I’ve only truly feared for my life once. I was driving from Big Sur to San Francisco with two friends. We decided to stop at a ranch to go horseback riding on the beach. We talked to the stablehand, and were introduced to our horses.
“Do you have any riding experience?” he asked.
“Sure!” we replied cheerily, because junior high riding lessons totally count, right? I mean, I still knew all the words to En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind” and that was the same era, so the knowledge was definitely buried somewhere.
With these illustrious equine backgrounds, the stablehand decided that we didn’t need a guide, helmets, or any directions beyond “Turn around once you hit the beach.” Off we went down the trail, unsupervised and not at all courting danger.
The horses were the most miserable creatures I had ever come across. They plodded along, sighing almost audibly with each step, like emo teenagers. We constantly had to prod them forward. Every once in awhile they’d try to catch us not paying attention, and sneakily attempt to turn around and walk back to the ranch like the ride was over. If my horse could have willed itself to up and die, I am pretty sure it would have.
This went on for some time, until we finally reached the beach – suddenly, a dramatic transformation occurred. I had no idea what crazy Pavlovian conditioning had been going on with these animals, but the second they saw that ocean, also known as the turning point towards home, those pouty, lazy horses turned into Seabiscuit’s more aggro cousins. I had just enough time to grab two handfuls of reins and mane before my horse started running so fast that he probably looked like a flat line to witnesses.
You know how racehorses are basically running for the chance to knock up pretty broodmares for a living? These horses were running like they knew that. I pulled on the reins and shouted “Whoa!”, but it was about as useless as if I were tapping him with a feather. My previously downtrodden horse had suddenly remembered “Oh right, I weigh about 800 pounds more than this human; I should reconsider our current power dynamic.” As we reached the end of the beach, the trail picked back up, and I saw a small river crossing. Perfect! I thought. Nature’s obstacle! They would have to slow down.
I saw my friend Becky’s horse speed up, jumping into the river like it was in a John Wayne movie. I gritted my teeth and held on for my own inevitable leap – sure enough, within seconds I was soaked up to my thighs from the splashing. I squeezed my legs as tightly as I could against the saddle, holding fistfuls of mane in anticipation of the inevitable jump back out of the river. Countless versions of a grisly Final Destination-style death flashed through my mind: death by drowning, death by falling face-first in the rocks, death by sliding off the horse with one foot still caught in the stirrup causing my body to be dragged until every single one of my bones was broken. I wanted to close in my eyes in fear but forced them to stay open, watching for what came next. With a second giant leap, my horse sprang up the opposite river bank and back onto the trail. I made it! Thank God wet denim is grippy on leather.
As we progressed down the trail, the banshees beneath our butts finally began to slow down. I’d like to say that some latent equestrian skills kicked in, but in all honesty they finally just got tired. The transformation on the beach had been a startling reminder that any animal, no matter how seemingly docile and domesticated, still has instincts deeply encoded in their animal brains that cannot be overridden by human programming. We caught our breath, and high-fived each other for still being alive.
On the other side of the trail, a man on horseback approached us. He was dressed in full Mexican cowboy regalia, braided gold ropes on his shoulders and all. Oh thank God, a human ally, a real caballero to save us just in case our horses went batshit again! We exchanged pleasantries, and he mentioned that he was a friend of the stable’s owner and rode there all the time. And then, as we all stood safely still, he uttered two words that sealed our doom:
“Noooooooooooo!” It came out of my mouth in slow motion like a bad movie, but it was too late. He had already given his horse a big ol’ kick, and took off down the trail.
Seeing him, our horses practically squealed “Yay! Again!”, and hit the gas, running after him with the frenzied abandon of teenage girls in a Beatlemania documentary. As I once again switched into “hang on for deal life” mode, I noticed that the man looked strange in his seat, like he was bouncing on the saddle with no control. Then he was noticeably slipping, until he bounced right off the damn horse’s back, rolling down the trail like a cowboy tumbleweed. His saddle had loosened and swung down, until it hung under his horse’s belly. His mount bucked and bolted until it came across a meadow, where it stopped, calmly munching some post-murder grassy treats.
I swung my head to look back at the cowboy, who seemed to have finally rolled to a sitting stop. With the wind blurring my vision, I couldn’t tell if he was injured or not; he was just another blip on the ever-moving landscape. I thought of every war movie I had ever seen, when soldiers dig into previously untapped reserves of strength and courage to retrieve a fallen comrade.
“We should stop!” I called out to my friends.
“We can’t!” they yelled back.
“Sorry!” we shouted backwards, the worst soldiers ever. I hoped that he was OK and capable of walking back to the ranch. It could have just as easily been any one of us to take a tumble. Without giving us a say in the matter, our out-of-control horses carried us back to the ranch.
We dismounted as soon as we reached the gates, threw our reins to the stable hand, and blurted: “Thanks-that-was-great-by-the-way-there’s-a-guy-that-fell-on-the-trail-by-the-river-his-horse-is-loose-gotta-go!”
The stable hand glanced lazily towards the beach. “K. We’ll get ‘im.” He didn’t seem surprised.
We jumped into our truck, and hit the road to San Francisco without looking back.
Six months later, I mailed my friend Becky a birthday card. It had a beautiful illustration of wild horses galloping in a sunset-tinged meadow. Inside I wrote, “Hey, remember that time we left a man for dead? Happy birthday!”
Kim Nelson is a writer, performer, and former roller derby skater from Chicago. After retiring from contact sports, she became a regular contributor and co-editor of the literary blog Drinkers with Writing Problems. Kim has performed at various shows around town, including Chicago Sketchfest, the kates, Storylab, Miss Spoken, and Pungent Parlor. According to a Buzzfeed quiz, her spirit animal is a dog wearing sunglasses. You can follow her on Twitter @ponytailup.