Hell-Bent for Leather...in which Uncle Duke rides again




I have not ridden a horse in a long while now. And it is to my great regret. Being on the back of such an animal, a beast of such strength and power and intelligence, was a high honor and an experience of lifelong value. In many ways riding a horse at full tilt was like piloting a jet plane through clouds. Or steering a paddle wheeler down the Mississippi. Or taking a 2-mile-long freight train through the middle of Chicago. It was being at the controls of something much bigger and stronger than myself, guiding the both of us through potential peril and coming out the other end. Unscathed. But markedly changed. It was always a small miracle.

I’m not sure I was all that willing when my father sat me on a horse that first time. I was looking forward to the idea of riding a horse. I liked the way I saw myself looking on a horse. In that version—the television version-- I whistled for my steed, and he ran to me from across the pasture. I leapt miraculously onto his back. I didn’t need any silly saddle. Or halter. Or bridle for that matter. I was confident and secure. My horse and I were a unit. He responded to my thought commands. We were One Animal. He leaned when I leaned. He veered when I veered. He stopped when I stopped. We sniffed the same air and sensed the same dangers. We cleared fences, swerved around rattlesnakes, leapt over quicksand and fought off cougars. We spoke the same language, he and I. He laughed when I laughed. He peed when I peed.

I particularly liked the way I looked as my mount—my best friend--reared mightily and balanced on his hind legs. I would wave my cowboy hat at everyone and whoop mightily. Then we would gallop off, the two of us, the dust rising behind us like an entire posse.

That was the fantasy of course. The boy and his beloved horse. The reality was that horses are LARGE, FREAKING ANIMALS. So when my father picked me up and put me in the saddle, I was like 15’-20’ off the ground. I was sitting atop a two-story garage. I was saddled up on the back of a tanker truck, absolutely scared shitless, with a death grip on that saddle horn.

Then without much in the way of instructions, Daddy gave me the reigns, gave ol’ Cap’n a good solid swat on his rump with the flat of his hand and we went bouncing off down the lane, me hanging on to that horse like a leach. The abyss awaited me off either side, and I tried desperately to keep my butt in the center as Cap’n clopped around pretty much as he pleased. Fortunately, there was nowhere very far away to get to. All the gates were closed, so without any real direction from me, he eventually trotted back to where we started. And I was ready to call it a day. This cowboying was tough work. Scary too. And if one had to choose, why horse were fine to look at, but the ground was a much more substantial and entirely less dangerous place to be.

It was a gradual understanding that horses and I came to. I got on plenty of them after that, and we reached a mutual agreement of sorts. My fantasies dissolved pretty quick, and I never again felt that riding a horse was like riding an overgrown pet. I got used to their size, and they came to realize that I meant them no intentional harm.

They taught me an unfortunate lesson or two, lessons about center-of-gravity, showing off and such. These were lessons I needed to learn. Also lessons about over-confidence. These I absolutely deserved to learn. It turns out that horses resent arrogance something awful, and that they pay a good deal more attention than most of us give them credit for. Consequently I never underestimated any of them again. They could certainly be devious and circumspect. But also protective and loyal. I realized at some point that we were equal partners in this endeavor, this mounting and riding thing. Though it was often a test of wills, a formidable challenge, it was always worth the risk.

To my knowledge, our sons have never ridden a horse. Or rather, they may have mounted a trail horse or two, plodded along a circled path with a bunch of other tourists and then dismounted at the end. To that extent, they have ridden a horse. But unless I am mistaken, they have never felt all of that power and momentum under them. They have not galloped at full speed along an irregular trail, ducking low-hanging limbs and jumping across drainage ditches. They have never ridden a horse who was hell-bent for leather and pretty much out of control on the way back to the barn, feared for their lives and lived to tell about it. That they have not fills me with remorse. I am both remiss and accountable. Their resumes are incomplete, and it is to their detriment. Though I suppose there are many ways across the bridge, riding a good horse is one of the most direct.

I recall a moment, in my late 20s, I think, when for various and disremembered reasons I was as depressed and overcome with guilt and dread as a young man can be and still be standing. I went home to Kentucky for a short visit. There was still a horse or two on the farm, so I got up early and went out for a ride. As soon as I mounted and got out into an open field, as soon as we let off the emergency brake and put it in overdrive, there was a sense of relief and release such as I had not felt for weeks. Galloping along the fence lines in the morning mist, pounding along machinery trails and splashing through creeks, that horse and I were Masters of the Moment. We were The Rolling Thunder Review, country edition. Bounding through uncut clover and new-mown hay, we were profoundly liberated spirits. If we’d had wings and lifted off the ground and soared over Washington Co. I could not have been more exuberantly high. If I had mounted Pegasus hisownself and circled the entire magnificent, dark green state of Kentucky, east to west and all up and down, I could not have been more at peace with who and where I was. I have never been more alive.

It was on that day, by the way, that I invented the word “Wahoo”. Yessir, it just came out of me, and I yelled it over and over, to no one in particular and everyone in general. The sound of those hooves pounding and the air whizzing past my ears and his coarse mane scratching against my face as I leaned forward and hung low over his neck was an exhilaration I have not felt before or since. Except for those other days, when I experienced that exact, same thing. In different places perhaps, different states, and on different horses. But always with the same grand result.

All of that flesh, all of that muscle, moving with such speed and grace. And me sitting on top, weightless, with some kind of vague directional control. It was a religious experience, I tell you. A thousand lives in a moment. A death without dying. A bridge to the other side.