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Just Our Luck

I wanted the silver dollar— a keepsake of horseback riding for the year with my name printed in type among all the other names. I wanted the legacy and the triumph. They said it would take courage, skill, and luck. What they truly meant was that I needed persistence and the ability to listen and learn. To qualify for the silver dollar race, one must successfully pick a tennis ball off the ground while maintaining at least a lope.. Before attempting to grab the tennis ball, I had to practice using a sack. The sacks were burlap and gritty, heavy when triumphantly picked up.

I showed up that first day at sack races unsure of anything but the fact that picking up a sack while leaning off a horse is actually possible. Spurs were removed and reins tied together in a thick knot. At first, I struggled to motive Paddy simply to go, to bring my energy to a place where he would run without my using spurs. I had to use my rein to spank him, but later I learned that a calm determination would do the trick. Now to pick it up— the sack was placed on a bucket so that I wouldn’t have to lean quite as far off. With my right hand slid directly below the knot tied in my reins, I moved my hand back and forth with Paddy’s head as he loped. Focused on the sack, my heart raced with anticipation.

I really had no idea what I was doing. I turned and leaned, pivoting sideways  from my hip. I felt like I was reaching so far, stretching myself past the point I could, but in reality, I hadn’t even gotten close to grabbing that sack. I looked back at Mr. Okin, and he looked unsurprised that I hadn’t gotten it. “Did you even get your foot out of the stirrup?” he asked. I paused, genuinely unsure whether I had or not. He added, “Your butt wasn’t even out of the saddle.” I still had a long way to go.

As I tried day after day, I learned how to lean fully out of my saddle and keep my arms fully outstretched in order to grab it. A delicate balance exists to leaning off thousand-pound animals in motion. My timing and leaning skill improved, and my determination grew. That was the poison I picked: a continued, concentrated effort on snatching up objects from the ground while on horseback.

I would be the most persistent sack racer on the field. Each day that Mr. Okin announced over the loudspeaker that sack race practice was being held, or that a silver dollar qualifier was being held, I would stop whatever I was doing and progress over to the far corner of the field where it was held. It became second nature.

Paddy had begun to limp, I already knew, his right left leg upsetting the rhythm of his gait after he was tired. I had discussed it with the campus veterinarian,  Dr. Finch, and we both knew the gamble I was running. Either he would be fine, and I could continue running all of the Gymkhana races each Wednesday, or he would go lame and I would have to find a new horse. I sat, antsy, at the beginning of Speed Barrels, a race in which one weaves through barrels at break-neck speed. I eased Paddy forward. He lunged into the race. I weaved him in between the barrels. As I neared the last barrel, I checked down, preparing him for the sharp turn at the end.

At the end, I looked for the next barrel and spurred him with my right leg. I calmed down for a second, my brow furrowing. Paddy’s strides were uneven. The rhythm of his hooves pounding the sand, normally confident, had fragmented, with him running at a leery balance. Paddy kept running, though. My old boy ran, on his limp, as hard as he could. After I stopped at the end of the race, I started trotting. His leg winced with each fall, hurt and lame. Sack race that day was out of the picture. My poor boy was lame.

I was running on second chances. I had my second horse of the Gymkhana season. Ethan was my second shot at getting the tennis ball. Each day, Mr. Okin gave me just a couple more chances than I deserved to try for it. On the day right before Big Gymkhana, I asked for another second chance. I asked for one try— which turned into many— at qualifying for the silver dollar. He wanted me to get it too. I wanted it passionately. But I knew that I was very, very close. I had grabbed the sack many times and touched the tennis ball once. I knew that if I had just remembered to close my fingers, it already would be mine.

For everyone else, the day was over. The field held the soft glow of the sunset, but I couldn’t head back yet. A gum of dust swished through my mouth as I went down to the Old English Arena. That afternoon, I tried again and again and again, seemingly ending up off my horse more than on him. I got very, very close, many times, but I never got it. After my final try, having leaned too far off and ending up in the sand, I stood up and brushed the dirt off my jeans. With my socks already ruined from the sand in my boots, I walked over and gave Mr. Okin a hug. “It’s been an experience.”

The next day, Big Gymkhana, I watched Steven, Ronan, Jasmin (A.), Anthony, and Max try for the silver dollar in front of all the families. Relieved and disappointed that I wouldn’t try alongside them, I spectated and prayed that each of them would get it. As I watched each attempt, I tensed up, hoping terribly they would get it. Nobody did.

I was only a silver-dollar-er in spirit, until the last day. I chose to ride the week after Big Gymkhana. This meant mucking as well, getting up earlier than everybody else and raking and cleaning while the rest of the freshman still slept tight in their warm beds. But there was a community around this last week, a camaraderie in that adversity and a friendship for what we all wanted: the silver dollar. Max, Jasmin, Steven, and I agreed that we’d all go up and muck together at 6:45 each morning, and for the last part of the year, we were together. On our first day together, when Max and I had finished up, we mucked Ronan’s stall for him. There were two of us, and we were happy to be up in the sun, and we knew it would be something he’d really appreciate. We finished in about five minutes, but the smile on his face after we told him glowed at least as long as that. In the days following, they all helped me out, supplementing my grooming and making sure Ethan was doused with the correct amount of fly-spray. We took care of our horses and took care of each other.

And in the end, I did qualify. During that last week, I would try for the tennis ball every day, just to see if I had the skill to qualify. On that last day, I got it. It was a triumphant moment, and the triumph was all mine. Nobody saw me get it, but that doesn’t mean anything. I got one good try for the actual silver dollar. After finally getting in the correct left lead, I set out to get the dollar. Ethan was tired and I knew I’d only get one shot. The dollar was marked by a circle of white chalk, and my eyes shifted between the chalk and the spot right beyond it. To turn correctly, one must look right beyond it in order to turn around it and not on it. I began my lean, swinging far out of my saddle, lunging desperately. Ethan tripped and left me just a couple inches too far away from the coin. I felt the dirt run through my hands, knew that I was close, so close. I let my body collapse on the ground, the impact falling my hip and the sand brimming my boots. I smiled with the exhilaration but let my expression drop just a little bit with the disappointment that I hadn’t actually gotten it.

In the end, the silver dollar is about luck. Nobody would have gotten the silver dollar without a significant amount of luck. But for me, and for the friends I did this with, it wasn’t about the silver dollar. We bonded over our shared adversity, learned to help each other. The legacy we received was of our friendships. Our experiences were as magnificent as our horses. We all are the lucky ones.

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