10/21/16 – Back In The Saddle
“Should I be filming this? Hold on, lemme get my camera turned on.” Becca wrestled her phone from the pocket of her breeches, already grinning in anticipation.
“Don’t you have something you’re supposed to be doing?” Walsh asked, and gave her his flattest, most unimpressed look.
“Lunch break,” she chirped.
Tally snorted, a hot wet mist of snot spraying against the side of Walsh’s face. Seriously, fuck this.
When he glanced over at his wife, already mounted on Apollo, she pressed gloved fingertips to her lips and tried, very hard, not to laugh at him. A little giggle escaped anyway, though.
Walsh rolled his eyes and wiped his face off with his sleeve. “Why do I get the impression the two of you are hoping I fall off?”
“I dunno about wifey, but I kinda am,” Becca said.
Emmie said, “This was your idea, babe. I’m just here for the moral support.”
It had been his idea – an idea he now regretted…but only because of their reactions to the old cracked leather chaps he’d unearthed from the back corner of his foot locker. They were a pale color that had yellowed with age, dark blue piping down the sides: the colors of the farm he’d ridden for, once upon a time. They fit a little tighter than they had when he was nineteen, but he was (secretly) proud that he could still wear them in a functional way.
He didn’t regret the idea to take Tally to the upper pasture, let him have his head, and run some of his kinks out before they tried him over jumps again. His owner had taken such a tumble the last time she rode him, she now refused to do so again. Walsh had been looking for an excuse to get back in the saddle – not that he needed one. Emmie would have let him on any of the lesson horses if he’d asked. But a part of him had rejected a sedate trail ride: like he was old and past the point of real riding.
Tally shoved his shoulder with his nose, huffing with impatience, and he hoped he wasn’t about to be made a fool.
“Ready?” Emmie asked, a gentle prod.
“Yeah.” He looped the reins over Tally’s head and gripped them in his left hand, taking a chunk of mane between his fingers for good measure. Grabbed the cantle of the saddle with his right hand, braced the toe of his boot in the stirrup, and launched himself up onto the horse.
Okay, so that went well. The stirrups felt a little long, but that was just because the last time he’d ridden he’d been breezing a colt on the tracks. Longer was much safer in this instance, and it was what Tally was used to.
“Yay, you did it!” Becca cheered.
“Watch it.” He aimed a warning finger at her – she snorted – and gathered the reins in both hands, fingers remembering the proper hold on instinct.
Emmie gave him a concerned look.
“I’m fine. Lead the way, pet.”
Emmie shrugged and steered Apollo out of the open arena gate.
Tally followed without prompting.
Walsh hadn’t forgotten what it was like to be on a horse, but his knowledge had dimmed and been pushed back in the years since he’d last ridden. It hit him all at once, fresh and sharp-edged. The height, the roll of shoulders and haunches beneath him, the earthy smell that was so uniquely horse, unlike any other animal. The breeze touched his face, and Tally swished his tail in an agreeable way, and it was perfect. Ahead of them, Apollo’s long legs set a brisk pace as they walked up between the fences to get to the big pasture at the top of the property, the one they had such a great view of from the house.
“I’ll get the gate,” Emmie said when they reached it, which was a good idea, because Tally was getting squirrely and he wouldn’t be fun to re-mount like that.
The excitable Thoroughbred grew more and more agitated as they climbed the hill to get to the large flat plane at the top. He chewed at the bit and took mincing, prancing little steps.
Apollo flattened his ears and shot him a threatening look.
“Hey now,” Emmie scolded her gelding. “You’re babysitting; act your age.”
The big black horse snorted aggressively in response.
“How’s he feel?” A little notch formed between Emmie’s brows. “We can head back.”
Walsh played his fingertips against the reins; Emmie had a light hand, and the evidence showed: Tally flexed left and then right with minimal urging. His neck bowed with tension, but he was still responsive. He didn’t have the bit in his teeth. He closed his thighs and felt the moment of hesitation in Tally’s stride. “No, we’re good.”
“Okay.” She looked doubtful, but reined Apollo to a halt. The gelding seemed content to stop, reaching down to scratch an itch on his knee with his teeth. “We’ll wait here. Maybe just take it slow.”
He grinned at her. “You can boss me around, you know.”
She grinned back, but the expression was edged with worry. “Okay, then take it slow, and that’s an order.”
“Yes, boss.” He applied subtle pressure with his calves and Tally jumped forward into a trot.
He had a large, loose stride, flat and ground-covering, just like the racehorses of his memory, though he was more used to uneven terrain and muscled a little differently. Walsh hadn’t forgotten how to post…but his muscles had. The leg and core muscles used while riding a horse weren’t used in everyday living and exercise. He felt wobbly as a foal, and wished, rather desperately, that Emmie wasn’t watching him.
He managed to control Tally, though. Steered him through a large, looping circle, asking for proper flexion with his inside leg, using half-halts to maintain an even gait. When Tally grew soft, listening, he pushed into a canter.
When he passed Emmie, he saw her smiling, so he thought he mustn’t look too rusty.
On the next pass, Tally tugged at the reins, impatient. Settled into the stride now, less wobbly, Walsh pointed him on the straightaway and lifted out of the saddle, balanced on his toes and knees, crouched low over the gelding’s neck. He dug in with his heels and said, “C’mon,” and Tally opened up.
There was nothing like galloping, never had been and never would be. It tugged at something elemental inside him, something raw and organic that no machine could ever reproduce. It was why he loved his Harley: the imitation of this. Wind stinging, eyes running, heart thundering. He felt the horse’s pulse beneath his own skin, the massive heart working in a way that humans only dreamed of.
All too soon they reached the tree line and he stood up tall, braced against the reins with his weight, circling Tally down to a canter, then a trot, then a walk.
He knew he was beaming like an idiot when they walked up to Emmie and Apollo, but he didn’t care.
“You going to have a run?” he asked.
Apollo didn’t look like he relished the idea.
Emmie shook her head, smile warm and small. “No. It was fun just watching you guys.”
Five hours later, Walsh cussed every one of his unused muscles as he eased slowly, slowly down into the scalding water he’d run in the big Jacuzzi tub. “Fuck,” he hissed when he finally got settled. It hurt to even think about moving.
“Saddle sore?” Emmie called through the bathroom door, a laugh in her voice.
She opened the door and stepped in, stripped down to the sports bra and black boy shorts she wore under her riding clothes, in the process of unbraiding her hair. “Right,” she said. “I forgot you were just a bath kinda guy.”
He sent her a deadpan look. “You’re unreasonably cruel, you know that?”
She laughed and hooked a thumb in the waistband of her shorts. “You mind if I join you?”
Part of him loved that idea. But the sore parts of him propelled him to say, “Just…be careful, yeah?”