On my first morning at work, Tori looks at me and says calm down. I’m a little hurt by it. We have so many horses to saddle and six rides to get out, and I’m about to take her place for the rest of the season. I know nothing. I just picked up a mule saddle – britchen and bridle attached – and face the impossible task of getting it onto a horse whose shoulders dwarf me. I don’t know how to calm down. I feel helpless and mistaken. I shouldn’t be here.
I somehow miss bridling the horses that day. I imagine that I could do it if I needed to (I remember talking to Ben on the phone about the stables job. You know it’s really hard work, right? Yes, I know that more than most people. I have no idea. I have nooooo idea.) The first horse I try to bridle pulls his head back and C. snaps at me. Tori has left for the season but I remember the way she looked at me. I remember how tiny I felt, how dumb.
There’s often a way out. I’m not sure I could do that first week again. The way out could have been running back to HR to move to a different job. But the way out was so much easier – calm down. I walk down the rail and bridle horse after mule after horse after mule. I take a moment before each one. I say sorry and please, then thank you. The mules’ ears are so big. The bridles feel so awkward in my hands. I’m so worried this will be the time it goes wrong again, but I can’t go into it that way. Calm down. I act like I’ve done it a million times. I can get the saddles onto those tall backs. I can crossfire the cinches and change the stirrups and give the Mirror Lake speech when I lead out. But the real trick? Acting like I’ve done it a million times. Acting like I’m not scared when I ride a new horse. Acting like I’ve sat through a spooked horse on a forest trail and like I’ve been working at the stables for months and like I’m not about to cry when I fuck something up for the millionth time and get snapped at. I’m not. I’m not. I’ve done this a million times.
I worked seventy hours that week. Each night, I swore I pushed my body to its limit. I ate dinner, slept, woke up again at 6:30 and found that I could go farther – because I had to. Because I had to. I didn’t know if I could do another week, and weeks later, here I am – hardly sore at all. Swinging saddles onto the biggest mules. Acting unfazed when CJ takes off running through the yard with my right leg only halfway over the saddle. Still saying thank you when the mules let me push their ears through the backs of the bridles.
On my seventh straight day, Charlotte and I just had two girls on the noon ride – nine and eleven years old, sisters. They’d never been on a horse before, and we made it all the way around the lake – the first time Charlotte had done that all year. The girls kept turning around to smile at each other. When they got off back at the barn, they said thank you in a way that mattered. It’s these tiny things, these brightest spots. They matter.
Yesterday I got kicked by a mule – one of our sweetest ones. His hoofprint is on my shirt and my stomach, my tiny bottom rib cracked by its force. On the ground, I feared the mules would get loose and run over me. I sprung up and couldn’t breathe. Charlotte came to me, wrapped her arms around me, helped me get to the picnic table. Cayla called an ambulance. It didn’t hurt then, but I wondered if it would come – yes.
The mules didn’t get loose, they didn’t trample me, and Cash didn’t kick me a little higher (straight on the ribs) or a little lower (straight on the hip). What does that make of luck? Of God?
I took my workers comp paperwork to my boss and looked for Cash in the paddock. I’m sorry for the mules, sorry for much of this park right now. The season is finally slowing, we are resting. No more seven day weeks. Everyone is so tired, so removed from tenderness. But it is pulled from somewhere. At the medical clinic, I tell the RN you’re all so nice here. He tells me it’s just part of the job. I like to think it’s more than that. I want to have faith in a world that tends toward kindness, toward tenderness, toward understanding. Some days, even the cracked-rib-days, it does.