“Can ye ride, son?”

Remembering Here&Now

…young Rico remembers being asked by a stable hand.


“Can ye ride, son?” The leathered face of the red-nosed stable hand knotted up as he hacked up a tobacco-colored gob of phlegm. The early morning September chill in 1957 had all the horses snorting white steam. We were at a riding stable for serious riders, not like most tourist attractions at the Royal Gorge, a few hours south of Denver. I had been the invited guest of a cousin and was jacked on the adrenaline thrill of riding in the Rockies. I was barely ten years old, had only been in pony corrals in the Boston area, but if Saturday morning cowboy movies had taught me anything, it was to fake bravery.

“Sure,” I hoped the old man couldn’t read the bold-faced lie written all over my face.

The palomino stallion towered like a skyscraper. I had no clue how to mount the beast – my eyes searched for a stepladder. Before I had to confess, the old man gave me ten fingers, boosting me onto the saddle. He gave me the reins, I kicked the horse’s flank like I had seen in the movies, and in five seconds we were out of the stable yard and running full-bore down a dirt track. I didn’t know if I should be scared for my life as the stallion ran like he’d been pent up in a stall for weeks, or if I should relax and enjoy what I was sure was going to be the end of my life.

The dozen-or-so other mounts were still in the corral eating their oats. It took five minutes for the arthritic stable boss to rustle up a hungover ranch hand to saddle up and chase me. After a few minutes of terror, my instinct told me to just grab the horn on the saddle and let the stallion have his morning run. Then it became the Great Escape. The stallion’s heart was afire; he wasn’t going to get corralled and spend the glorious morning back in the stall. I didn’t know it then but rumor was that he could outrun just about any other horse around. Some five minutes into the romp, I might have heard galloping hooves half a mile behind me. The stallion just became more determined. He was having none of this business of returning to the stable. Me, I was just along for the ride now that I’d found how to sync in rhythm with the racing Palomino. I suppose looking back on this adventure it could be called Baptism by Fire. I had never been on a runaway steed and by the time it was over, if I survived, I’d be a little man who could claim that, Yep, I can ride with the best o’ them…

Some ten minutes later the Palomino spied some fresh alfalfa growing next to the dirt road we’d been galloping down. Guess it looked inviting enough to give up his race to freedom. By the time the cuss-spitting-angry ranch hand arrived to turn the runaway horse back to the group ride, I smiled broadly, tipped my hat to the newcomer and said, “Well, mister, took you long enough to catch up, huh?”

After this adventure on horseback, I’d ride any chance I could. Summer vacations I’d spend five bucks to romp a trail for an hour, always letting any steed go full throttle and then dismounting a few hundred yards from the stable to cool the horse down with a gentle walk.

In 1969, while in school in France, I got a room in a chateau in exchange for working out the pair of the Baron’s sleek thoroughbreds. I never had anything but joy as I ran each beauty some 10 kilometers four afternoons a week. I had to learn the fickle ways of an English saddle and delicate rein commands in French, but the Baron was pleased. I got a lot of invites to dinners and rode those majestic purebreds to everyone’s satisfaction.

In 1970, while in school at The University of the Americas in Mexico City, I’d heard lunchroom gossip describing a stable some twenty miles north in a national park where wild mustangs could be rented for three dollars a day. The second a man climbed in the saddle, he had his hands full. Kind of like the Wild West stories of cowpokes living to tell the tale of the wildest bronc they brike. Once the mustang and I got to know who was on top, we’d run for hours and hours. These breeds had massive hearts and lung capacity for the high-altitude life. Wind in my hair, a song in my soul, I could never imagine why anyone would rather sit a classroom studying Colonial History in the Spanish language than running free in the unspoiled green hills of the Mexican highlands.

A couple of years later I got married; before I knew it, my wife was nine months pregnant, and was past her due date. I’d been hired to crew a sailboat delivery from Gloucester to Key West. Hurricane season was about to come barreling up the eastern seaboard; the skipper had already paid me in advance to pay doctor bills. The baby was kicking something fierce, and the sailboat skipper was ready to hire a hit squad to get his money back. A neighbor and my wife gossiped about our dilemma. She offered us a couple of nags lolling around her back pasture. We almost needed a crane to get my missus up on the mount’s back, but we rode bareback an hour or so, then her water broke. An hour later my son slipped out into the cold world like you’d spit watermelon seeds on that hot August afternoon. My wife and I cried for joy. I stopped by the neighbors to give her the news and fed red delicious apples to the nags who’d saved my neck from a lynching party. I left the next day for Gloucester, my wife and her mother glad to be alone with the newborn.

