I used to hear them talk about it when I was a kid. About old timers losing their nerve. Having to take a drink or two before they got up on a horse and rode a race or a course of eight fences in the show ring. “He’s lost his Nerve, can’t ride without a flask in his pocket.” As a kid, I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand the fear of getting hurt or even the fear of embarrassing yourself. And I really couldn’t understand how someone could ride a horse while loaded. But there it was. And I would go to the races or the big horse shows and I’d see the Old Timers who had lost their nerve, slightly bent at all corners of their bodies and I watched them so carefully, as though I could see the hole in their side where the nerve had fallen out. But they’d clock around a four-foot hunter course easy as could be or end up in the winner’s circle at the end of a steeplechase, mud on their cheeks and they seemed brilliant to me, and fearless.
You don’t have to get hurt real bad to lose your nerve. All it takes maybe is one horse to put the idea in your head that he’s in charge and you’re not. Or time might just wear your nerve down, the way a river starts out all rapid and rocky and straight, but centuries go by and the river begins to meander, slow down, and widen, its just not swift anymore. Nerve can disappear so gradually that the owner has no idea that it ever left, all they know is they just don’t take the chances they used to take.
I actually remember the horse that put the first bruise on my nerve. He was a 17.2 three year old hunt prospect -- I was helping school the horse to become a gentleman’s hunter. The first thing that worried me about him was that he fell down a lot. Everywhere we took him -- fields, woods, even in the ring -- he tripped like a big stupid kid and then he’d go down on his knees and bloody his nose and leave you leaning back as far as you could in the saddle praying that his nose would stop the fall, cause who wants 1,400 pounds of dumb colt rolling over on top of you? But then one cold morning, I took him out. Snow flurries were coming down and I thought, I’ll just take the big kid out for a long hack in the fields. Well, he had other ideas. We got a couple hundred yards away from the barn, and damn if he didn’t take off his training wheels and rear straight up in the air with me and proceed to walk around on his hind legs. I was 25 years old and I had never had a horse rear with me -- I’d had them buck, take off, whirl, drop their shoulders, prop, you name it, but I never had one rear, and this fellow was so big, so tall, that when he did it, my head was up in the clouds. All I could think, was you clumsy sonofabitch, don’t fall over! I put my arms around his big old neck and just waited for him to get back down on four feet. I don’t know how long he was up there, up on his hind legs, but it was an eternity to me. And because I was so tiny, all 5 foot 4 and 98 pounds of me had no physical say in the matter. So I just waited. And waited. And finally, he came back down, and just when I thought, I think I’ll step off of this horse and take him back to the barn, UP he went again. Seemed he liked this new trick! He was quite proud of his new found talent. The snow began to fall harder, the fields were disappearing under a blanket of pure white, and I was doing circus tricks for no one to see. I made a plan, I dropped my stirrups, and just when I felt him come back down to earth again, I catapulted myself down to the ground, where I landed as pretty as Nadia Comaneci. And I took him back to the barn. I never walked back in on foot with a horse. Never. No matter what happened, I always stayed on and rode back in. But this Gentleman’s Hunter put the fear in me. Next week he was on a truck, gone. I heard some years later he ended up as a college equestrian team horse -- long legged college girls rode him day in and day out, I guess they took the rear out of him. So to speak.
I didn’t quit riding. I just quit riding that particular horse. But it was the first time a horse had ever behaved bigger than me. So I guess, the rip was there, my nerve was already leaking away.
That was twenty years ago. And some eight years ago I bought my own horse after begging, borrowing, and nearly stealing horses from anybody who would let me. I bought a half-broke three year old quarter horse named Joe. And he damn near killed me the first year I had him. We had a run in with a buck in the woods causing Joe to whirl out from under me and for a moment I was suspended in mid air, but eventually gravity took over and I hit the ground, breaking the fall with my head. My hunt cap received a rock shaped dent the size of my fist. I got a new hunt cap and got back in the saddle. And then things got even more interesting. Joe turned out to have quite a bucking ability. Something akin to Little Yellow Jacket. Finally, Joe got so adept, he rocketed me in a field far from home -- I broke a rib clean through, suffered a hematoma to my sacrum, and got a whale of a concussion. I was 39 years old and seriously considering taking up tennis. But a friend recommended I send Joe to a cowboy. I hesitated. I thought, I come from horsemen on both sides of my family, I should be able to figure this out on my own. If my mother got wind of this, she'd be ashamed of me. I had grown up riding show horses and hunt horses and race horses -- where was my bravery? Where was my gumption? Where was my God-given ability with horses? Where was my Nerve?
