Rosewood Short – Part 9
“Hi, sweet boy.” Jade flattened her palm and Atlas shoved his velvet nose against it, blowing softly into her hand, whiskers tickling her skin. Her eyes moved down his sleek neck and she was prickled with a mild, warm sort of sadness. He’d lost some of his muscling: the high crest beneath his mane, the sleek curves down his spine, the deep grooves in his flanks. She couldn’t ride anymore, and wouldn’t be able to right away after the baby was born. And how quickly her horse had lost his fitness; it ebbed away and he was becoming soft and slender, happy in his long days of grazing, but making her feel guilty all the same.
“You want him to have a bran mash tonight?” her working student, Casey, called as she lugged water buckets out to the hose to be scrubbed and rinsed.
“Yeah.” Jade pulled the halves of her sweater together and suppressed a sudden shiver. “The weather’s changing.” Rain was rolling in slowly from the west, bringing colder air and a drop in barometric pressure. No sense courting colic if it could be helped.
Atlas stretched over the fence and lipped at the collar of her sweater. She smiled. She’d watched him take a chunk out of more than a few people, ears pinned flat to his head, eyes dark and furious; but with her, he was gentle as an old broodmare. With her and with Clara. He loved Clara, always nuzzling at her hair and searching her little pockets for treats.
“I have to go,” Jade told him. “You be a good boy for Casey, okay?”
In answer, the big gelding lifted his head, ears swiveling forward, gaze going somewhere up over her shoulders. The brush of shoes across the grass signaled Ben’s arrival.
“You ready to go?” he asked from behind her.
Atlas tolerated Ben – sometimes, Jade thought the two might like one another – but Ben was secretly nervous, she knew. She recalled a conversation they’d had, years ago, before marriage and Clara the falling apart and coming together. They’d stood at this same fence while she fed Atlas carrots.
“Horses were wild things centuries ago,” she’d told him. “Not all animals can be domesticated, you know. We can’t speak with all of them. But horses – there’s a language there, between them and us. It just took a little time – it still takes time – to learn to live with a wild thing.”
He’d snorted and called her a nerd. But inwardly, she was grateful for her own understanding – it was the only way she’d been able to love Ben.
Eight Years Ago
“If he throws you, I’m not giving you CPR. Just so you know.”
“You’ll give me CPR so fast it’ll make your head spin,” Jade returned lightly. Lightly. Everything she did at the moment was light. Her voice was soft and even; the movements of her hands deliberate and gentle. As she finished tightening the girth, she was very aware of the massive bay gelding watching her from the corner of his eye, a flash of the white showing, his nostrils curled in distaste. Who was this new person preparing to climb onto his broad back? Who was he going to have to chuck over the rail today? These were the questions she imagined him asking. Because the beautiful, imported Dutch, Atlas, had become so sour in the States that he was locally infamous not for his swinging trot, but for the speed at which he could toss a rider into the dirt. He’d turned it into an art form.
At the rail, Jeremy kept talking, his tone as measured and pleasant as hers while he chided. “Do you realize how much you paid for this rodeo bronc?”
Jade ran down the stirrup iron and patted Atlas on the stomach, beside the girth. He snorted. “I was there when my bank account emptied,” she returned. “So yeah.”
“That’s one expensive chunk of dog food.”
She turned to regard her best friend over her shoulder. “They don’t make dog food out of horses anymore, genius.”
Jeremy’s expression was bored, his pose seemingly relaxed…but his knuckles were white where his fingers curled around the rail. She saw the tremor in his breathing, at the collar of his shirt where it rested against his throat. He was terrified at the idea of her on this horse. “Um, how about all those horses that still end up at slaughter houses?”
“I think people eat them,” she said, making a face. “Let’s not talk about that.”
“No. Let’s talk about the permanent brain damage you’re going to suffer when you crash into the fence.”
She rapped her knuckles against her helmet. “I’ll be fine.”
In answer, he knocked against the fence – against the wood.
Then she took a deep, quivering breath, and prepared to mount.
