‘Where!?!’ Taïga scrambles up on a rock to have a better view. ‘Oh. My. God.’
Four wild horses burst out of the underbrush closely herded by Johnny and Tate. Chuck brings up the rear, urging the wild horses on towards the opening in the corral.
VJ and Derek quickly pushes the gate closed as Chuck, Tate and Johnny skids to a halt, pulling down their dusty bandannas to reveal huge smiles on their tired faces.
‘Oh, how I would have loved to ride with them!’ Taïga bursts out, opening and closing her hands in frustration as she watches the mustangs stir up dust as they gallop round and round in the pen. They finally slow down and stop as far away from them as possible. Their watchful eyes dart this way and that, ears pricking, and they can’t seem to stop whinnying, calling their lost companions.
Taïga jumps down from the rock, making the horses shy away and break into a gallop again.
The training starts the next morning. Tate chooses the palomino mare that seems to be the calmest of the four. He separates her from the others and puts her in a smaller round pen, making her move this way and that, walking, talking, showing her he’s there, and that he decides where she should move.
As soon as the horse stops, he makes her run again. After a while she trots calmly in a circle, lowering her head. Tate turns his back on her and waits. It doesn’t take long before the curious mare walks up to him. He turns slowly around and, to Taïga’s astonishment, pets the wild horse’s neck.
Taïga listens carefully to Tate and watches how the old man explores the wild horse’s body with gentle but studied moves. Through caresses and strokes he gets the horse to trust him and relax, and it even looks like it’s enjoying the experience. She’s beginning to understand what he meant when he talked about communion…
Under Tate’s supervision, the teens get to learn how to approach the wild horses. He teaches them how they must stay calm and speak low and slowly, reassuring the horses continually. The wild horses learn to accept the human presence, to be touched and brushed and finally they learn to accept the tack.
Taïga has taking a liking to the paint mare, and she participates in her training, putting first a blanket on the horse, then taking it off. Leading her around the pen and rubbing her neck and generally doing what Tate calls “positive reinforcement”.
Derek watches Taïga and the wild mare from a distance. He can’t get to close as the horses tend to be nervous around him.
‘I’ve got a bad feeling about that horse…’
‘Why?’ VJ chews on a straw and spits.
‘She’s cuddling it like it was a teddy bear when it could snap her face off with those teeth…’
‘I see what you mean. Nasty beasts…’
Tate stays close, giving Taïga advise when necessary. ‘You should be careful, Taïga! You mustn’t forget it’s still a wild animal and as such it’s unpredictable.’
‘Don’t worry, Tate. She’s such a sweet thing!’
‘Why don’t you call her that? Sweet Thing… Suits her… But don’t be careless around her. This is about safety first.’
Two days later the four mares have accepted the bridle, a blanket and the saddle. Tate and Chuck has taken turns riding them, letting them get used to someone on their back, and they’ve cooperated nicely. All of them, except the little paint mare, who only lets Taïga come really close.
It’s time to let the teens have a try. Chase is first. She has picked a leopard Appaloosa and Elspeth meanly commented that at last she’s got some fashion sense – assorting her horse to her blemished skin. Luckily Chase didn’t hear her.
‘The first impression is extremely important, Chase… Just as with people,’ Tate instructs her on the way to the paddock. ‘You’ve seen Chase riding her, and she’s very calm, accepting a rider so soon will make her an excellent mount. You’ll see… We’ll go through all the steps again, from hanging on her back to riding her. Do you understand?’
‘Yeah,’ Chase says, perspiring profusely from stress.
She is quite nervous, but the Appaloosa that now goes by the name Spot, lets her approach and saddle her calmly. As soon as Spot accepts Chase hanging over her back, getting used to the weight of a rider, Tate starts on the next step. Slowly Chase slides her leg across the horse’s back and sits immobile. Tate mounts Shadow and instructing Chase not to dangle her legs or spook Spot otherwise, starts walking his horse around the corral. Spot follows Tate and Cloud around the pen with Chase on her back, Chuck holding the lead line and walking next to them.
He looks up at Chase and asks, ‘Do you think you can jog a little?’ Chase nods, her mouth a thin line. ‘OK, just nudge her gently with your legs… Yes, that’s right!’
Spot jumps forward and Chase pales.
They try again and Spot understands this time and tentatively settles into a slow jog, Chuck huffing next to them. Chase is smiling the whole time, and when she dismounts after twenty minutes, complaining about her sore butt, she also asks when she can try again.
Taïga is a little nervous when finally it’s “her” mare’s turn. She holds her breath as Chuck puts one foot in the stirrup, and slowly swings his leg over the horse’s back, making sure he doesn’t kick her. He holds still a moment before slowly sinking down into the saddle.
The beautiful little paint mare is calmly letting Chuck onto her back. The only sign of nervousness is her tail swishing and the skin on her neck quivering. Her ears are pricked forwards, then backwards as she turns her head to see what’s going on there, behind her… on her… OMG! ON her!
