Equus Caballus

  Jerome Shea       February 16, 2008      Weekend Wonk

Who does not love horses? Magnificent animals, are they not? Often I come upon horsemen (and -women—usually women, in fact) when I am running in the Rio Grande bosque. We greet each other cordially and I step aside so they can pass. I usually find something nice to say, along the lines of “Handsome steed you have there, my friend.”

But that’s about as far as it goes. If the truth be known, and this wonk will be a big bag of it, there is no love lost between Shea and equus caballus. Never has been. When little boys were dreaming of Trigger or Silver and little girls were swooning over “National Velvet,” little Jerome was quite content with his Schwinn, thank you. I hold with a friend who surmised that the word “caballus” is somehow related to “cabal”: a secret scheme, a nefarious plot. I have never known a horse whose agenda meshed with my own.

Maybe my attitude has roots in a family story that a carnival pony once took a bite out of my brother. I don’t remember the occurrence myself, so I have to take it on faith. I used to sneak up on Steve when he was asleep, trying to discover tooth marks. I never did find any, but if my big brother wasn’t scarred, in some subtle way I was.

Maybe I would feel a little more comfortable around horses were I taller, bigger. But I am only 5” 6’ and about 160 pounds, and I know that there are horses that weigh more than some cars I’ve owned! It is a haul just to swing my leg over some of those beasts and when I do manage to get into the saddle, the ground looks fearfully far away, that terra looks disconcertingly firma.

Women I’ve known seemed to have a thing about horses. Sally—yes, that Sally (see “Ford Flathead II”)—was crazy about them. One afternoon in Fort Collins we were invited to visit some friends who had a couple of horses. Of course I was expected to saddle up and demonstrate that horseflesh and my own flesh were virtually one. (If only I were a centaur!) When that horse began to canter I immediately grabbed onto the pommel or saddlehorn (this was of course a Western saddle, outfitted for your lariat) so as not to get pitched off ignominiously. But it was and is even more ignominious to grab the saddlehorn. I might as well have hired a skywriter to emblazon “Wuss! Wimp! Fraud!” across the heavens. Sally laughed out loud and I have never since eaten such a dish of humiliation (with a side of sexual shame, my manhood somehow impugned).

A few years later I was teaching in Illinois with several other newly minted MAs. For a few fervid months—the ringleader was yet another young woman crazy about horses—we would every Saturday go out to a kind of dude ranch that rented horses and had several miles of horse trails over hill and dale. This was rolling countryside and almost pleasant. For a couple of Saturdays I managed to conceal my terror and not disgrace myself. I even managed to canter without grabbing the saddlehorn. Which was just as well, because there was none: these were English, not Western, saddles.

But of course this was destined not to last. One Saturday I was given—unless you were in solid with the management, it was a kind of Hobson’s choice arrangement—a horse that I still can see in my nightmares.* An old gelding of a washed-out ashen color, lanky, tall, the tallest horse I had ever seen. This animal had been around the block, seen it all—you could just tell. I could picture him smoking cigarettes there in his stall at night and nursing old grievances. I gave him a name, but I forget what it was. “Loco,” maybe.

First, an omen. We were trotting along at a leisurely pace when I happened to glance to my right to remark something to our old friend Harold Welsch (after all these years, at least I think it was he). I immediately saw that his horse was empty. The girth strap had not been cinched tight enough and there was poor Harold under his mount, which was, unlike Loco, quite short, more like a pony with a pituitary problem. It must have been a terrifying experience to be bumping along the ground like that, but Harold survived it. We disentangled him, saddled the horse properly, and set off again.

But not very quickly at all. In fact, Loco would stop whenever he pleased to munch a few weeds. I could not persuade him otherwise and slowly we were being left behind. I was losing patience. I snarled at him, shouted at him, yanked on his mane. He did turn his long head around once to shoot me a baleful eye, but that was all the satisfaction I got.

So finally I jammed my heels into his flanks. Hard.

There is an old joke about this hillbilly couple. Ma and Pa are sitting on their porch when a young man on a big motorcycle—something they had never seen before—comes roaring along their dirt road. “Pa, git yer shotgun!” shouts Ma. Pa does so and blasts away. “Did ya kill it, Pa?” asks Ma. “Don’t know,” says Pa, “but I did make it leggo a that poor feller it was a-clutchin’!”

Well, I was that poor feller and nobody had a gun. Loco had bolted off into a full-out gallop. We overtook—“blew through” is more like it—the others, and those fools just cheered me on! Everything that Loco had been brooding about for years was fueling his fury. He was making a beeline for the barn and if a low branch just happened to scrape Shea off, too bad. If Shea got discarded when Loco jumped a fence—and he did, more than once—too bad. I don’t know if my neck or my underwear was more imperiled. I have never been so scared in my life.

We got to the barn and the fit had passed. That damned animal instantly became a poster boy for docility. I was still, miraculously, in the saddle, but I took no comfort in that. I was still shaking all over when the others finally caught up, ten minutes later.

That was forty years ago and the last time I have been on a horse. “Caballus” = “cabal.” No doubt about it.

*Contrary to popular belief, the “mare” in nightmare does not allude to a female horse. (a pity, I always thought.) Rather, it is an old name for the incubus that was believed to sit on the tormented sleeper. Google “The Nightmare” and you will find Henry Fuselli’s gripping depiction, which does, however, feature a horse staring in through the window. Perhaps Fuselli (aka Johann Heinrich Fussli) was confused, too.

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