and going the opposite way — and I’ve yet to fall off.
And with maybe fifteen minutes to go (I can’t glance at my watch, because if I move my hands, or waver in my unstinting regard of the back of the horse’s head, something bad will happen) it occurs to me to maybe relax my stiffened legs a little, like, even grip the sides of the horse, with my calves? Is this is a good idea? It may have looked like I was doing it— my legs weren’t sticking out at ninety degrees from either side of the horse— but it sure hadn’t felt like it, so I do it, and I’m no longer hyperventilating. The teacher doesn’t seem bothered that I won’t do anything but walk (“Sue, want to give the trot a go?” “No.”) and I can sense that my lesson mates are still where they’re meant to be, on the back of their horses, not writhing around on the ground clutching shattered limbs… and I relax.
This relaxation, and the action of the calf tightening, the action of this intuitive (common sensical!) decision, results in a somewhat straighter spine. I’m sitting better, and I can hazard a look around, and drop my elbows, a little, although my arms are so tense you could break concrete breeze blocks on them, my hands so thoroughly clenched on the reins that I have surely broken all my finger bones.
Suddenly, those staccato sounds become language: “Turn in and give them all a big pat— feet out of the stirrups— swing your leg around the back— drop down,” and I’m on the ground and a there’s a name tag on the horse’s bridle and I whisper in his ear, “Mercury. Mercury! You are great!”
I walk down the long hill to the long road, my hair having fully absorbed, via the helmet, the honest sweat of women like me, women who have ridden a horse. I haven’t got a trace of flu, of a headache, of a sore throat, nor of a single critical thought, of a single bad thing to think about the thing I’d just done, swaggering like a cowboy (there’s a good reason why they walk like that) and all I think is I did it, I did it, I did it!
I’m fairly sure I’ve never been so delighted with myself in my entire life.