Riding Horses

by Virginia Watts

You are either born afraid of horses or you aren’t. I tried to pretend I wasn’t afraid of them the summer I was fourteen. Blame the recent television coverage of the equestrian events on the Olympic games in living color. Female riders like string beans. Absolutely no hips. Just slinky. Gorgeous, oiled leather boots molded to their calves. How did they get those boots on and off?

I thought if I started riding horses, I might look more like one of them. Taller. Lankier. No need to bother with nail polish. No need to do anything with my hair except lop it off at chin level. Those horse riders never dropped their dainty chins. Never took their eyes off fences, moats. Obstacles they so effortlessly jumped over. They knew exactly who they were and where they were going.

I hiked a steep uphill mile to a farm near my grandparents’ house and asked one of the  Pardoe boys (that’s what everyone called them) if I could ride one of their horses. I could see Jimmy Pardoe was happy I’d showed up there. Not many girls around, and I’d gone to some trouble. Rolled up my jean shorts, tied the bottom of my blouse into a knot so a little bare skin would be peeking out, applied lip gloss, mascara, turquoise eye shadow.

“You know how to ride?”

“Of course!”

I might have winked.

Jimmy knew I didn’t know how to ride, so he saddled up an old white mare. As soon as  she started to limp me around the pasture, I knew I didn’t want to be that dependent on anything that much – ever again. That mopey horse felt no different than a thoroughbred about to burst out of a start gate in my mind, heart and gut. All I wanted to do was get my feet on the ground before the starter pistol fired. Even so, I kept showing up in my outfits hoping things might change. The last time, Jimmy showed me mercy I didn’t deserve. A stuck-up, perfumed-up, suburban girl getting a superior public education. All the advantages.

When I swung my legs over the fence, he pretended he didn’t see me. Walked past the barn doors, hopped on a field tractor and rode away toward distant pastures. The shape of his arrow straight back made my cheeks burn with anger that quickly turned to humiliation. Jimmy Pardoe was already a better person than I was.

The old mare died that winter which was an unfortunate thing. You can’t bury something as big as a horse when you can’t shovel into frozen ground. Her black-tarped figure was resting against a woodpile when my family drove past Pardoe’s farm on Christmas.

Jimmy was there, carrying a bucket near the barn, his breath a cloud hanging around his ears in the frigid air. My dad honked the horn. I waved like crazy from the back seat.

Jimmy looked up, but didn’t change anything about what he was doing.


Virginia Watts is the author of poetry and stories found in Illuminations, The Florida Review, Sunspot Literary Journal, Sky Island Journal, Permafrost Magazine, Bacopa Literary Review, and Streetlight Magazine among others. Winner of the 2019 Florida Review Meek Award in nonfiction and nominee for Best of the Net Nonfiction 2019 and 2020, her poetry chapbooks The Werewolves of Elk Creek and Shot Full of Holes are upcoming for publication by The Moonstone Press. She has been nominated three times for a Pushcart Prize.


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