The next horse adventure took place on a track in New Zealand. The national champion was retired from competition, but was run every morning five miles full bore. A friend of a friend introduced me to the champ’s trainer and after a few beers and me boasting of my vast experience, we were off to the races. This time, I really did need a stepladder. The thoroughbred towered above me, taller than any man could mount without a helping hand. I don’t remember the trainer giving me more than a word or two of instructions pretty much summed up as: “Let the girl run like hell.” In a minute we were running faster than I would have believed any four-legged beast could move. Hanging on for my dear life. Praying to someone to pick up the pieces and send a kindly worded telegram to me dear Irish mum about her lad’s tragic end.

Racing on a track now meant full-frontal-terror. The rail sped past in a blur, my eyes watered as we made the mile post. I was beginning to find my rhythm, to match the champ’s. Not that I relaxed into the ride, but I felt I understood what the trainer wanted. We were fast approaching the mile-and-a-quarter finish line. I was letting her run her heart out, a tentative smile on my face, glad that I hadn’t embarrassed myself. That was the last thought before the high-class lady screeched to a halt just to mess me up in front of the morning crowd. The bloody mare had played me! I mean, what the hell? I was giving it the old college try, my best shot, staying in the saddle for the duration, and this high-priced bitch dumps me just out of spite. I was sprawled out flat, looking up the grinning horse, worried that she might now just trample me for good measure, when the trainer runs up – matter of fact, mind you – and says, “Up you go, mate.”

“Thanks,” says I. “Now, where do we have breakfast?”

“Oh no, mate. There’ll be no breakfast ‘till you mount her again for three more tours just to make her know who’s the jockey.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“There’s no way in hell, mate, that we’d let the horse throw a rider and get away with that kind of trick. So up ye go, mate.”

I wasn’t sure if I should run to the bathroom to look for brown stains, shout for a taxi and ride the hell out of there, or just obey the stern-faced trainer before I got kicked in the ribs.

Well, I managed the next three track runs, left with my dignity intact and was done with skittish high-maintenance thoroughbreds. Except that a few years later I was at an equestrian hotel in Sardinia, Italy. I climbed up on a magnificent black stallion, something that Zorro would ride into battle. As I readied to leave the stable an old man ran up to me, handed me a mean-looking riding crop, and said in a dialect similar to my grandfather’s: “You might need this.”

I had never needed a crop before; gentle knee pressure on the flanks, a bit of guidance on the reins and we were good to go. We started off around noon on a gorgeous Saturday in April. Spring was blooming in the air, the trees bursting with new leaf, wildflowers appearing, puffy white clouds. Sigh. Could life get any better?

I peeled off the group ride, took a trail that looked promising with an open dirt track to let this grand stallion open up and run. He snorted, started to canter and then skidded sideways driving my head into a tree limb. The bastardo did it expressly to hurt me. I thought maybe I was imagining this, so took to the open trail. Again, after five minutes, the same trick. Then I understood why another stable hand I’d passed returning with a group had called out: “If the horse gives you trouble, don’t be afraid of hitting him really hard between the eyes.”

I had never considered hitting a horse. But this stallion was mean and meant me harm. I had to ignore the two lumps on my head and focus on the killer instinct of my steed. I was on hyper-alert now. As soon as the great black stallion headed off course, I took a mighty swing with the crop, weighted with lead pellets, and gave back the same punishment. He snorted, as if to say, you can’t make me behave, stupid Americano. I pounded this black demon again and again between the eyes. Every few minutes. It was no longer a battle of wills. I had proved that I could dish it out, and the stallion was less arrogant, but I no longer enjoyed the beauty of the day.

When I entered the stable yard, I slid off the saddle, went up to the bastardo who had put me on this mean-spirited beast, and hit the guy in the nuts with the crop as I poured out profanity with raging, blistering anger – the only language respected in Italy.

Three other stable hands cheered me, “Bravo! Hai fatto bene!” They carried me to their break room, opened a bottle of chianti and toasted me. I kept an eye out for the man with sore privates, but after a glass or two of good vino, I figured my compaesani had my back. One of the guys was cousin to the stable hand; turned out he had a grievance with Americans. No one could ever determine why the young guy put me on a killer. Maybe he had just seen the Rambo movie or was jealous of his girlfriend flirting with an American soldier in the US base nearby. Whatever.

Now I’m old and brittle and can’t risk a fall. I still dream of mounting a gentle mare, galloping a while and then sauntering back to the stable. But I smile as I remember how it all began, I can almost hear the old man asking me, “Can ye ride, son?”

Article originally posted in The Good Men Project and on Medium – Photo by Kirsten LaChance on Unsplash

Rico Provasoli

Rico Provasoli (Prem Richard) is a writer, published author and accomplished sailor. ricoprovasoli.me

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