For those of you wondering where on earth Retired Racehorse has been – well, I’ve been living in a fictional universe. I’ve been writing constantly, for hours on end, but none of it has been about retired racehorses – unless you count the ones in my head.
I want to share with you the opening chapter of The Head and Not the Heart, a novella-length piece I’ve been working on all week, which I want to release independently very, very soon. I think you’ll like it – it’s about loving horses, about losing your way, about love, all of those things that we deal with in our private lives.
Here you are, the first two thousand words of my nearest and dearest project.
The Head and Not the Heart – Natalie Keller Reinert
I relaxed in the saddle, loosening my joints, in a bid to keep Saltpeter quiet, and tried to enjoy the morning. It was a show-stopper, as usual, all fog winding through the branches of live oaks, an orange disc of sun visible faintly through the opaque grey, just lifting above the rolling horizon, the damp air carrying the sounds of whinnys and neighs from a thousand horses in the fields around us. Oh, winter mornings in Ocala are spectacular. They stretch on and on, the sun coming up late, past seven thirty, when exercise riders and gallop girls like myself have already put in half a day’s work.
We’d galloped a mile and when I turned back to see the horses behind me, I could see the steam was rising off their hot, sweaty backs and necks. My grandmother had once said it looked like they had the devil in them. I’d been five when I found a book of slick black and white racing photos at the library, and brought it eagerly to show her while she sat studying her Bible. My grandmother had been overly interested in the devil.
We must have looked like that picture now, and I couldn’t have denied Nanna at that moment if she’d risen from the grave and proclaimed every horse there to be possessed by a demon. There were five other horses in this set of advanced youngsters, five other leggy two-year-olds, blowing out their nostrils and snorting at the shadows and the imagined tigers in the bushes, lurking on either side of the gravel pathway back to the barns, lusting noisily for hot young racehorse flesh. Sitting upon them, bodies moving easily with their curvettes and feints, five other riders, identical in our polo shirts and safety vests and hard hats, identical in the whips in the small of our backs, stuck through a belt loop, identical in our hard-set jaws and wary eyes.
Luckily our expressions and posture were as far as the resemblances went, and I meant to keep it that way. They were hard men, older than me, and had spent their lives in this outdoor life, with faces like cracked, forgotten leather parching in the afternoon sun. I moisturized and sunblocked frantically, but there was no keeping at bay the Florida sun, and no disguising those little squinting wrinkles next to my eyes.
Saltpeter was the last ride of the morning for me, and his gray hair was all over my black polo shirt. I tried to brush it off and found that the shirt was damp with the fog. The droplets of cloud were slowly sinking through, and I suddenly felt chilled in the cool morning. There’s a moment when all the heat of exertion from galloping the horse gives way to the cold air outside your skin. It feels like sudden-onset hypothermia. But here we were back at the barn, and it was time for a hoodie for me and a knit sheet for the horse. We rode into the open shedrow and I ducked under the doorway as Saltpeter turned of his own accord into his stall. I gave the big gray horse a pat on the neck, nodded to the waiting groom who stood with a leather halter and shank over his arm, and started to dismount. From behind me I heard a noise in the shedrow which gave me another chill, raising goosebumps on my bare arms, unrelated to the weather.
“Horse!” someone shouted frantically, and I saw a blur rushing past the open stall front, big and dark and fast. Saltpeter flung up his head and I caught desperately at the reins, the thick rubber slipping through my grasp. The colt darted forward through his open door, chasing the runaway, and half-off already, feet clear of the stirrup irons, I went off backwards and hit the ground hard, grunting as I lost the air in my lungs. My head snapped back and my hard hat thudded against the concrete wall. Just another morning.
The grooms were shouting, chasing the horses, which was nonsensical, because nothing will make a terrified horse run away faster and farther than a shouting person running after them – they find it hard to differentiate between mountain lions and humans sometimes, and I imagine that I would too if I had evolved with the sole chance of survival in the world being a keen sense of hearing and scent and four very swift hooves to gallop away on. Through half-closed eyes I watched them, and when the tall Englishman who had been watching the horses work turned back to look at me, I waved an arm at him to go on after the horse. I was pleased that he’d thought of me, but I was fine, just winded. And the horse would always have to come first.
That’s just how we live.
I closed my eyes and listened to the melee as if detached from it all. What a life, I thought. What a life I lead. Another morning up at four thirty, another morning spent in boots and kevlar vest and hard hat, whip in hand, wrestling and shouting with barely-two-year-old Thoroughbreds, practically wild mustangs in their feral flight reaction to every object or surprise that came their way – stray candy wrappers, stray leaves, stray cows, other horses, probably even their own mothers. Another morning getting dumped – and how typical that it would be the last horse, the last ride, the last dismount, when you think you’ve gotten through the day unscathed. Another bruised ass. Another dented hard hat.
What a life, I thought. What a life I lead.
The fog was lifting finally when they came back, leading the two shame-faced horses, who both looked completely winded and sore after their excursion. I could see them through the stall door; I still hadn’t moved. I was too busy grousing, too busy feeling sorry for myself, too busy questioning all my life’s decisions. This is the sort of thing that happens when you get up too early, get dumped off a horse, and haven’t had coffee yet: you start remembering that you had a 3.8 GPA in high school, and that office jobs, complete with padded desk chairs and climate-control, don’t start until nine a.m.
