In the summer before I came to Thacher, I read over every pegasus-emblazoned brochure I could get my hands on in anticipation. There were snippets about dorm life, pictures of sports teams, and, most exciting to me, articles about the importance of the horse program. Every freshman was assigned a horse to take care of for the year, both by feeding and cleaning it, and by riding. They supposedly picked our horses for us based on our personalities. The article rounded out with a quotation from the founder of the school: “Something about the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a child.”
The day the horse assignments came out, I bounced up and down in my desk through all my classes, itching for them to end so I could meet the animal with my name on it, my best friend for the next year, my horse. Her name was Fancy. When I finally got to the barns and went to my stall, I was confused to see that it was empty, but a horse instructor called over her shoulder to me as she tightened her cinch, “She’s tied over there, Erin, up the hill.”
There, above me, a white horse paced from side to side, her head bowed, pivoting around the post to which she was tied. Her flexing muscles gleamed with her sweat in the sun, and her mane blew in the light breeze. For all I knew, she could have had wings. I walked slowly to her, tentatively offering the apple I had chosen from the fruit stand and polished on my shirt for her. She huffed and stalled as I approached, head raised, eyes fixed on the apple. “Hey, Fancy,” I murmured to her, and cautiously put my hand on her neck. She gently bent her head and shuffled the apple under her lips, then, sure of herself, took a big juicy chomp out of it. She bobbed her head up and down, as if in affirmation of my choice of apple. Her lips brushed my palm as she chewed, and I was startled by how coarse they were compared to her smooth flank. A few seconds later she had finished the apple, and I gently slid my hand over her soft nose. I scratched just above her nostrils with both hands, and she closed her eyes and bent her head to me. Resting my forehead between her eyes, I matched the rhythm of my breath to hers. Her every breath deposited light steam on my palms. We stayed like that until her breath began to drip down my wrists.
I learned quickly that I liked Fancy much better off of her than on. During lessons at the field, she constantly tugged at her reins in an effort to get to the gate, and if someone was leaving and opened it, she practically bolted for it. The first few times, it was all I could do was to hold clutch onto my reins. Mr. Swan would shout at me, “Double her around!” or “Make a wall she can’t get past!” and I would do my best to comply. If nothing else, the riding program taught me to decipher and interpret meaning within seconds from the back of a speeding horse.
But the problem got worse. No matter how nice I was to her on the ground, no matter the promises of carrots I futilely made to her, my inexperienced legs could not be the walls I was supposed to contain her with. Her spirit writhed under me, twisting and shifting and searching for escape. She was a herd-oriented horse, and any minute she wasn’t following the herd was a panicked one.
One day she got so anxious to go home that she tried to buck me off. I’d learned what ‘double her around!’ meant by then, so I forcefully pulled her head to my left knee, immobilizing her vertical movement. She paced in circles, shaking her head, eager to get out of the position I had put her in. “Well done!” Mr. Swan called to me. I was in control for the first time that week, and it felt triumphantly powerful. I had tamed her magnificent wings. Confident that I could keep Fancy in check, I eased her out of the bend and let her walk forward. But then, taking advantage of the freedom I had awarded her, she bucked again, flashing her eyes back at me to get off. Before I could react, she sent me flying to the ground. The next day Fancy was re-assigned to a sophomore, and I was given a replacement horse. I considered going to Fancy’s stall occasionally, but I was too mad at her for bucking me off, or maybe too disappointed in myself for not being able to hold on.
Months later, as I walked down the hill after feeding my new horse, I saw Fancy tied to a post by herself. Her coat seemed darker and her belly bulged lower than I’d remembered. She didn’t pace around her post as she usually did, just stood with her head hung low. I went to her and whispered her name. She blinked in response. As I got closer, I noticed her nostrils were stained dark around the edges. I scratched just above them as I had before, rested my forehead between her eyes, and matched my breathing to hers. The steam accumulated hot and fast, and though it dripped down to my elbows, I stayed with her. Something was not right. I couldn’t see her wings now.
Later the next day, Fancy died of colic. Mr. Swan had done his best to keep her alive, but sometimes it’s inevitable. Maybe her new rider had worked her too hard and given her hay before she’d cooled down, twisting her intestines into knots. Maybe her spirit had gotten so worked up it choked her from the inside out.
I think I’d known that our embrace the previous day was a farewell. Did she remember me? Did she know that we were saying goodbye? I imagined her freed from her body and the legs that walled her in, finally stretching her wings.