On Horses, Hijinks, and What Happens When I Go Home

So, I was super busy with life and parenting and life and stuff over the weekend, but in case you missed it, here’s what happened:

Saturday: the Kentucky Derby

Sunday: Mother’s Day

Here’s the thing: the Kentucky Derby is one of my favorite days/things (ever) that we do in my home state. We grow up with it; Kentucky children learn “My Old Kentucky Home” when we’re in elementary school.  (Granted, many do forget the words – that song is crazy long – but we all know the tune and they put the words on the TV screens before the derby, so we’re good.) The boutiques on every Main Street in the state carry derby hats almost year-round, but they stock up around Valentine’s Day and keep adding to their stock until the week of the big event. Some women – you know, the ones with lots of local friends – even have “hat parties,” which is really an excuse to drink mint juleps, mimosas, and sangria, buy out the floral/ribbon stock at the local Hobby Lobby, and get crazy with a glue gun for the sake of creating a one-of-a-kind (and usually fallen-apart-in-the-humidity-and-revelry-of-the-actual-day) crowning glory. For three weeks before the race, Louisville is in Kentucky Derby Festival mode, offering more than 70 events that include things like one of the nation’s largest half-marathons, a steamboat race, the Pegasus Parade, a concert series on the waterfront of the Ohio River, and the largest annual fireworks show in North America – Thunder Over Louisville. We bring out the Hot Browns, the burgoo, and Mint Juleps, and we celebrate our heritage and the launch of the US Triple Crown.

All of this is to say that this year, I’ve been reminded of a time a few years ago, around Derby week, when I was visiting my parents’ place with my family and we were out riding the horses. They used to take in retired thoroughbreds and exercise horses alike, and had a couple other quarter horses and one cutting horse (he was my favorite – I won’t lie). Our son was about 5 years old, our daughter was 10, and my 6-year-old niece was there, too. They were all taking turns riding with my mom, my brother, and myself. Everything went well for about an hour, then before we went inside the house, Trenton (our youngest) asked if he could ride by himself.  We negotiated, since that’s his favorite thing to do, and we agreed that he could ride on Classy, our most docile quarter horse, if I had the lead rope and walked him around so the horse wouldn’t go too fast.

Unfortunately, all we had was a training lead rather than a standard lead (training leads are much longer to allow the horse more movement), so we had to wrap it into a coil a bit to shorten its length.  Also unfortunately, when I handed the coiled lead to my brother while I was dealing with the saddle, he set said lead on the ground as I was adjusting the stirrups and getting Trenton settled. Classy was moving only slightly as she grazed and waited for me to finish, but when she moved her front right foot, she got it tangled in the lead rope.

(Note: we probably should have done better at adulting and made better decisions. It happens.)

I don’t know how much you know about horses, but they can shy away from things and panic if they can’t see what’s happening. They’re tall, and it’s not easy for them to just look down at their feet, so when something gets wrapped around their foot – say, a lead rope – they don’t know if it’s a harmless rope or if it’s a copperhead (both wildly prevalent in these here parts). Needless to say, Classy was not pleased.  She did okay, though, just prancing a little bit, chestnut flanks twitching and gleaming in the sun but otherwise calm, and I told Trenton to hold onto his reins and pommel while I took care of her for a minute and talked to her. I had soothed her pretty well after a second or two, but my idiot brother then broke rule number one when working with horses: he rushed up to her in a panic of his own because he wanted to unwrap the rope and keep Trenton safe. (This is still a bit frustrating for me, of course, for two reasons: one, we were raised with horses basically from birth and both of us know better than to do that, and two, my son was on that horse.)

Feeding off his panic, the horse bolted, Trenton seated firmly atop her. My mother and I still had hold of the lead rope and were trying to pull her head down to calm her, but Mom lost her grip and stumbled right as I dug in my heels, and Classy, rearing and screaming, pulled the rope out of my fingers (leaving 2nd degree rope burns in its wake, because I despite multiple college degrees I was not smart enough to wear gloves).

Then everyone else panicked. My brother started running after Classy (idiot, like he could catch her), my sister-in-law grabbed her daughter and mine and pulled them out of harm’s way (obviously smarter than her husband), and I started yelling for Trenton to hang on and not let go no matter what…

…until the remainder of the lead rope that had gotten wrapped around my leg during the struggle pulled taught and dropped me onto my face into the field, cutting off all my air and sound. Classy then proceeded to drag me over a hundred yards across the paddock (think about that for a moment…yeah, it was as gross as you imagine).

I managed to flip onto my back and remove my shoe, on which the rope was stuck, so I got free as the horse continued to gallop across the field. I started sprinting (rapidly hobbling) for the barn that bisects the center of the field while Trenton and the still-panicked Classy took a sharp turn at the far corner of the fence and came barreling across the ground toward the opposite side of the barn. By the time they were halfway across the field, I noticed our other quarter horse, Sage, galloping toward Classy. He’s the Alpha in the group, so my wonderful and clearly-more-intelligent-than-her-eldest-son mother had released him from his stall and slapped his flank to send him running to Classy. He corralled her back to the barn and escorted the panicked mare to her stall, Trenton still hanging onto the reins, his knuckles as white as his sun-bleached blond hair.

I was taking stock of possible injury, gauging everyone else’s reaction so we didn’t scare any of the other horses, and soothing my crying daughter – who couldn’t tell me why she was crying since everyone was fine – when I saw and heard what followed.

Once Classy was settled in her stall and sniffing through the feed in her bucket, Trenton, oblivious to the chaos behind him when his mighty steed (okay, mare) bolted, had thrown his leg over the saddle, slid down to the ground gracefully, and had run out of the stall with bright eyes and a huge grin. He went straight to the barn door to my sweet, calm mother, reaching up to her to be picked up and saying with all the excitement in his little heart, “Mimi! Mimi! Did you see that?! I was on that horse on that saddle and I had the reins and she went so fast and I rode her fast as fast as she could go all the way around without letting go and I did it all by myself!”

To which Mimi (she’s too southern and too young to be called Grandma, she says) replied, “You sure did,” and patted him on the head.  She is and always has been eternally graceful, calm, and collected. (I do not take after her, in case you’re wondering.)

Then Trenton, without bothering to notice anyone else, asked Mimi if he could have a cookie, switching topics as children do, and she walked him and the girls to the house.

And honestly? I’ve never laughed so hard, because what looked to us like impending tragedy was the most brilliant and fun day of his life, and he had no idea what was happening just behind him.  You know how I know that? He looked at me this past Saturday – over 6 years later – while we watched Nyquist, his favorite (his school number is 13, like the thoroughbred), win the Run for the Roses and said, “Hey… do you remember that time we went to Mimi’s and I rode that one horse real, real, real fast all by myself?”

I said of course I remembered. Who could forget?

Then he said, “I bet I could ride in the derby with Nyquist and win all by myself, too. I would ride even faster than I did at Mimi’s!”

So of course I said, “You sure would,” and then I patted him on the head.

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