Sun shone through the shifting leaves and dappled the stony path ahead. That same breeze pushed against us, inconstant, cooling rather than cool. I had dressed for chillier weather than this, had already shed my undershirt back at the car, and the wind through the trees did a perfect job of keeping me balanced, neither not nor cold.
Babe was recalcitrant. Ten feet ahead of us, she balked again, stopping in the middle of the path. I pulled gently on the reins, said “whoa” in a low voice. Unsure as to whether Echo responded more to the sound or the motion. My cousin kicked once, twice, on the sides of the large brown horse, which was enough to get her moving again. I had already lowered my hands, and after a moment Echo stepped forward, continuing our slow progress through the forest.
A thing I had noticed: Echo wasn’t fond of mud. The lead horse–I never caught its name–tromped through the soft patches that regularly crossed the stony path with no particular regard. Babe seemed to follow it precisely; I never quite figured out whether that was the horse’s doing or my cousin’s, although I suspect the former. Echo, though. Echo wasn’t fond of mud. She nosed around, looking for a different way through the patch. Horses don’t mince, really, but she clearly preferred ways around the muck that involved getting less dirty than her compatriots.
I approved. I’m not big on mud either.
A thing I had noticed: Echo wanted to be in the lead. Or, at least, ahead of Babe. Whenever the other horse stopped in the middle of the path–which was depressingly often, usually halfway up a mild slope–I had to pull back on the reins to keep Echo from passing the large brown horse (and my cousin) up. We had been told to keep a horse-length between us, and to stay in the same order, and I was doing my best to follow those instructions. My ride would come to a halt after a moment, waiting patiently while my cousin kicked Babe’s sides once, twice, to get her moving again. This happened at least ten times over the course of the ride.
A thing I had noticed: Echo never needed to be kicked. Not once. Whenever Babe decided to actually move along, Echo would start again as well after a moment. After the first ten minutes or so, her desire to be in the lead had mostly quieted down, and she kept herself at a distance from my cousin’s horse without me having to guide her. The same happened whenever we made our way across one of the several streams on the trail. I would bring Echo to a halt, and she would wait patiently until Babe crossed, and then would make her own way across without my guidance, without me goading her to move.
A thing I had noticed: I was, in effect, completely superfluous. The horses knew the route, knew the process, knew how to behave. The stony sloped path would occasionally shift under their feet, but it was clear that it bothered me and my cousin way more than it troubled the horses. This was well-trod ground for them, literally and figuratively, and I was there merely as an overweight accoutrement, tolerated by the tan mare rather more than being needed by her. Every time I tugged her head left or right to return to the center of the path–which was not often–it was because of a low-hanging branch, or a tree on the side of the trail that I might rub up against. None of these affected Echo, only the gangly lump sitting inexpertly on top of her.
She did want to stop and eat grass, though, and I had been explicitly told to not allow that, to pull up on the reins and keep her moving. That happened twice in the hour-long ride. That was the sum total of my contributions to the process: stopping a horse from feeding itself. Twice.
We saw a fawn, nibbling on the underbrush. It eyed us warily but did not flee. The horses, after all, were a regular occurrence there. This surprised my cousin. It did not surprise me.
I could barely hear the guide when she spoke–Cara? It was only yesterday, and already the name slips from memory–thanks to distance and my troublesome hearing. I didn’t mind. What could she be saying that was very important? Well, one thing: I wasn’t letting the reins down far enough for Echo to drink easily from the water when we crossed. I finally figured that out, leaning far down the horse’s neck as she lapped at the burbling stream. But the ride was the sort of thing better passed in silence, in the non-silence of any living forest, birds and animals chittering in the distance, the rustle of the canopy overhead as the wind swirled around us, the steady clop-clop-clop of the horses on the stones a contrapunto to the white noise of nature.
I had never ridden a horse before. Cara (if that was her name) complimented me on how well I did, and I silently replied: how could I not do well? I barely did anything. Echo knew the way. I was just along for the ride.