When I was five I got a pony for Christmas.
For a kid growing up in domestic violence and alcoholism, darkness and fear were far more familiar than joy and safety. Even the teddy I left out to greet Santa the previous year was found Christmas morning dismembered in the front yard in a display of furry carnage that confirmed the world was not a good place. Santa murdered my teddy.
There wasn’t a lot of magic in my early childhood. So the morning I woke to the sight of a brown-and-white pony tied to our front gate stands out as this moment of wonder. Maybe the world wasn’t all bad.
Patches was the pony every girl wanted. Unfortunately, Patches was hell bent on trying to kill me, an angry pony who hated children. It was clear that my father had intercepted the truck that was taking Patches to the knackers. Although Patches tried numerous times to bite me, bolted regularly, took me under branches, or just stood still and didn’t move, I loved him. Sure, I had an alcoholic father. Sure, he punched holes in the walls, drove cars off bridges and hit my mum.
I was a weird girl from an embarrassing family BUT I had a pony. The next year when my father died Patches was sold. My mother wasn’t a horsey person and now she was a widow with two small children so understandably Patches had to go. I get the feeling Patches was relieved.
The pony had been my dad’s attempt at restorative justice in the relationship with his small, damaged daughter. Now he was gone so the work of angry pony was done.
My love of horses continued though and, in the absence of a real one, I drew them repetitively. By age eight I had perfected the arch of a horse’s neck, the soft brown heavily lashed eyes, the flared nostrils, the lustrous fringe and mane. I rode the mop around the backyard and pretended it was a wild brumby. I read Black Beauty. I still wanted a horse, but I knew we couldn’t afford one.
At age nine I made friends with a girl who had horses. She had a farm. So I went there every weekend and pretended her horses were mine. We rode bareback on misty mornings through dewy paddocks to check fences or drop feed or look for cows that might be calving. Sometimes we had to put our small arms deep inside the cow to find the hoofs and pull out the calf. I don’t think we even washed our hands before breakfast.
We rode into the bush in the morning and came back at sunset. We followed winding tracks; sometimes we made our own by pushing into unbroken scrub. We never wore shoes or helmets. We didn’t take water because we’d cup our hands and drink from a creek. We didn’t wear sunscreen. We didn’t take snake bandages, although where we rode was full of king browns and taipans and we’d see them pretty regularly. You’d know one was close because the horse would bolt. Nothing makes you stay on more effectively then the thought of being dumped in a paddock with a snake.
I never gave my children the freedom I had. Children just seemed to take risks without knowing it even was a risk. Like most of the kids I knew, I was fearless. I loved to gallop full pelt. I never fell off. My friend’s parents had given her many adult farm responsibilities so she and I spent our weekends moving cattle with old men, helping them dip and muster, and roll cigarettes. I loved it. By about 13 or 14 we were no longer such good friends – my love of horses had been replaced by a curiosity about books and later boys.
Until the other day it had been decades since I’d sat on a horse – unless you count when I was pissed outside a newsagent when I put $1 in the rocking pony and jumped on. I fell off that one. It had been a long time since I had a throbbing live animal between my legs for over two hours. I was terrified. As a kid the fact it was dangerous had never occurred to me. It felt so natural and exciting. But now as a nervous neurotic adult I realised I could die.
I’m not used to not being in control. Trusting in the universe. We just walked the horses up the beach. I could feel the power of the animal I was riding. Part of me wondered if I still had it in me to give her a nudge and move at least to a canter. Of course I didn’t. I’m 51 and risk averse and I was actually worried that after two hours in the saddle I wouldn’t be able to walk.
I had reason to worry. I couldn’t. There are muscles in your arse that only a horse can find. I think I’m addicted again. Maybe that barefoot girl with the wind in her hair isn’t so far away after all.
(Thanks to Shanti at The Ranch for my fabulous Beach Ride! I’ll be back! When I can walk!)