19th annual Marquette Monthly short story contest winner

A Made Pony

 by Meghan Namaste

I stood in the barn aisle, thoroughly winded after mucking my share of the stalls at fever pitch. I had my hands full, trying to keep up with the more experienced stable hands who went about their work as if it required no more exertion than couch surfing.

0904fea1My newly acquired muscles burned, and my hands had become so blistered I no longer recognized them. When I first got this job, I had thought it to be an act of kindness on the part of Solly Turner, an old man who made the choice to live out his days in this stable instead of a nursing home. Now I couldn’t help but wonder if he had meant for me to learn a lesson. Point taken.
With the stalls done, I assumed I was free until time came to scoop grain and all manner of supplements from carefully labeled bins for the polo ponies’ evening meal. That was my job description: feed in the morning, muck stalls, then feed once more in the evening. Hadn’t sounded too difficult at first, but it was a vicious cycle of grueling labor. The other stable hands did much more, some even exercising the horses, but I was too inexperienced to be trusted with such valuable animals. I was learning to ride under the guidance of Solly and Cricket, a former polo pony whose arthritic hocks had earned her retirement after many years of service. As Solly frequently reminded me, the difference between Cricket and a pony in its prime was that of a golf cart and a sports car.
I hadn’t grown up with horses. More accurately, I had never touched a horse in fourteen years of life until I crawled under the gate out in front of the Lexington Polo Club and woke up the next morning with a horse’s breath in my palm. In the words of Wilson, the barn manager, head trainer and team coach, “Kid, you are real lucky we’re short one hand.” Jobs at such an elite facility were sought after, and in order for someonelike me, with no experience or connections, you needed to be in the right place at the right time.
I heard shuffling footsteps behind me. Soon, Solly was at my side, wearing his trademark overalls, ascot cap and strange smile.
“Wilson said to get that end stall ready,” he said. “And Wilson said to bed it down thick, ’cause this new occupant might not be comin’ out for a while.”
Even for Solly, that statement was downright strange.
“Wilson bought an injured horse?” I asked.
Solly snorted.
“Are you kidding? Wilson’d sooner shoot a gimpy horse than buy it. This mare’s fit and healthy, all $10 of her.”
My eyebrow raised.
“OK then. What kind of horse can you get for ten dollars, anyway?”
“In this case, a made pony, and a brilliant one at that. Knows the game up, down, backwards and sideways.”
I stared at him in disbelief. “Ten dollars? For a made pony?”
Solly looked at me with sadness in his eyes.
“No, Cavanaugh,” he said. “Ten dollars for a ruined pony.”
He shuffled off, and I followed.
“You’d best get to work on that stall, Cavanaugh, and I’ll tell you what I know.”
The stall had been stripped already, and I quickly poured in a generous helping of shavings, then spread them with a few swift strokes of a shovel. I turned to Solly.
“Well?”
“This mare had a few successful seasons under her girth when this guy Alfred Harrows bought her. He paid a sizeable amount for her, maybe even more than she was worth, because her owner was reluctant to sell her to anyone, but especially Mr. Harrows,” Solly sighed. “The mare had received the best training a horse could hope to have. She had the build for polo—fast as lightning. But even more than that, she had that fire inside that drives a horse to win even when it’s pouring rain, the mud is fetlock-deep and her rider is tired and has already given up. Her owner could foresee what might happen to her in Harrows’ hands, but he was running a business. Harrows gave him an offer he couldn’t refuse, and he didn’t.”
0904fea2I leaned against a pitchfork, eager and afraid to hear what would happen next. Solly stared right through me, his expression distant.
“Lots of people think they have to dominate the horse, Cavanaugh. They don’t think the horse can hear them, and they sure as hell don’t listen to the horse. This mare—Eloise, that’s her name—was trained to respond to fingertip pressure on the reins, but that wasn’t how this guy rode. He was rough with her. Real rough.”
His eyes focused on me.
“I don’t know exactly what happened, but I can pretty much guess. She fights the pressure, refuses to stop. He puts some hellish bit in her mouth, hauls on her, and she fights even more. She’s in pain. She’s freaked out of her mind and she’s got a right to be, ’cause this guy’s acting like a predator on her back. The rest I know for a fact: she reared up, and went over backwards. Unfortunately, this guy bailed just in time, so she didn’t fall on him. He caught her, got right back on, and had his groom hold her down while he beat her.”
I realized, after a few beats of silence, I had stopped breathing.
Solly shook his head.
“In a couple weeks, this mare’s value went from five figures to two. The barn manager posted a rule that anyone who came in contact with her had to have a gun on them. All the hands were terrified of her. Harrows contacted just about everyone in the region, begging them to take this horse off his hands. When Wilson agreed to, I’ll bet he threw a party. Son of a bitch probably opened a $10 bottle of wine.”
He laughed hollowly.
I took a deep, ragged breath.
“What is Wilson going to do with her?”
Solly threw his hands in the air.
“I have no idea, Cavanaugh. I don’t think he does, either. If he can repair the damage and get her playing again, she’ll be the greatest living bargain of all time. If she doesn’t kill somebody first,” he added.
