The Railroad Track Test

In Days of Yore and Olden Times, the Iron Horse, that spark-spitting, smoke-shrouded spawn of Satan, was a source of terror to living, breathing, horses of flesh. Unused to any sort of mechanization, milk drays and riding horses alike went into bucking fits and tearing gallops to get away from their first glimpse of The Transportation Age. Railroads were a fearsome thing.

Our horses today are more accustomed to the vehicles that supplanted them – perhaps they’re thankful for them, since they are no longer beasts of burden but leisure items and status symbols – and often grow up following trucks and golf carts around, associating them with food, and think nothing of living in the shadow of descending aircraft. But trains, generally less common sights, are still very scary.

flickr: Tarnie

If you have a horse pasture near a train track, I think you’re very lucky. Oh, I’m sure you don’t love being woken in the night by the horn or that deep diesel sound or the clatter of the wheels on the tracks. (If it makes you feel any better, I hear the wheels and the engine clattering by too, but that’s because I live almost right on top of a subway track.) But admit it, you’re used to the sound – and so are your horses. And the more loud, terrifying, ginormous things your horses are used to, the better, am I right?

The folks that owned (or possessed, a more loose legal term) Packin’ Six lived in a truly bucolic setting, a dirt road off of a dirt road off of a dirt road, far from the madding crowd, far from grocery stores, even far from a gas station (as I’d find on the way home). But they had one dirty, loud reminder of the outside world: a freight train that went right in front of their house, across the dirt road from their front porch, several times a day.

The train track ran parallel to the dirt road, practically right up against it, a fact that I was considering carefully when the shoeless pre-teen leaned down from the saddle and asked if I wanted to ride the horse down the road.

She’d been producing some very nice 15 meter circles around me, digging her heels into the horse’s ribby sides whenever he swished his tail and tried to tell her that he just wasn’t strong enough to make such tight turns, but there wasn’t enough room in the little yard to do any more than a jog.

“We usually just ride down the road,” she explained. “Sometimes my dad comes along on the four-wheeler. They don’t mind it.”

I eyed the railroad track. “Is that track in use?” I asked. I had a thing about horses and trains. I’d never had a good experience yet. There’d been a trail ride, we’d been on a train track… I’ll tell you about it sometime.

She looked over her shoulder. “What, the trains? They don’t mind no trains.”

Well, they did live across the street. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll hop on.”

She slithered out of the saddle and held the Thoroughbred by the red reins while I stuck a boot in the plastic stirrup and swung aboard. I wiggled around, trying to get comfy, but what’s the use? There’s nothing less comfortable than a Western saddle! At least the stirrups, attached with baling twine instead of thick leather skirts, were nice and flexible. I dug my heel down deep and gave the horse a nudge, hurting my calves in the process. His ribs were like steel bars under my legs. Starving a horse might save someone money, but it does have the disadvantage of making them more uncomfortable to ride.

But he felt nice, bones and all. His steps were quick and fluid, cat-like. His head was high and his ears swung back and forth with each step. He felt proud, perhaps a little feral. I felt his arrogance and I warmed to it. I was arrogant too.

We went past my car, past the barbed-wire fence around the front yard, and into the sandy road. To our left were the rickety settlements of the landed poor. To the right was the freight train track. The Thoroughbred shook his head and pulled a little at the bit. I sat back in the Western saddle, affected my best Man From Snowy River pose, and threw my reins at him.

The train came while we were about a quarter mile down the road, still galloping in the deep sand in the middle of the road. I was bouncing like a fool in the sloppy saddle; his ears were pinned and he was deep in his own Black Stallion reverie. I looked over at the train and two men leaned out of the window of the locomotive, grinning back at me. I raised a hand and shouted, got a wave in return. They took their iron horse off down the tracks, headed south with untold tons of new cars and pick-ups in double-decker transporters, and I took my flesh-and-blood horse on north, galloping up the sandy road, unfazed by the modern world.

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5 Comments

Filed under Rapidan

5 responses to “The Railroad Track Test

  1. I’m really enjoying this series 🙂

  2. Nicholas

    This is a fun series, although if you don’t buy Packin’ 6 at the end of it, I’m going to be a tiny bit irritated. It’ll have been a long road to no house, to paraphrase.

    What was his Jockey Club name? Or is that getting ahead of the story?

  3. “There’s nothing less comfortable than a Western saddle! ” Huh, I’ve just been thinking about ranting about that very thing. But western is for work, and english is for pleasure.
    Isn’t it…

    Yeah, get that poor critter out of there! He’s melting his muscles off!
    🙂

  4. Okay, okay, I’ll buy him already. I just want to have a nice dramatic arc here 🙂

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