Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Tribute to Napoleon

When I pass on, I will probably be remembered as an annoyingly prolific writer by those who had to exist with me in tight living quarters. Only a small percentage of my writing has been published, but I have scores of journals, poems, short fiction, essays, newspaper columns, screenplays, and novels stored in computers, notebooks, and boxes all over my house. And, of course, now I'm in the blogosphere. I can't not write. It's my impulse. It's my compulsion. It's my habit.

I rely on my autobiographical writing to be my memory. I recently came across this portion of an essay I wrote called "The Hoof Beats of my Heart" in which I run through my history with horses. The essay is too long to publish in one post, but I wanted to at least include this portion about the first Arabian horse I met, Napoleon.

My parents tried to quench my thirst for horses by sending me to a camp that claimed to allow their campers to ride horses whenever they desired. My plans were to make a beeline to the stables as soon as my mother had me registered and checked in. However, a voice came over the loud speaker announcing that all campers had to report to their counselors in their cabins. I was lined up against the wall of our cabin with a dozen girls my age who I didn’t know while headcounts and role calls were taken over and over. I knew that the stables closed at 5:00 PM, which was fast approaching, and I didn’t understand why I was being held against my will. By the time they released me, the horses had been put away for the night, so I reported to the mess hall for dinner, then to the campfire, then the cabin for sleep, where I stared at the bottom of the bunk above me all night while waiting for morning.

Immediately after breakfast I raced to the stables to ride, but found that a group of campers had reserved that time for a lesson. A stocky, brusque, angry woman in blue jeans spit on me while asking what I wanted.

“I want to ride a horse,” I said.

Scouring me up and down with her eyes and a look of disapproval, she asked, “How long have you been at camp?”

“One day.”

“No! No, no, no! You cannot take a horse out on your own until you’ve had group lessons for two weeks.”

My heart sank, “But I’m only going to be here for two weeks.”

“Sorry, honey. You’ll just have to get your parents to pay for more time if you want to ride on your own,” she said while closing the gate between us.

I hung around to watch the others ride for their measly half hour. Group lessons consisted of 12 girls on horses walking in circles. They were not allowed to jog, trot, or canter. Anyone who let her horse break out of the walk was chastised. If she did it again, she was asked to dismount, and her horse was whisked away. I knew there wasn’t much reason to stay and waste my parents’ money at this camp, so I feigned illness until the camp nurse gave up on trying to heal me and called my mother to come and get me. That was when my mother gave me the tragic news that a camp bus had rolled down the side of a cliff, killing or injuring several campers the day before, and she was relieved to receive that call from the nurse and have me back home early, as no one would give her any information as to whether I was on that bus or not.

My parents then enrolled me in a day camp that promised to let the campers ride horses at least two hours a week. The camp brochure said that the kids were taught to play games like Capture the Flag on horseback, and there was a picture of a girl on a white horse holding a flag above her head as she crossed the territorial line at a canter. I took my chances.

Most of the horses were tired looking, with one exception: A chestnut Arabian gelding named Napoleon. While all the other horses had to be kicked repeatedly just to wake them up, Napoleon knew no gait slower than a trot. He trotted everywhere he went, his neck arched, nostrils flared, tail in the shape of a candy cane. I knew I had to have him.

My counselor that first summer handled horse assignments by letting the most aggressive kids have their way.

“Okay, who wants to ride what horse?” she’d ask, and everyone yelled for Napoleon. The loudest, most obnoxious kids who stuck their hands in her face got Napoleon. By the end of summer, I hadn’t even been able to get close enough to Napoleon to pet him.

The next summer I had an elementary school teacher for my counselor. She made us lie on the grass under an oak tree to rest or nap for half an hour before we rode our horses. Those who were the quietest got first choice of what horse they wanted. Day after day I kept my mouth shut and laid perfectly still, yet somehow she overlooked me. Someone else was always chosen before me, and that person always chose Napoleon. One day, I decided to not just hold still and keep quiet, but I decided to hold my breath repeatedly for as long as I could. A fly landed on me several times, but I didn’t budge. I was so still that no one could see my chest moving up and down. At the end of the rest period, my name was called first.

