We walked Chief, the four year-old Quarterhorse, down the road around dusk. The roping muscles beneath his chestnut hide twitched to bounce off the flies. Jude ran along with us, keeping beside me. My stepfather led the horse, letting it pause to eat the grass on the ragged median strip of the dirt road. “I’m giving him mixed signals,” said my stepfather, “I’m letting him eat sometimes, but then I’m urging him on other times to get away from the horseflies.”
When we got to my car, halfway down the almost-mile road, Chief halted a couple of times, alerted to something in the woods. “Horses spook easy,” my stepfather said. He walked Chief into a clearing off the dirt road. “Animals, people, their own shadows,” added my mother. I loaded Jude in the car. About the same time, Chief took off. His sudden leaping away spun my stepfather a half-turn as he let go of the lead-rope. Chief darted out into the road and stopped. “Woah, Chief,” we all intoned. “Easy.”
My mother said: “My grandfather used to say, ‘remember: they’re beasts.’ They’re wild things, wild animals.”
Chief took off again, this time towards the woods, onto a logging trail, and disappeared. We all smiled and were aww shucks and my mother and I said, “He’ll be back.” But my stepfather wasn’t so sure, and started towards the logging trail. From inside the car, Jude said, “Can I have a lolipop, daddy?”
My stepfather disappeared into the woods after Chief. In another few seconds, the horse came charging back out, did a sort of sidewinding run, and stopped in the road again. “Chief!” I called out. “Come on, man.”
“We love you, Chief,” said my mother, and the horse broke into a gallop again, back into the woods, moving so fast he almost tipped over, kicking up clods of dirt and grass.
“Oh man,” I said, “I hope he doesn’t knock over dad, or something.”
“Oh,” said my mother, “you should see the way Steve is. The horses we’ve had. I had to hold them while he put shoes on them. He’s been doing this a long time.”
“That horse is so big,” I said, “it’s all an illusion. Dad holding the lead-rope like that, like he’s letting the horse pause to eat. That thing knows how big he is. He knows he could break free any second. The thing is, it’s a mind game. Dad shows him that he’s the master, and the horse buys into the illusion. He’s smart. He accepts it, because he gets to eat, and he gets to have fun.”
Just then Steve reappeared, and Chief was with him, and Steve had the lead-rope in his hand. They came out of the woods, the Quarterhorse behaving mildly, Steve seeming just fine. That’s frikkin awesome, I thought. Horse goes into the woods, man goes into the woods after it. Horse comes out and then runs back in. Then man comes out leading horse. Awesome.
“You have to act like his master, Timmy says!” my mother called to my stepfather.
“Shhhh, mom. Oh God. Don’t say that to Dad. I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.”
She patted the air next to me. “No, no, it’s good. Steve listens to what you have to say about everything.”
“I don’t know half of what he does about horses,” I said. I watched Steve and Chief come back towards the road, off in their little world together, everything fine between them.
“Alright,” I said. We were batting at flies and mosquitos. I hopped in the car.
“Daddy, can I have that lollipop now?”
“Yeah, yeah. Did you see that? Did you see Chief take off like that?”
“Yeah,” said Jude. “He was running.”
“He was running. Yeah.”
We said our goodbyes and drove trundling and slow out of the bumpy dirt road thinking that next time we’re with Chief, there’s going to be riding.
Beasts, I’m thinking on the drive home. Remember, they’re wild beasts.
Yeah, that too.