- The Twelve-Hundred-Pound Vegetarian
It’s hard to say, exactly, how I ended up at a tourist ranch outside Steamboat Springs, Colorado, in the summer of 2016, whispering to the great brown left eye of a horse, Let’s don’t fuck this up, okay? You be nice to me and I’ll be nice to you, except that I felt a need for change in my life, one that I could not then name.
His name was Dually, which I didn’t then know was a common horse name and misheard as “Dooley.” He was tall and brown and sort of tired-looking. My wrangler/teacher, Samantha, led him out of a pen and tied him to a hitching rail. Cow dogs slunk around at our ankles, wagging their tails. The woman who owned the ranch set a plastic bucket with grimy brushes and combs at my feet and said, “Brush and groom your horse, okay?”
Already I was in trouble.
I had ridden horses at camp when I was five or so. I remember horses running back to the barn and how sometimes, they scraped us off under trees. Once, I fell off directly onto a rock and it hurt, but not as much as you’d think. The more amazing thing was how fast it seemed that my perspective shifted, from looking at the ground to looking at the sky. [End Page 133]
In high school, I rode horses English style for a couple of semesters, but as a pudgy, allergic, indoorsy child, I didn’t enjoy it and gave it up. In my experience, someone simply handed me the reins to a horse; I had never in my life brushed or groomed a horse. I’d had the same type of relationship with horses as I had with bicycles: I sat on them and tried to make them go.
Yet there I was, in Steamboat Springs, looking to rewrite my equine narrative. I wore a pair of jeans from Anthropologie and Frye boots, and surely looked a little fresh-from-the-mall, like a New Yorker out west for a week. It was July, and the heat was incredible.
The women who worked at the ranch wore tooled leather belts and dusty boots. In the air was the grassy smell of hay, the warm flesh scent of the horses, and the pungent, ammoniac odor of urine. I didn’t know why, but I loved it. I was dizzy. I wanted in the club. I wanted to be like these women, who seemed pragmatic and unflappable. I wanted to be myself and, also, to become someone else. To do that, I was going to have to climb on top of a twelve-hundred-pound vegetarian, an animal, I saw for the first time, who lived in terror, with one eye on either side of its head, a creature who, despite its mass and size, is also prey and knows it.
Brush and groom your horse. Instead of telling the ranch owner that I’d only ever groomed a plastic toy horse, I picked up a brush and whispered to Dually, Just go with it, okay? and I ran the brush over that horse as the dust rose from his back. Sam watched me try to heave a saddle on his back, complete with a brief, inept, backward stagger on my part, during which Sam had to save me from toppling over, and off we went, to ride.
On that first day of horse lessons, Sam made me walk and trot and asked if I wanted to canter. Sure, I said, thinking of the young women around the ranch, thinking that’s what they’d say. Sure, of course, why not. She said I had the most electric butt she’d ever seen, a term meaning that I was able to convey to the horse, through my seat, what I wanted. (Later, I googled the term. Electric butt means something very different on the internet, as it turns out.) My hands were not quiet—I flapped like a sea bird—but I hung on, and at the end, Sam said, “You know what you...