The sound of tires on gravel reached my ears. Both of our heads whipped around at the same time. I could see a battered-looking, single horse trailer through the open door. Solly and I approached it cautiously. Now that the engine had been shut off, the rig was ominously quiet. “D’you think she’s dead?” I hissed.
Solly rolled his eyes.
“No, Cavanaugh. If they shot her, why would they bother hauling her sorry carcass all the way here?”
Wilson’s footsteps rang in my ears as he strode past us to meet the driver, who had climbed out of his truck.
“How did she ride?” he asked brusquely.
“Oh, she rode quiet enough. Took four men to get her loaded, though, and they were a heck of a lot bigger than that kid over there.”
I heard barely stifled laughter from behind me, and glanced over my shoulder. Sure enough, the other stable hands had gathered in the aisle in time to hear me humiliated.
Wilson’s eyes took in all of the hands.
“Dudley. Aldridge. Ramor!” he barked.
The eyes of the men he called upon widened considerably.
“What about the kid?” Aldridge demanded. He had never been a fan of mine.
Wilson glared at Aldridge.
“I don’t like that Cavanaugh kid any more than you do, Clint. But I’m sure you’d rather unload that mare than scrape his brain matter off the floor. So get to it.”
Without further complaint, the three hands made their way to the trailer.
“Stand back, everybody,” Wilson snapped.
The driver lowered the ramp, and the trailer door swung open to reveal a dappled-grey mare. She was fighting fit, and her entire body was braced in tension. Her head was fine and feminine with a strong profile, and her large, intelligent eyes seemed to size up the men who approached her. Ramor, known for his calm way with horses, stepped into the trailer and pulled the quick release knot on one of three lead ropes clipped to her halter.
“Easy, mare,” he said softly. As he took hold of her lead, she looked like a normal horse. But in seconds, she became a monster.
The mare bolted down the ramp, dragging Ramor behind her. He nearly went down when his feet hit the gravel. Aldridge and Dudley rushed forward, each grabbing a lead. Eyes rolling, the mare thrashed between them. Ramor recovered his hold on her, and her eyes focused on him. She bared her teeth, and in a split second she had sunk them into his shoulder. Ramor jerked away from her. She lunged after him, ears flat against her skull.
“Run to her stall!” Wilson bellowed. “It’s the only way you’ll get her in!”
Ramor hesitated for a moment, then took off for the end stall. Aldridge and Dudley let out the slack in the lead ropes, and the mare leapt the short distance to the stall, dragging the massive stable hands with her. As Ramor dodged her teeth and bolted from the stall, Dudley and Aldridge slammed the door shut seconds before she flung herself into it.
For a few minutes, the only sound to be heard was the ragged breathing of Dudley and Aldridge as Wilson, the driver and all of the hands stared at the locked stall. Finally, Ramor uttered a string of obscenities, then announced he would be taking the rest of the day off. Everyone took this as their cue to get back to work.
As the evening feed commenced, Wilson was nowhere to be found. Wordlessly, everyone went about their usual routines, and all of the horses were fed, with one notable exception.
Which is how I found myself in front of the end stall with a pail of grain in my hand.
“I don’t think this is such a good idea,” I said, glancing helplessly at Solly.
“Cavanaugh, do you believe in Santa Claus?” he asked.
“No,” I growled. I wasn’t in the mood for Solly’s eccentricity.
“Well, there’s about as much chance of that guy comin’ to feed this horse than of me bailin’ you out.”
The other hands roared with laughter. I glared at them.
“How many times have I cleaned your stalls when you didn’t feel like it, and never said a word? I don’t ask for much around here. I just want to make it through the day!”
Silence ensued. I took a deep breath.
“Fine. But if I’m dying in this stall, you’re not getting the pleasure of watching it. So go somewhere else, and if you hear a ‘thud,’ call 911, OK?”
Solly turned to the other hands.
“I think we owe him that much, fellas.”
Several heads nodded in agreement, and they wandered off, leaving me to die.
I unbolted the door, and opened it just a crack. The mare stood in the far corner of the stall. Her head was lowered and she stared into nothingness. She was alone in the world, and no one had been kind to her in a long time. I knew the feeling.
I opened the door just enough for an escape route, and slipped into the stall. I let my shoulders sag, and didn’t look her in the eye. Body hugging the wall, I made my way to her feed tub and poured the oats in. Then I retreated to the door. Her eyes were on me, but she still held her submissive stance.
Without thinking, I slid down the wall. This is crazy. I really am going to get myself killed. But something kept me from leaving. I sat in the shavings, watching her. She had raised her head, and her nostrils quivered. She smelled the oats. Keeping one eye on me, she walked to the feed rub and eagerly began to chew. When she finished, she returned to her corner. “Good girl, Eloise,” I said quietly. She braced a bit at the sound of my voice, so I kept talking until she relaxed. Then I crawled out of the stall and closed the door.
I stood up and headed for the hayloft, but I hadn’t gone ten feet before I ran into Solly.
“You’re covered in shavings,” he said, grasping my shoulders. “Are you hurt?”
I shook my head. “I’m fine. No thanks to you, though.”
Solly smiled.
“I knew you could do it.”
“Then why did you think I was hurt?” I asked.
“Well, you know,” he grinned. “I’ve been wrong before.”

