It wasn’t necessarily the fact that KoKo possessed an exceptionally tall frame, over 16 hands with a power house build. And I held no grudge against her for running away with me, and dumping my four year old self on the road. The only damage suffered that of a severely bruised bum, a testament to the fact that children bounce well at a young age.
It was actually a treat of sorts to be upon her back, she was my momma’s prized possession, and my little heart swelled with pride that she had let me ride her, with only my friend Jake for company that afternoon. I was very grown up, you see.
We met in the middle Jake and I – at the gate in between his grandmas place and mine. Jake was a year older than me, but it was only natural that we would strike up a friendship as I took riding lessons from his aunt, and loved wandering his Grandma’s house, enthralled with the black and white photos lining the wood paneled walls of her historic home from her days as a trick rider.
The creek rushed in front of us, and fear caused my heart to stutter a bit inside my little body.
I couldn’t cross it.
You see, KoKo would rather leap over water than get her feet wet. And every time I felt her sit back on her hind quarters prepared to launch, I couldn’t go through with it. I’d fallen off before, but I wasn’t in a hurry to repeat the process. Truth be told I was more afraid of looking silly, than of falling. I was afraid that when she leapt over that creek, I wouldn’t be able to hide my white knuckled grip on the horn, my panicked face, or the expected unseating. What if Jake didn’t want to ride anymore with a silly little girl who fell off in the creek?
So in a very authoritative voice, I said we should go around. Around the creek, around the pond, and around my fear. Because I’d much rather battle dense trees with low slung branches, than the creek. Fear is often illogical, and the lengths we go to avoid it even more so. Jake went first through the trees. He laid down flat against his saddle, face buried in his horses mane and emerged on the other side of the trees unscathed.
I mimicked his posture and tucked myself low, kicking KoKo forward. A few steps in, a branch thwacked my shoulder, and almost in the same instant another caught the top of my long pony tail and jerked me upright. While I tugged on the reigns, my hair very much stuck in the branches, another branch came and struck me full in the face. Koko quick stepped out of the trees, and somehow my hair and I stayed with her. I emerged, very much disheveled, and choking on tears I refused to let fall in front of my friend. He rode closer, asking repeatedly if I was ok as I pulled branches from my hair, from my saddle. With a painful, embarrassed giggle, I pushed strands of hair away from my eyes. Sneaking a peak at Jake, to make sure he didn’t notice how shaken I was, or how the screaming pain in my face had yet to subside.
I would not cry. I was very brave, you see.
Hesitant eyes met Jake’s, to see his face gone white.
I froze. And asked what was wrong, or thought it, as my heart beat double time in my chest. The face pain was a numb sensation now.
He swallowed once. He swallowed twice.
Then in a very serious voice for such a little man, he told me we were going home.
I argued weakly – I was fine, I wanted to keep riding, please.
He put a hand on my shoulder and said, No, we are going home now. I was a little hurt, feeling very much like I hadn’t passed the test. He must have seen the tears in my eyes, and there was a bit of sting for the tomboy to be put back in the girl box. He didn’t want to be my friend anymore, because I was a silly girl, with tears in her eyes, and twigs in her hair.
I looked down at my saddle horn to see red blooms of color, viscous and vibrant against the tooled black leather. And I stared in horror as the drops kept falling, falling heavy from my face and merging with the others drops discoloring my saddle. I was much too scared to touch my face, and I sat frozen in the saddle.
Terrified I looked to Jake, who was watching with an intensity I could feel on my skin. He smiled at me, a kind confident smile, nodding one too many times. You will be just fine. You’re alright Katie.
I offered a wobbly smile, tears burning my eyes.
We rode side by side across the rolling foothills and Jake talked incessantly. I don’t remember if he talked about friends at school, or if he talked about how he was learning to cut on his grandpa’s horse but I do remember how I clung to his words, focusing on his face. He smiled a lot, and when I didn’t think I could hold back the tears any longer he dug something out of his pocket.
With my last thread of pride I took shuddering breaths to stop the tears. Jake held a necklace in front of my face when I looked up. A little silver boot, on a long gold chain. He avoided eye contact, all little boy again as I held it in my hand, and whispered thank you.
I like riding with you, he said with equal softness.
Have you ever seen a good heart beat bravely in a little man?
I rode beside him, clutching my necklace, face split wide and a heart expanding in my chest. Because bravery always drives us grateful and it taught a little girl that to take care of yourself is a necessity, but to be taken care of is a blessing.
Mom raced from the house, the fear in her eyes mirroring my own, cupping my face less as a gesture of endearment, and more so to keep the wound from widening.
I sat at the kitchen table, holding my chin together with a washcloth while mom called Dad at the firehouse and started the car for the 30 minute drive to the hospital. I stared out through a large bay window and watched my friend calmly unsaddle my horse and put her away. Then climbing back in his own saddle, I watched him race at break neck speed across the valley below the house, racing back to his grandma’s.
And I realized how very scared he had been, and how very brave of him to not let me know.
Short cuts often leave wounds, and bravery binds them up again. Pride leaves scares, and humility fades them from notice.