Mountain Dew

The Geiger Counter

Once upon a time, there was a horse so wild people were scared to ride him. He was a barrel-chested bay quarter horse and in his early years people brought him elk hunting out west. When they threw the dead animal on his back to haul to camp, he took off and disappeared into that vast wilderness for a time. In his youth, his ochre body accumulated various scars and defacements, and for the rest of his life a misshaped orbital bone would hint at some old fight with his own species or another. He was tough, and lightning fast, and wild of heart.

He ended up with a cowboy in Wisconsin, and the pair spent nearly a quarter of a century together. He was used for roping, the breakneck rodeo event in which riders head and heal calves and steers. His rider said when he took off out of the chute, it was hard not to get left behind. He rode trails, helped his owner practice bronc riding, and lived the life that so many millions of horses lived for so long. In time, he became as friendly and gentle as a good dog.

But time never quits. And in time, his front knees grew knobby, the result of running hard and stopping fast, over and over again. One of his eyes grew cloudy, swirling with the milky galaxies and constellations of age and blindness. His winter coat grew shaggier. He was put out to pasture, where he lived with a tall grullo gelding with whom he became inseparable. His owner started riding the grullo, letting the old, thick red horse live out his life in the field.

Then, one winter, a little girl started taking riding lessons at the cowboy’s ranch. She was eight, and she wanted to learn how to barrel race. The girl started on a pony not much bigger than a Labrador, nearly inanimate he was so lazy and stubborn. She spent entire lessons kicking and coaxing and cajoling the little pony, trying to get him to move from the spot where he stood. Once in a while, he would suddenly move, bursting into a brief run. Her first tumble from his back was a lengthy affair, landing on the frozen winter sand of the arena.

Eventually, the girl moved up to a larger pony, a little less stubborn, a little more likely to buck, but still not too high off the ground.

As the winter wore on, the little girl kept taking lessons, and eventually she was ready to ride a real, full-sized horse. The only problem was that she didn’t have one.

“Well,” the cowboy said to her. “You can ride Dew, if you want to.”

Mountain Dew, the barrel-chested old rodeo horse, was standing next to Joe in the paddock, looking a thousand years old. His coat was shaggy, his hair was flat, his knees were swollen. The winter hay didn’t agree with his stomach.

“He’ll walk for you,” he continued. “He might even run eventually, if you get him in shape again.”

So, the little girl and her teacher, a slightly older little girl, went and fetched Dew, leading him up to a spot where they could wash his tail, brush his coat, and clean out his hooves. He looked fat in the places that were supposed to be skinny, and skinny in the places that were supposed to be fat. The little girl’s parents gave her a saddle, bright teal and honey-brown leather, with shimmering silver accents, for her birthday. Her father, who grew up with horses, spent hours rubbing oil into the tack, the old, familiar smells bringing him back to the days and nights when he had been a child.

When the girl first saddled up Dew and climbed on his back, she looked like she was a thousand feet off the ground. The danger was offset by the fact that the elderly animal seemed incapable of any swiftness of any kind. The only real danger, the father thought, was that he might perish of old age and collapse while she was riding him.

When she climbed down, he would follow her around the yard like a dog. Her father kept reminding her that not all horses can be left untied and unattended. Some will run away if given the chance.

“Yeah,” said the little girl. “But he won’t.”

She kept riding him, night after night after night, and eventually his gait picked up. She applied liniments to his legs, sometimes caking them with a powerful, clay-like poultice that smelled of creosote and drained away all the swelling. She and her mother sat at the dinner table like crazed alchemists, coming up with a formula for horse mane detangler. She baked horse treats in the shape of hearts and brought them to the barn to give him. Eventually, she no longer needed her dad’s help with anything. She could put on the saddle, tighten the cinch, and slide the bit into Dew’s mouth. She could even climb aboard the old horse without anyone’s help, scampering up his side like some kind of living playground. Sometimes she would ride bareback.

In time, his winter coat came out, and his summer one started to glint red in the light. His old legs started to bulge with veins and muscles. His chest swelled with muscle. He would even trot in the ring during lessons, if she really kicked him.

The girl rode at her first beginner rodeo right there at the same barn, that spring, right around the time she turned nine. The barnyard and surrounding fields were filled with the chattering of people and the sounds and smells of horses of every conceivable provenance, demeanor and color. She planned to ride in a series of events, weaving through poles and trotting around barrels. She and her teacher, who now bore the dual titles of friend and hero, carefully braided Dew’s mane, lacing it with bright ribbons. They painted a huge, glittering blue star on his haunch. The girl dressed in the finest blue jeans she owned, braiding her hair to match his.

She climbed into the saddle, and he bounced around restlessly. The girl’s eyes opened wide. “He’s never acted like this before!” she said, looking down at her father.

When she rode into the ring, the place where Dew would sluggishly walk and sometimes trot with her for hours on end, he broke into a canter – a run - for the first time ever with her on his back. She was so shocked she forgot to steer, broke the pole pattern, and disqualified herself, earning a No Time. Afterward, she wept about the score, or lack thereof. As her tears dried, she said, “Do you think he’ll run for me again?”

He did. He ran the rest of the events, so well that the little girl won her age group, earning her first belt buckle, at this beginner rodeo, the first of many.

Afterward, the cowboy smiled with a mischievous glint in his eye. “He loves to compete,” he said.

For the rest of the summer, Dew and the girl traveled around southern Wisconsin, riding at a variety of events with their new, extended rodeo family. The horse stayed lazy at home, but when he knew they were competing against others, he ran so hard he sometimes looked like he was racing for his life. The girl learned to stay on, then to steer, and they often did well in their age group. Dew wasn’t as fast as many of the horses, not on those old knees, but the girl could steer him around the barrels so perfectly that they often beat horses twice as fast and half as old.

Whenever they won a ribbon, or a toy, or even a little cash, the girl showed it to the horse. I’ve never seen an animal so happy. He loved to compete. Her wall is now covered with ribbons.

When Dew got his annual eye infection in July, the girl went to see him twice a day, flushing it out and applying drops and ointment. He got better, as he always seemed to do.

One afternoon, the cowboy let her ride Dew down a shaded path, into a small field surrounded by trees. At the end of it lay buried the bones of the little pony who she had first ridden the prior year.

“He loves to trail ride,” said the cowboy. “He struggles on those hills, but he will not quit. He will not quit.”

The Mongolian poet Mend-Ooyo Gombojav, who began racing horses on the windswept steppes at the age of five, says that riding a racehorse is every nomadic child’s dream.

“It is believed that holding the reins of a horse in a race is like taking responsibility for your life,” he said, “and feeling the force of life’s speed.”

When someone asks him if it’s dangerous, Gombojav smiles gently and replies, “No. It’s not dangerous.”

The real danger is in never racing at all. The biggest threat isn’t falling off, it’s never feeling the wind on your face to begin with. The worst thing we have to fear is never taking control of our lives, never feeling the incredible, horrible, wonderful speed at which life races through us and then is gone. Dew won’t live forever, no one will, but he will not quit, which is more than can be said for most people. And he has shown a child the breathtaking speed at which life flies, its feet barely touching the earth, its sound the howl of the wind and the thunder of hooves as they carry you across the land and over the horizon, gone so fast it’s best never to close your eyes. We are all racing through life, whether we like it or not. The least we can do is feel the wind on our faces, and never quit. Never quit.

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