Everything happen so fast, even experimented Chuck didn’t see it coming and can’t hold on.
Sweet Thing gallops away and stops at a safe distance, shaking her neck and blowing air through her big nostrils.
Chuck grumbles, ‘Sweet Thing – my ass!’ He winces as Taïga helps him up.
Tate rides up behind them, scoffing. ‘You didn’t expect to eat dirt, did you?’
‘No! Not at my age… Gosh my ankle hurts.’
‘I’d put some ice on it if I were you. Can you help us catch that stubborn mare, Taïga? We have to get her unsaddled.’
‘Unsaddled? But we can’t give up now!?!’
‘My leg hurts too much. We’ll continue tomorrow.’
‘But?’ Taïga tries to convince Chuck to let her try riding the Paint mare. ‘I’m lighter, she will hardly feel me on her back, and I’ve been riding since I was around ten years old, so I have some experience…’ She doesn’t precise that her experience involves an old draught horse.
Curious, the young mare approaches them from behind.
Tate comes to Taïga’s help. ‘She’s got a point, there, Chuck. She’s lighter… And I’ll be close to her all the time…’
Chuck scratches his chin and nods. ‘OK. But help us calm the horse down first.’
Tate rubs the mare’s neck, talking to her until she closes her eyes, sighing, totally relaxed. Then he checks her for injury, letting his hands rub all over her body and the mare sighs again and shakes her head.
Then it’s Taïga’s turn. She follows Tate’s instructions, letting the mare come closer, smelling her. It takes time and patience bonding with the horse again.
Taïga tries a carrot, and the horse takes it with infinite precaution, the soft velvety lips brushing Taïga’s palm.
Tate gets into the saddle again, riding a little closer to let his horse’s presence calm the paint mare, while Chuck holds her lead, ready to leg Taïga up.
‘Remember to stay low, Taïga. Seeing you will spook her again.’ He murmurs.
Taïga lies across the saddle to let the horse get used to her weight… She then does exactly as Chuck did earlier; she puts her left foot in the stirrup and swings her right leg over the mare’s back and gently places her right foot in the other stirrup. She lowers her weight on to the horse with infinite precaution…
‘There, that’s it. Here we go,’ she coos with a radiant smile, rubbing the horse’s neck and looking down at Chuck. ‘See? She’s really a Swee-’
The mare seems to fall out from under her. Swerving to the side she almost sends a surprised Taïga over the edge of the fence next to her.
‘Grab the horn! And don’t pull on the reins!’ Tate and Chuck cries in unison.
Taïga lets go of the reins and holds on to the saddle for her life, trying to stay on the bucking horse’s back.
The mare tries frantically to get rid of the “predator” on her back. Bucking, kicking, bolting and rearing she goes through every known movement.
Taïga holds on, but finally the excited mare succeeds in violently throwing her rider.
She lands with a loud thud on the frozen ground, the air gushing out of her lungs.
‘Is she dead!?!’
Taïga lies still for a moment or two, trying to get her wind back.
‘Are you OK?’
She opens her eyes on Derek, towering over her with a worried frown on his forehead. She blinks, trying to focus.
‘We’ll have to take you to a doctor! If you’re concussed you might need a CAT scan.’
Derek is worried but Taïga groans, ‘I’m OK. Just give me a minute…’
He puts a hand on her shoulder to stop her from moving.
Chuck comes limping as fast as he can. ‘Are you all right?’
‘Just a little dizzy…’
‘If you feel up to it, try to stand up slowly…’ Chuck pushes his hat back on his head and wipes his brow. Addressing Tate, he adds, ‘We have to do something about that horse. It’s too dangerous for a rider if it sees the connection between the bucking and the rider flying off.’
‘You’ll have to get back up, kiddo.’ Tate scratches his head and tries to joke, ‘Or that horse will just be good to bring in a good price at the Miles City Bucking Horse Sale!’
‘No way.’ Derek glares at him and returns his attention towards Taïga. ‘C’mon, I’ll drive you to the nearest hospital. Does your head hurt?’
‘No. Gosh this is embarrassing…’
Derek kisses her knuckles. ‘Embarrassing? That horse could have killed you.’
Tate chuckles behind them. ‘It’s inevitable-if you ride, you will fall off. Pride isn’t worth broken bones…’
‘Or worse…’ Derek adds under his breath.
Taïga’s legs are a little shaky but the pain of her lungs filling with air again is slowly wearing off. She looks around for the mare who is standing a little bit away, observing them with interest.
‘Well, it’s easy to lose your nerve after hitting the ground as hard as you did.’ Chuck scrutinizes her face.
‘Lose her nerve?’ Derek is upset. ‘She could have lost more than her nerve if that darn horse had fallen backwards on her!’
‘Well, it didn’t. She’ll have to get into the saddle again or she’ll be scared to ride for the rest of her life.’ Chuck is thoughtful, ‘And we have to deal with the mare. We sure can’t encourage her to continue.’
