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December 2019
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Carrying The Mail

originally uploaded by [ raymond ].

For the past several months, one of my favorite guilty pleasures has been to peruse the photostream of my Flickr friend Raymond. I don’t remember the keys pressed or mysterious quantum physics that brought me to his photographic wonders. Doubtless I was searching for pictures of horses. And then like the wand wave of an indulgent fairy godmother, there they were: row upon row of stunning portraits. Of jockeys. Of horses tearing up the track. Of the folks who groom and care for our fleet-footed friends. In the presence of greatness, one rarely pauses long to consider the source–we are simply drawn in and mesmerized by it. Great art evokes raw emotion within us, and that reaction serves to inform our psyches of what lies beneath the dream of form. When emotion mixes with a spicy blend of alchemy, a sort of magic realism occurs. In its most powerful form, it will transport us far beyond the limited realm of a photo or painting’s two-dimensional space.

I once asked my bass player friend J.E. to describe the pure genius of the flawless, jaw-dropping flat-picking style of Bill Hearne, a gifted musician who has the ability to simultaneously play rhythm and lead on the same guitar. J.E. laughed. “I don’t know how he does it. He doesn’t even know how he does it!” In the same way, Raymond probably doesn’t know how he does it either, yet he is probably aware that a mysterious portal opens simultaneously with his shutter. His subjects wordlessly enter that portal, whether they are consciously aware of his presence as a photographer or not. Alastair Read, who has written breathtaking translations of Pablo Neruda’s poetry, brilliantly and perceptively remarked that his medium is “a process of coming closer and closer to the original, yet of never arriving. It is for the reader to cross the page.”

When I gaze at jockey Ramon Dominguez’s practically superhuman seat in the above shot, I cross the page into a magical realm. Raymond doesn’t do it for me; he merely presents the opportunity through the wide scoop of his racing lens. And I the enraptured viewer, like Alice free-falling down the rabbit hole, wordlessly acquiesce to jump through that portal and out the other side. I’m in pure awe of Dominguez because, as an equestrienne, I know instinctively how well-nigh impossible it is for mere mortals to hold such a seat at breakneck speed, especially in what my old endurance partner used to refer to as: “those lousy, hard, pancake saddles.”

I jokingly (yet with hushed awe) refer to Dominguez as “The Two-Point Pretzel.” That’s because he looks as though he’s holding an advanced and torturous yogic posture (without benefit of terra firma beneath him) when he rides. He holds his tush high in the air, his spine molded as by pliant Play-doh into a perfectly undulating S-curve. The I.T. bands of his legs must be tougher than concrete, yet as simultaneously elastic as a slingshot. I stare in awe at this Adonis wondering: “Is anyone else seeing what I see? Is anyone else leveled flat by the magnitude of this man’s corporeal perfection? Or do they just see an ordinary jockey on a horse?”

It must be admitted that there’s another portal I enter too. The photograph transports me into the vibrant memory bank of my own experience. It allows me to vividly relive the one time I took an OTTB (“Off The Track Thoroughbred”) out at a full-bore racing gallop. It also causes my heart to heave with heavy grief at his passing several years later. A special horse in all ways, he belonged to my former best friend, and was himself the very closest friend of my Arab mare. (In order to protect his identity and that of my friend, I’ll call him “P.”) P was a former racehorse, who, after several unfortunate and incompatible owners, ended up in the hands of a forty-something woman with Lyme disease and a delicate countenance who was not an accomplished rider or horse person. Yet P took exquisite, gentlemanly care of her and never once gave her pause for fear. He instinctively understood that he had been entrusted with the care of a fragile soul and did not venture to breach her trust. He was, however, an intensely intelligent and mischievous horse who understood only too well the nuances of different riders. Because I rode him often as a favor to my friend, he understood it was possible to take certain liberties with me that he never would have dared take with her. He liked to go fast, and so did I. If we went out together with a group of other horses, he made it abundantly clear that second place was not an acceptable slot for a horse of his pedigree. He did not want to ride behind other horses and would complain loudly if asked to do so.

In those days my Arab mare was still a handful, and there were times I was honestly frightened to ride her. My good friend N.B. was an excellent rider who had gone foxhunting in Virginia. He rode Cleo (my horse) with a strong and steady seat, but he also frequently rode P.

One day, to my surprise, he remarked to me: “You know Mary, I think you’re nuts. I would far rather ride Cleo than P. Of the two he’s the far more dangerous horse, yet you insist on riding him.”