But I was racked up and it would be a few weeks before I could ride again. Joe stood shiny as a copper penny in the paddock, ready to do me in. So I gave in. I took him to the cowboy. When we got there, I pulled Joe off the truck and Billy The Cowboy stood back and looked Joe up and down, “Man! He’s big!” Billy, I came to find out trained cutting horses -- his barn was full of these tiny stocky quarter horses. I asked him why they were so small? “Cause I want them to look a cow right in the eye while we’re cuttin’” That made complete sense to me. Billy took Joe’s lead rope out of my hand, “He bucks?”
“Yeah, he bucks. And he can buck going up hill.”
“You don’t say." Billy looked at Joe and then back at me, "Up hill?”
“Yeah. Up hill.”
“Okay, he’s mine for the next three weeks. Don’t come here. Don’t call. Just forget about him. I’ll call you.”
And so I left. I had no idea what Billy was going to do with my horse. All I knew was that at the end of three weeks, he was going to tell me one of two things: Keep Him or Sell Him.
Billy called three weeks later, all he said was this, “Come over tomorrow. We’ll talk about your horse.” I lay in bed that night wondering what the verdict would be. I thought maybe Billy has a nice little cutting horse for me, one that doesn’t want to cut, but just Be Mine. But I couldn’t get Joe outta my mind. He was my horse. I bought him off another cowboy, a real horse dealer with a bad reputation. I saved Joe from a future life as a Reining Horse. I was going to make him just a good all round hunt horse -- some fox hunting, some hunter pacing, mostly a trusted horse I could ride off into the woods with and leave the world behind. But it was possible that Billy was going to tell me, “He’s a killer, sell him to the rodeo.”
But instead, Bill met me smiling at the barn door, with Joe, all tacked up, “He’s a real nice horse. He just needs more to do. You need to jump him. Alot. He loves to jump. If you let him jump alot, he won’t buck so much.”
Bill had spent the last three weeks riding Joe in the Hill Forest, under a big, I mean, huge western stock saddle, and Bill jumped Joe over all the fox hunting jumps in that forest. Big coops, post and rails, and this downed tree that was infamous, it had something like a 4 foot spread. I had only jumped Joe over some small cross rails, I was taking his jumping education slowly, but Billy just took him out in the woods and pointed him at anything and everything. I had this picture in my mind of Billy and Joe jumping that big tree -- Billy in his gingham shirt with the pearl snap buttons and his baseball hat, his big custom Texas boots stuck out over Joe’s shoulders, while he leaned back in the saddle, cause that’s how cowboys jump big trees and Joe jumping as high as he could jump and hoping that there was solid ground on the other side of that tree.
My horse was cured. Well, we had found his calling in life. Joe needed to get Air Time. And if I didn’t provide him with proper Air Time, that is: jumping jumps, then Joe would take it upon himself to get his own Air Time, by bucking.
Fast Forward to now. Joe’s eleven years old. I can’t believe it really. And we’ve fox hunted and hunter paced and ridden miles and miles of countryside with terrific friends. I rode with one of our Whipper-Ins during the hunt a couple of springs ago, a man who doesn't care for horses much, just cares for hunting with hounds -- after a rough morning of following him through wild country, two Views (a gray fox and aa red fox), after chasing down some stray hounds, after this Whip pulled his pistol out and shot it in the air to stop the stray hounds and then looked at me and apologized, "Oh, dear, I didn't even ask if your horse minds a gun" which it turned out my horse didn't mind one bit, declared at the end of the hunt, "You know I don't care for horses much, but your horse, I would hunt him gladly." And that made me probably a little prouder of Joe than I really should be.
My nerve is at a comfortable middle-range. I don’t take the wild chances I used to, actually, I don’t really take any chances, but some friends who I grew up riding with find me to be a daredevil because I ride cross-country by myself, but I can’t imagine not being able to strike off on my own into the woods with my horse, life wouldn’t be as good really. So its all relative. I give myself a hard time sometimes for not pushing the envelope with my horse more. But I look at other riders and see they stay within a safety zone that I can’t imagine staying in. Years ago, when I had no horse of my own, I told myself all I wanted was an old polo pony to ride in a field somewhere, that would be enough for me after a childhood spent riding in countless horse shows and foxhunting, just give me a quiet old horse to hack around on and I’ll be as happy as a rabbit in a garden of lettuce. But Joe has been more than that old polo pony I dreamed of. He’s given me a gift I never thought a horse could give me -- nerve be damned.