“Up the driveway, on the pavement, right up to the gate, and a huge bloody dent in the iron gate where someone slid into it. There are scrape marks for fifteen feet across the bricks,” Alexander reported in haughty disgust, coming into the stall to where I sat, arms over knees, in the straw where I’d landed. “And what the hell are you still doing down? Do you need an ambulance?” He didn’t look alarmed. Either he knew that I was in a foul mood, or he really didn’t care that I could’ve been hurt by such a silly fall.
“I’m fine,” I grumbled, and put my hand up for a lift. He reached out and pulled me roughly to my feet, then pulled me up against him for a brief kiss.
“Silly girl,” he murmured. “Who falls off the last horse in the last set in the stable? Only you.”
“You may laugh,” I said stiffly. I couldn’t laugh about my riding with him; he was the last person on earth with whom I was insecure about my horsemanship. “But my ass is not laughing. My ass is ready for a feather pillow for once instead of this hard ground.” I toddled away from him, tossing my whip to the nearest groom, who snatched it out of the air and grinned laughingly at me. Speaking no English, his toothy smile was thrown to me like a bone to a dog; it was the closest he’d come to supporting me against Alexander, who would cheerfully work me as hard as he did the barn crew, and wonder if I didn’t thank him for the privilege. Hell, sometimes I did. Protege to a great conditioner, with a born and bred eye for a good horse – a dream come true, of course. Depending on your dream. I was starting to question mine. I brushed my hand thoughtfully across the seat of my jeans, dislodging the pebbles and mud, and thought of a bath and a book.
“You fell in the straw,” my lover and boss said from behind me, completely unsympathetic. “We better watch those horses walk.”
The shedrow had been raked smooth already. Some silly groom had stayed behind and groomed it into a perfect tranquility garden, as if we were done for the morning, while the two miscreants were out being chased down by the rest of the barn crew. The hot two-year-olds, Saltpeter and his delinquent buddy, an unnamed bay simply called Max, were being led through the grooved lines of sand while the groom leaned against his rake and shook his head in despair at his own foolishness.
Alexander stood still in the center entrance, watching them walk away from him down the row, kneeling down in the dirt to get a close look at the way their ankles and hocks and knees flowed and clicked, and shading his eyes against the emerging sun’s rays to see if the hindquarters moved evenly, or if one slouched lower than the other. I watched him, and then the horse, trying to see what he saw, and when Saltpeter went on a second pass, I closed my eyes against what I suspected.
Just then, Alexander turned to me. Bad timing. “Open your eyes, girl,” he fumed. “Did you see it?”
I nodded. “I saw it.”
An ever so slight catch in the motion of the left hind ankle, an arrest of motion before the true depth of the ligaments was reached, a tiny shortening of stride. An injury.
He stood up and watched the horse amble away from us before turning to disappear around the corner on yet another circuit of the barn. “The left ankle,” he murmured. “There’ll be an almighty swelling in it this afternoon. If that’s all.” He turned around and shouted down the shedrow. “Hey, Manuel!”
A small man appeared in the doorway of a stall, past a bright-eyed horse pulling hay from its net. He climbed under the rubber stall guard and set his pitchfork against the wall before regarding us silently. He’s thinking that his lunch has just been cancelled, I thought. And he’s right. Poor guy. Horses pay no attention to schedules or plans.
Alexander barked out instructions, which Manuel presumably understood, because he nodded and said, “Si,” which is about the most reaction I have ever gotten from him. One of the riders, who went by Cruz, had been a groom once, but I found it hard to imagine him being as taciturn and silent as our training barn crew was. One certainly never got the impression that they loved horses. And this was very hard work to do if you weren’t doing it for love. Very hard. I rubbed at my ass again, feeling the bruise and wincing. I must have hit the concrete berm which ran around the inside of the stall, to support the clay foundation of the floor. Naturally, to fall in a stall filled with straw, I’d hit the concrete. I didn’t usually think too much about tumbles, but this fall offended me more than most. I had started wondering what these mornings were all about, honestly.
Alexander asked him again if he understood. The groom, who had lived in America for seven years, understood perfectly. He nodded sullenly and went on. A good lunch break and nap, spoiled. Because Alexander had hung around the barn and his stupid girlfriend couldn’t sit a horse. Oh, I knew what he was thinking. It was what all grooms thought, and I had once been one. But you cannot deny good horsemanship. Give the man his due – Alexander put his horses first.
We made our way back out to the golf cart. I slid into the driver’s seat, favoring my bruise. Alexander settled down in the passenger seat, sliding aside a sales catalog with the picture of a foal peering through its mother’s tail on the cover, meant to entice the most hard-hearted horseplayers that the time was ripe to purchase an in-foal mare so that its get could eat its way through your savings and break your heart, and he sat contentedly, waiting, as always, for me to drive him. “Shall we go up to look at the yearlings now?” The morning routine, first the training barn, then check in with the yearlings, and with the broodmares and their foals. I just wanted to go back to bed.
I took off on the gravel drive, and the cart whined and rattled its way past the training barns, and up the hillside.
Copyright 2011 by Natalie Keller Reinert. All Rights Reserved. This work is not to be reproduced or copied in any way.