0904fea3
I returned to Eloise’s stall, bearing two large flakes of hay, which I set near her door.
Feeding Eloise became a part of my routine. The other hands were mystified as to how I was still alive, but they were happy to leave the job to me. Each time I fed her, she became more confident in my presence, though I still hadn’t made contact with her. That needed to change. Her stall was filthy, so I devised a plan.
I chose a quiet afternoon at the stable. After giving Eloise her evening ration early, I approached her with a lead. She made no move to charge or retreat. Speaking softly, I reached out and rubbed her neck. Flinching a little at my touch, her eyes showed fear. I removed my hand. She relaxed. I touched her again, advancing and retreating until she accepted me. Then I clipped the lead to her halter, but left it slack. I watched her closely. I couldn’t take that first step forward until she was ready. I had seen how she reacted to force. I opened her stall door, then took her lead in my hand.
“It’s your decision, Elle,” I said.
She took one step toward the open door. She was tense, but her ears were pricked. I began walking, and her hooves thudded behind me, then rang loud and sharp on the concrete aisle. We walked to the cross ties, and I clipped them onto her halter.
Showing no signs of panic, she watched as I cleaned her stall and poured down fresh bedding, then tossed a flake of hay into her favorite corner. I released her from the cross ties. Then we made our way back to her stall. She stood still as I unclipped the lead, and for a moment after. Then she went to her hay. She did not watch me. She trusted.
I had never ridden in a polo match, and couldn’t comprehend that feeling. I had a fleeting thought that it couldn’t be better than this. Then I returned to my chores.
MM

About the Author: Meghan Namaste is a homeschooled, soon-to-be-seventeen-year-old who has lived on a farm in the woods her whole life without electricity. She raises sheep and goats, enjoys the peace and quiet—often punctuated by her goats demanding food and attention—and occasionally finds the time to sit down at a computer and work on a novel. She is an aspiring dressage rider who hopes to share a strong bond with her new mare, Sofie, and help her become the best she can be. She is thankful to her parents for their support and for letting her do things her own way.

Twitter Digg Delicious Stumbleupon Technorati Facebook Email

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.