When I can’t sleep at night I think about horses. I don’t know how to ride, not really, and I haven’t been near a stable since I was 12, but in the anxious hours I imagine galloping over fields on a black Arabian. I become free and noble and strong. My fearlessness on the horse drives out all the small, narrow worries of everyday life, and I sleep.
There are so many things I cannot do out here in Coye la Forêt. I can’t get edible Thai food or breakfast at a café where people aren’t playing loto. I can’t get a good cocktail, or drop in on a cute clothing shop, or walk by a thousand-year-old quai. But I can ride horses and now I do.
Everyone out here rides horses. Chantilly claims to be the equestrian center of France, training some 2500 thoroughbreds a year on the natural, soft sand. Horses cross the road when I am driving the children to school. We hear them neighing as they walk through the big forest behind our house. The tabac at lunchtime is full of tiny men in spotted jockey uniforms buying menthol cigarettes. In the MacDonalds fresh-faced girls in muddy jodhpurs are eating filet-of-fish and tapping crops against their legs.
When there is nothing to do, lots of money and all the time in the world, what rushes in to fill the vacuum (horseback riding, socializing, tennis, recreational drugs, tribal blood feuds) can take on disproportionate status. After one week in school Theo comes home and asks when he will start riding.
“Wouldn’t you rather play tennis or judo or something?” I ask.
“No,” he says urgently. “Horses.”
I scramble and find him a slot at a teaching center in Lamorlaye on Saturday mornings. He walks around in circles on the back of a Shetland pony looking pained and strangely vacant. A thin not very nice blond woman yells at him. “Allez Theo, tiens toi droit, tappe le cheval. Tappe!” Afterward he shoots me a sad look.
“My bottom hurts when the horse gallops.”
“The horse never gallops.” I answer.
“He does,” he says, indignant. “He gallops and it hurts.” Disgusted he turns to his father. “Je suis bien équipé quand même, ” he says pointing to his boots.
“Ah oui,” Florent says.
“I could get a crop soon.”
“That would be a big step,” Florent nods.
The center director, Monsieur B., comes over. He is a nice man with grey hair and a loping stride, as though riding horses has permanently altered his movement. He acknowledges Theo and then looks through to me.
“He’s going to have to be more firm with the horse.”
“He’s a gentle child.” I say.
He grunts. “The horse doesn’t care.”
I tell him I want to take horseback riding lessons myself and he nods, a little reluctantly. I offer that I rode a little as a child and he asks why I stopped. The question pains me. “I guess I never thought it would go anywhere. I would always live in cities. But now…”
He invites me to come on Monday morning for a half-hour private lesson. I arrive fifteen minutes early in new boots that are so stiff I goosestep to the horse.
“Are those new?“ he asks incredulously.
“Yes of course they are. It’s my first day.”
He sighs, disapproving. “You must wear them every day until they loosen. And when you sit down you must rotate your ankle like this.” He holds up his leg and turns his foot in a circular motion. “Just like this.”
My horse Ikar seems like the patient type. He has short grey hair and watery chestnut eyes. He allows me to walk him to the ring, his ears twitching back and forth. Monsieur B. takes a phone call and Ikar wanders around. Suddenly, he switches his tail and starts galloping toward the stalls. I fall off the horse onto my hip, hitting soft dirt that covers my face and gets in my nose. When I sit up Ikar has taken off, tail pointed high like the Black Stallion, snorting disdain through his nostrils.
I stand up, wiping dirt off my bottom. Monsieur B. throws both hands up in the air and shouts across the ring at me. “What did you do? What did you do?”