It was damp and cold and my coat was thin, so I hurriedly scurried through Fountain Square. But when I saw the horse and carriage, I halted. My ears perked up.
I’d never been on a carriage ride. Whenever I saw those horses, I thought about how they braved the Cincinnati streets, the concrete fields, no matter the season. I thought about leather harnesses rubbing against their coats. And the hard pavement, the steel bits. I thought about hooves cracking.
But the horse drew me in. Her smell. Her story. I stroked her wide face, the space between the eyes.
“That’s Dolly,” the driver said, his lips quivering.
Dolly was a stocky, well-fed, black draft horse. Her wavy forelock slightly hid one eyelid — more like a handheld fan, a black shutter.
While I scratched behind Dolly’s ears, she was still, feeling it. She had a kind eye.
I can read a horse eye. I can sense the feelings there.
At 10, I started riding horses, training for years. At 15, I groomed at horse shows and taught lessons.
Later I worked with hunter/jumpers professionally, a driven trainer moving from farm to farm. Three years ago, I left it behind to write instead. Until then, I was deeply enmeshed in the barn life. Horses were in my blood.
Starting to leave, the driver spun around, looked at me and asked, “You want to come?”
“Sure,” I said.
But I didn’t sit in the carriage. Instead, he helped me climb into the driver’s seat. The long step up spooked me.
“I’m Ed,” he said, shaking my hand with a rough grip.
His hands were cracked. Skin splitting. Dressed in layers, smelling like dust and leather, Ed slipped on some work gloves.
He held up the reins, asking, “Do you want to drive?”
“No, I’d probably make Dolly go wild,” I stated.
Ed shrugged. In his eye, a spark. Barely, he touched Dolly’s back with the reins, and we were moving.
“Do the horses ever take off running?” I asked.
“Never with me, but one guy I know flipped his carriage over with the people in it,” Ed said, chuckling, tossing his head back.
I laughed too. Horse people often laugh at horse accidents. Some weird way of coping with the unpredictable nature of four-legged creatures.
If I knew the horse well, I could guess what might happen, but over the years horses had kicked me, bit me and bucked me off. Two reared up and almost landed on me. Falling off, I’d done somersaults and landed in curious positions.
For some reason, the worst injury I ever suffered was whiplash. Then I swatted flies and rode on.
Dolly’s hooves clicked on the street.
Ed and I talked horses, often interrupting each other. The conversation was that easy. Whenever I find a horse person, this happens. We chatted it up like old riding buddies.
Dolly trotted when the lights turned green. She knew the changes, the rhythm. Easily, she moved with the traffic.
Freezing rain began. Ed and I were in the thick of it, but we ignored the weather. Weather was another part of the horse life. A sidekick of sorts. Hail or scorching sun, we dressed and headed to the farms.
Ed said they kept the horses close by, somewhere downtown. No fields. No grass. But sometimes he took Dolly home to his farm, where she could stretch out and graze.
Ed personally took care of her, and it showed. Clean with a shiny coat and healthy belly, her hooves were smooth and strong.
While I watched Dolly’s black tail swing, I thought about my days in the business, when we worked the horses in the heat and the cold. Some were on rest. Maybe one had a stomach ache. Another an eye infection, a loose shoe. They all had turnout time, but was it enough?
Then I thought about when I played with them in the fields as a kid, the free moments. For them, for me. Even the smell of a leather jacket or car seat could throw me back.
Slick-wet Dolly pulled us along until we were back where we began.
I jumped down, whipping around to study her eyes. She looked content, despite the cold rain.
Ed said I could take a ride anytime.
I thanked him, breathing in, smelling the horse smell, and as I walked away I knew that smell was embedded in my wet jeans.
I’ve seen horses roll in the mud, legs flailing at the sky with relief. I’ve seen them acting wild, thrilled at winning on a sunny day. I’ve slept in a stall, nursing a mare back to health.
When I fell off, I tasted ring dirt. Sand between the teeth. A bloody lip. Then I got back in the saddle. Often, I wished to become one of them.
But I’ve seen horses fall, crashing to the earth. I’ve seen horses jump over four foot fences, then later die from colic. I’ve seen an asthmatic horse struggle to breathe while carrying around a lesson kid. I’ve seen some injured legs, blanket sores and seeping eyes.
Shivering from the rainy ride, I thought about Dolly looking oddly happy. How it reminded me of my past. How I was torn. How I needed to gallop home and write about being torn. How writing was in my blood.
My horse eye twitched.
CONTACT C.A. MACCONNELL: [email protected]