This gave me pause. It reminded me of something I had once heard an Olympic event rider say about herself and her success over extremely dangerous jumps with her horse: “He knows I’ll never put him in a bad place.” In my case, the reverse was true.

“He’ll never put me in a bad place,” I stated evenly straight into my friend’s skeptical expression. “I can’t explain it, but I know he won’t.”

This declaration was put to the test several weeks later, during a long trail ride with J.P., an extraodinary Spanish cowboy and Tevis cup rider whom I’d employed to train my fractious mare. I came along to watch and learn on this occasion, and chose P as my mount. We rode high in the mountains above Santa Fe on a lovely, clear spring day. Both horses were eager to go. Within minutes, P began his usual game of dancing sideways and jigging, his vernacular for: “I don’t like being kept behind Cleo. I’m the Alpha horse, you know.” I suspected he would obey me and stay behind, yet consistently make clear that he was highly displeased with the situation. And I was right. He finally settled down for a few flat stretches of trot along the open road, but on the return home suddenly became positively obstreperous. Although J.P. had a marvelous singing voice and loved to spontaneously belt out Spanish love songs on the trail (in fact, his voice can be heard as the melodic voice-over at the end of the prison scene in the film “All The Pretty Horses”) he was a man of comparatively few spoken words. I learned by watching him. But this one time he broke pace with his silence.

“You know, Maria,” he said in his lilting New Mexico accent, “P here is a race horse. And once they’ve raced, they never forget how it feels. Why don’t you open him up for a few miles and give him a taste? We’ll catch up later.”

I was against cantering home on general principle. It flew in the face of all the rules of horsemanship that had been drilled into me over the years. But I decided he was right: P needed a bit of a run. And I was riding in my friend’s extremely secure Australian saddle, so I felt confident. I clucked and squeezed him with my legs, whereupon P instantly began to channel Pegasus. He raised his wings and let me know he was ready for flight. We moved from canter to gallop in such a bursting wallop of gut-punching speed that my heart began racing as fast as the horse. And then, incredibly, he abruptly switched gears and entered a further dimension of speed I had only before experienced vicariously: the racing gallop. We were careening down the open road so insanely fast that for a few minutes I was actually blinded: by dust, by the spattering of tears from my own ducts, and by the sun ravaging my unprotected eyes. I dared not move a muscle or single atom of my body. I dared not even change the position of the one hand that held the split reins. I dared do nothing but exist and trust the locomotive beneath me. What felt like an hour was undoubtedly only minutes. At which point we slowed to a regular fast gallop, and finally to a canter, which felt nearly glacial by comparison. By the time his fast trot had mellowed to a jog, I allowed myself to shift in the saddle. I looked behind to see J.P. galloping up behind us on Cleo. He pulled her up short and surveyed me with a satisfied smile. He tilted his head, pushed his cowboy hat back, and proceeded to hand me one of the two great compliments I have received in my life:

“Maria, you were riding like you were carrying the mail.”

It was a great compliment from a truly great rider and expert horseman.

A year or more later I left Santa Fe for the east coast. As P’s owner and I were no longer in touch, it came as a great shock when our mutual friend N.B. handed down a tragic piece of news. P had suffered a heart attack while K was riding him on the trail. Despite his suffering, the good old boy allowed her to dismount. He then laid his faithful head in her lap, whereupon he closed his eyes and died.

Several nights ago I finally found the courage to view photos of the great filly Eight Belles during her Kentucky Derby breakdown.

I wish I hadn’t.

When I saw her collapsed and ruined, I broke into wracking, painful sobs of impotent grief. I had to turn off my computer because I felt so ill and empty. I wanted to bring her back to her feet and let her graze on fresh green grass. I wanted to stem the life slowly ebbing out of her magnificent body and break open that terrible moment now forever freeze-frozen in time. I wanted to gently wake P from his grave and climb on his back. I wanted to whisper: “come on old boy, get up. Let’s see if this great Kentucky champion can catch us across the sagebrush and bushwhacking back trails. She may have come second in the Derby, but you’ll give her hell before you’ll let her get ahead of you out here in the desert.” I wanted to bring these lion-hearted locomotives back from the great beyond.

I wanted to reach across the page…but I couldn’t.

© All rights reserved by Mary Alden-Allard. Content may not be reprinted except by express written permission of the author.

(Photo by kind permission of Raymond. This photo is protected by copyright and may not be altered, reproduced or copied in any way. Raymond’s photostream may be viewed at Flickr.)