“Napoleon!” I shouted. “I get Napoleon!”

My counselor’s eyes narrowed and her head shook from side to side, “No, I think Napoleon is a little too much horse for you, honey. Choose another horse.”

“No! Napoleon! I have to have Napoleon!” I screamed, scared by the tears rolling down my cheeks.

“Okay,” she sighed.

I felt like the most important person in the world when I mounted that horse. He was tall, but felt even taller with the upright head. As the wranglers led the single-file line out from under the oak tree down into the desert, Napoleon lurched into his trot. I bounced up and down, side to side like a rag doll. All that flopping alerted the wrangler in the back, who cantered up alongside me to grab my reins.

“Hang on with your legs and knees,” she yelled.

I clamped down with my whole leg, including my heels, and Napoleon transitioned into a full gallop, evading the wranglers grip. The speed turned my stomach inside out and I made some noise halfway between a moan and a scream, and then all my muscles loosened into some condition opposite from a seizure, sending me into a motion of flying forward, then back, forward, then back. Napoleon’s head came up as I flew forward and I smashed my mouth against the back of his head before being sent back down onto the bareback pad again. Despite the motion sickness and split lip, I was in ecstasy, having the ride I’d dreamed about all my 10 years of life. When I lost the reins, I simply hugged my arms around his neck. None of this seemed to be a problem to me, yet there were several adults on horses chasing us, screaming “Ho!” and “Whoa!”

Eventually, Napoleon stopped and I was dragged off his back crying. They thought I was crying because I was scared, but I was mainly crying because they were forcing me to ride a different horse. Two years I had waited to ride that horse, and all I got on him was 5 minutes.

But it was one of the most impressive 5 minutes of my life.


Twinville said...

I hung on tightly reading your memoirs of Napoleon and a 10 year old girl.

And the last paragraph covered me with goosebumps and brought tears to eyes.

You truly moved me.

Thanks for sharing this. I look forward to future memoirs.

Rising Rainbow said...

I have to say I can totally relate to the longing to ride such a horse. I'm glad that you finally got to ride him but sad it didn't last long. If an experience like that didn't scare you, I doubt much will. lol That's when you know you have the bug bad!

Callie said...

What an awesome memory.........I remember girlscout camp and getting to ride the horses and play games.

misha said...

That's so cool! That stinks that after 2 years you got 5 minutes. :( Did you ever get to ride him after that? You're such a good writer!

Beckz said...

Oh my. I'm pleased you got to ride Napoleon but I think that would have been my last ride on a horse ever!

Tracey said...

How glorious and sad, all at the same time.

I refuse to send Darling to horse camp. Much easier to have a horse here. I once sent her on a ride similar to your's and Napoleon's, but she wasn't crying for joy when she was done :)

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

Thank you for your comments. I never did get to ride Napolean again. Our day camp switched to a different stable a short time later, where there was another horse that will receive my next tribute, Snowball. Back in those days, there were little safety precautions on horses. Kids fell off on a regular basis, everyone burst out laughing including the kid who fell, and then she brushed herself off and got back on. No one wore helmets. There was either a Paint or Pinto named Splash who was notorious for rolling in water every time we crossed a stream. The kids fought over him too, because they wanted to have the challenge of jumping off in water before he went down. I got to ride him a lot because I was the only one who had the strength and the sense to keep his head up in the first place, so that he couldn't roll.

BarnGoddess said...

wow! what a story!

this proves just how much kids are misunderstood.

I bet your mother was frantic about the bus crash.

The summer I was 10yo, my horse (after i graduated from my mean little shetland Cricket), Patches and I went away to a camp together in Southern part of MI. Of course he and I were both treated like 'hicks' because we hailed from the UP of MI and he was a paint 1/2 ARab 1/2 QH. We did win first place in Western Pleasure at the end of the week we were away together. Showed the snotty girls and the hateful counselor up on that one.

jdp said...

Does this post perfectly sum up being horse-crazy or what?