Most of Atlas’s previous casualties had been men. He was a big horse – a solid eighteen hands – and thick-bodied in the way of old European warmblood stock. Hanoverian on one side, Dutch on the other. Most of those men who’d gone flying had been heavy-handed and liberal with the spur, most of them carrying whips. Jade had a theory that he wasn’t wild – he was docile in the pasture and in his stall – and that instead, despite his plodding looks, was hyper-sensitive to the aids. A big strong horse didn’t need a big strong man yanking it around.
She led him to the mounting block and climbed it, reins bundled loosely in her left hand as she faced the saddle. Atlas craned his neck around to look at her. “It’ll be fine,” she told the horse. “Just a couple trips around the ring.”
“Be careful,” Jeremy cautioned one last time.
“Always.” And she stuck her left boot in the stirrup and swung aboard.
He was taller than the horses she’d been riding, and wider, her knees further apart against his deep barrel. But he was solid and strong beneath her. Substantial. And his neck was a proud curve between her hands. His ears swiveled and he snorted; he tugged at the reins.
“Easy, now.” She let the reins out a notch, so there was slack in them, and closed her fingers gently. He wasn’t used to having his head, and tested it, chewing at the bit, stretching his neck. Jade let him play, easing the reins out further. She wore no spurs and didn’t carry a whip. With unadorned boot heels, she gave him the gentlest of squeezes. He didn’t move. Another squeeze, a hairsbreadth more pressure. She clucked to him. And he set off at a ground covering walk.
Someone, at some point, had done a beautiful job training him. She looked in the direction she wanted to go, shifted her weight the slightest, and he turned. She tightened her abs and thighs, and he halted. The barest of touches sent him forward. Under her, his back was a strong, flexing length of muscle, waiting to be engaged.
“He looks relaxed,” Jeremy said.
“I think he is.” And he wasn’t a bit tense; that was the thing with Atlas: he wasn’t nervous, didn’t panic. He was in complete control of this situation, he knew exactly how strong he was, and when he decided to dump her, it would be with deliberate force, and not a mindless frenzy. “He keeps watching me, though.” She could see his eyes coming back to her.
“Try a trot.”
“I’m getting there.”
She lightened her seat and touched him with her heels, keeping the reins loose. He lifted into a floating trot, again stretching his neck, testing her hold. She let the reins out to the buckle and put him on a circle, adjusting to his huge gait as she posted, letting him relax. And relax he did, his back and neck releasing their negative tension, his stride lengthening. He started to blow on every step, a sound that punctuated the swing of his movements.
His canter was lovely. Three-beat and rocking and full of leashed power. Every cue, every aid, every tweak of the reins was the barest movement, and he responded, almost eager by the time she pulled him to a halt and ended their ride.
Jeremy waited, eyes wide. “Okay,” he said, as Jade patted Atlas’s neck happily. “Maybe I should retract the dog food statement.”
Jade beamed. She detested bragging, but there was a joy at knowing she hadn’t wasted her money, that this big horse had needed something that no one else at the barn had understood. “Remy,” she said.
He smiled back. “I know, I know. You were right.”
Ben extended a hand, palm open, for Atlas to sniff. The gelding took a deep whiff, decided he approved of him today, and licked Ben’s palm. “Awesome,” Ben said, retracting his hand and wiping it on his jeans. “Can’t you teach him not to do that?”
“You’re lucky there weren’t teeth involved,” she quipped, and saw the barest trace of alarm go moving through Ben’s dark eyes. She laughed inwardly, keeping her face neutral.
“Alright.” Another swipe of hand on jeans. “You ready? I told Chris we’d be there at four.”
Instead of answering, she watched him a moment. Atlas watched him too. Not for the first time, Jade wondered why men couldn’t be as simple as horses. Because a man – Ben – had turned out to be creature with the hardest language to decode. She smiled. In her head, she could hear Remy’s voice: “I know, I know. You were right.”
“Sure,” she said. She stroked a hand down Atlas’s nose one more time. “Let’s go.”