Maybe after all these years, my memory is playing tricks on me, but I remember him looking like a brilliant bolt of lightning that carried its own storm inside it.
Deep, pitiless eyes and a coat the color of a muzzle flash. I can still see him twitching with an impatient but intelligent rage whenever we tried to saddle him up.
The way I remember him, he was pure terror on four legs. That was, of course, a long time ago, and maybe, in the decades since, I’ve made him out to be more than he was. We do that. We make our adversaries bigger and stronger and more malevolent than they really are because that makes us seem bigger and stronger and nobler than we really are. Our triumphs seem grander that way, our failings, at least excusable.
He was our first horse, a muscular and radiant palomino that we had bought for $175 not long after we bought our small farm in the rugged hills of northeastern Pennsylvania. It never occurred to us at the time to wonder why such a beautiful animal would be so cheap. My father, naturally, took it as sign of his superior business acumen. My mother was simply blinded by his beauty. Perhaps inspired by the Western romances she was so fond of – her buckskin bodice rippers, as she called them – or maybe because she harbored a secret passion for Robert Redford, she had given him the cloyingly romantic name of Sundance.
We soon learned why he had been such a bargain. He was a miserable beast. It was, to some degree, understandable. Though he was a gelding, he had been unsexed late enough in life that it did nothing to take the edge off his behavior, but instead left him with a deep-seated and seething hostility focused specifically on the two-legged species that had subjected him to that indignity in the first place. In short, Sundance hated people.
But unlike other horses we had later, Sundance didn’t express his resentment by simply trying to buck you off. No, he was far subtler than that. He would run away with you, heading full-tilt to the nearest low hanging branch, where he would then scrape you off his back as violently as possible.
I was all of about 12 years old at the time. A scrawny, transplanted suburban kid, who didn’t have the foggiest notion of how to handle a mean-spirited beast like that, and it wouldn’t have mattered even if I did. Far better riders than I had tried to best Sundance and just like me, they ended up in a bloody heap at the bottom of a tree trunk.
But my father, who never sat a horse in his life, was insistent. He demanded that I keep trying to beat Sundance into submission and every Sunday afternoon, right after we got back from church, he’d order me into my room to change my clothes, swapping out my Sunday best for the ragged, bloodstained shirt and jeans I had worn the last time I had tried to ride Sundance. Then he would march me out to the field behind the barn where we’d gather up Sundance, saddle him, and brace ourselves for the worst.
This went on for about a year, I suppose, before my father, either out of pity or disgust, finally relented and agreed to sell Sundance. He called up our trader, a guy named Buddy Baldwin, and Buddy showed up the following Sunday with his truck and his wife and partner, a woman who had been graced by fate with the best name imaginable for someone in her line of work: Winnie.
Maybe it was just a boy’s budding machismo, maybe it was just rank stupidity, but when Buddy and Winnie pulled their truck into that field and began preparing to collect Sundance, I asked if I could try just one more time to ride him. Winnie gave Buddy a long, meaningful look, Buddy looked at my father, and my father looked at me and nodded.
I had no reason to think that this time it would be any, and as we saddled him up, that old familiar terror started to churn again in my gut. I hopped on his back and took the reins from Buddy. Sundance pranced a bit and then did it again, breaking into a dead run, heading straight for the apple tree, as I choked back sobs and yanked as hard as I could on the reins begging him to stop.
I’ll never really know where it came from, but just as Sundance and I rounded the barn, something inside me snapped, and I let out a blood-curdling yell from somewhere deep inside me that I had never heard from myself before or since. Almost without realizing I was doing it, I dug my bony teenaged heels into that beast’s flanks, and rather than pull back on the reins, I let them go slack and began whipping him as hard and fast as I could, shouting the whole time, and when he tried to pull up at the apple tree, I wouldn’t let him. I just kept him running. We must have covered a half-mile at a full breakneck gallop, off our property, down across the next farm, and the one after that, where I turned him and headed back.
By the time we reached the field where Buddy and Winnie and my father were waiting, there was nothing left of Sundance but hooves and foam. At the bottom of the hill, I tugged gently on the reins, and Sundance obediently came to a halt. I prodded him forward, pulled back again, and again he stopped. I had beaten him, just as my father had wanted. And then I rode directly to my father, hopped off the horse, handed the reins to Buddy, and said over my shoulder to my father with all the bravado a 13-year-old could muster, “There. Now you can sell the son of a bitch.”
I’m on the cusp of being an old man now and it’s been years since I saddled a horse. I live in a different world. A more complicated one, a world that sometimes looks like a flash of lightning that carries its own storm inside it. More than once, it’s left me bruised and bloody at the base of an old apple tree. But I’ve gotten by because of a lesson I learned on Sundance’s back a long time ago. Sometimes it’s futile to try to resist the forces that want to topple you. Instead, you need to use their raging power against them, hit them with your spurs, let out one hell of a yell and just ride.
Excerpted from Betting the Farm on a Drought; Stories from the Front Line of Climate Change (University of Texas Press, April 2015)
Reprinted on Huffington Post