‘You can’t be serious about getting her back onto that fury of a horse? It will kill her!’
‘It’s the best thing she can do, get back into the saddle.’
‘I think the horse is even more frightened than Taïga is-’ Tate breaks in, and to make it clear to Derek he adds, ‘-because she made this sudden scary move of flying!’
Derek stares at him as if he was crazy. ‘You mean she’s the scary one?’
‘I want to do this. Let me try again, I know I can!’ Taïga interrupts, but no one is listening to her.
Derek says, ‘I won’t let that horse kill her!’
‘It won’t kill her on purpose, bucking is an instinctive defense mechanism. The mare just wanted to get rid of the predator on her back!’
‘I don’t care if the darn horse does it on purpose or not! I don’t want Taïga on its back again.’
Taïga looks from Chuck to Tate to Derek and back to Tate again, as they talk about her like she wasn’t even there.
‘She can’t abandon now, that horse will do it again if it thinks it can get away with it!’
‘Yeah, she has to let her horse know who’s boss.’
But Derek won’t back down, he’s determined to take Taïga away from the wild horse and back to safety. ‘Go get mauled yourself, Chuck! Taïga’s not…’
But Taïga has had enough. She walks up to the mare, letting the three men continue arguing without her. The wild horse tries to be menacing, ears flat back and blowing air through the nose, but Taïga doesn’t stop.
She moves slowly forward, talking reassuringly to the horse in a low voice, ‘Good girl… I won’t hurt you…’
Gently she reaches out and takes the reins, rubbing the horse’s neck while continuing talking softly. The mare’s ears are pricking forward listening to Taïga’s soothing voice.
‘You really are a sweet thing, aren’t you?’ She goes through the same movements as Tate, feeling the horse’s legs and generally checking for injury.
Derek is the first to notice her preparing to sit up on Sweet Thing. Tate grabs his arm to prevent him from rushing after her.
‘Derek. Let her do it.’ Tate says evenly. ‘She has to climb up again, both for her own sake and the mare’s.’ He turns to Taïga. ‘OK. If – I stress IF – you feel you’re about to fall again, don’t stick your arms out. Curl up like a hedgehog to protect your head and relax.’
‘Relax?’ Taïga says over her shoulder.
‘Yeah. Stay loose.’
She leans her head against the saddle and briefly closes her eyes. Tate spits Tobacco on the ground and continues, ‘Just duck and roll away to get away from the hooves. So you don’t get kicked. Got it?’
Taïga gulps. ‘Yeah. Got it…’
‘Are you sure about this, Taïga? We could let you ride around the pen on Freebird. Or Cloud.’ Chuck says, holding the horse still.
Taïga doesn’t say anything, she just nods, glancing quickly at a thin-lipped Derek a few yards away.
Tate and Chuck gives her some last minute advice about how to act, ‘If she throws a fit, don’t stop!’
‘Yeah. And don’t let her put her head down to flip you over!’
‘As soon as you feel her getting a lump in the back, just drive her forward, she can’t buck very hard if she’s moving forward-’
‘Put her on a small circle-’
‘-use a direct rein! You know what that is, don’t you?’
Taïga just nods and the mare is off. Again.
But this time Taïga is prepared. She anticipates each movement of the horse and keeps her balance successfully.
Taïga pulls her shoulders slightly back, her seat deep in the saddle, trying to control the 950 lb of dynamite between her legs.
‘Hollow out her back!’
‘Remember the circle, Taïga! Put her on a circle!’
Taïga tries hard to follow Tate’s advice… But the old man knows his business, and Taïga is a natural! It’s hard to describe the sense of triumph that overcomes her when the mare lowers her head and settles into a regular, rhythmic canter…
That’s the moment when Johnny suddenly gallops past screaming that Spot has jumped the fence of the holding pen. Chuck scrambles into the saddle of Freebird, and Teddy opens the gate to let Tate out on Cloud. But he doesn’t have the time to close the gate beforeTaïga and Sweet Thing also burst through. There’s no way Taïga can stop the careening horse. She just sits low in the saddle, squeezing tight with her thighs and holding on to the horn for her life.
But Sweet Thing calms down when she catches up with the other horses, and Taïga can relax and enjoy the elation of the “chase”. She does her best to keep out of the way of Tate, Chuck and Johnny as they immobilize the fleeing horse and drives it back to the camp.
Back at the camp that evening, Taïga feels like her body is bruised all over… Muscles she didn’t even know about are hurting terribly and she longs to go to bed, even if the bed is just a sleeping bag on the ground. She tells Chuck she feels just fine – no headache, no blurred vision, no need to throw up – but she agrees on letting Derek take her to the hospital first thing in the morning, just to be sure there’s no hidden injuries.
Exhausted, she takes some Motrin to help with the pain in her limbs, then falls asleep before her head hits the pillow…
Part II – End of Chapter 13