When Daddy’s brother, Uncle Edward, got a new horse for his fancy shows, he gave me his gentle old mare, Pearl, for my seventh birthday. I thought she was the best present ever.
“That’s a hand-me-down horse,” my cousin Maritza said when we met Uncle Edward at his friend Fiona’s place. “My birthday present is gonna be new.” She wrinkled her nose. “And not smelly.”
I didn’t care about her Barbie set anymore, even if it did have a car and dream house. I had my own horse and imagined myself barrel racing at the next Junior Rodeo.
Before I could ride Pearl, Uncle Edward showed me how to use the curry comb in little circles all over her white coat, and then brush with the stiff bristles down each side to get all the old, dirty hair off. I tried to make her shine. He taught me how to run my hand down each leg and lean into Pearl with my shoulder, so she would lift her hoof.
“Bend your legs a little and rest her hoof on your knee.” Uncle Edward was patient.
I was finally able to hold each hoof long enough to scrape out the manure around the soft frog on the underside with a metal pick.
“That’s so disgusting!” Maritza covered her nose and mouth with her shirt. “And now your pants are all dirty.”
I didn’t care. I brushed the flakes of dry manure off my knee with hands that weren’t much cleaner. The dust made my nose run, so I wiped it on my sleeve.
“Gross!” Maritza shrieked and walked to the other side of the fence where her mom, Tia Marta, watched me. She didn’t care that Momma thought my horse habit was dangerous. She was excited for me and even made Uncle Edward tortillas to thank him.
I stuck out my tongue at her and tasted the dirty air. Worried a fly would land on it, I quickly sucked it in. After my first grooming lesson, Uncle Edward said I could mount Pearl and he would lead her slowly around the corral.
“Doesn’t she need some special equipment, Edward?” Tia Marta asked.
Uncle Edward insisted Pearl was gentle enough to ride bareback. I could hold on to the mane, and he would stay right beside me. “Squeeze with your knees, Daniela. That’s how she knows you’re there and not afraid.”
I was afraid, a little. All the kids at the junior rodeo had saddles and bridles and went so fast. I worried Pearl would take off and Uncle Edward couldn’t run as fast as a horse. For a moment I pictured myself roll backward off her butt and slide down her tail.
He must’ve seen my eyes get too big, so he offered to ride behind me the first time. After three laps around the corral, I learned how to talk to Pearl so she would know my voice.
“How does she know to turn left or right?” I asked. Nothing looked like a steering wheel.
“Right now she knows to walk a circle around the fence. She’s that smart.” He laughed so I thought he was making fun of me. “But when you’re out in the open or in a big arena, you lay the reins gently on each side of her neck like this.” He made Pearl move slowly to the right, away from the fence for a few steps. “Now you try.”
I pulled the reins the other way.
“Don’t pull back, that tells her to stop.” He put his hand over mine, and I could feel the reins loose, not tight like I had them, and together we guided Pearl against the fence. “Good. You ready to try on your own?”
Wiping my sweaty hands on my thighs, I left dark streaks on my jeans. I nodded. Uncle Edward slid off the side of Pearl and stood next to Tia and Maritza.
My cousin said, “That doesn’t look safe.”
I scowled at her and tapped Pearl’s sides gently with my heels. I felt so free on Pearl’s back alone. Up so high, I could see farther down the road. On my second lap walking, Uncle Edward stopped me and showed me how to make her trot. Not scared any more, I clicked my tongue and tapped her sides with my legs; she went faster. It was harder to hold on because my arms bounced up and down.
“Easy, Daniela,” Uncle Edward said, “pull back a little to slow her down and keep your elbows tight against your ribs so you aren’t flapping like a bird.”
Maritza giggled as I trotted by. When I focused, the next lap around was met with compliments from Uncle Edward and Tia Marta.
“I wanna ride,” Maritza announced.
I scowled at her again. “You don’t want to get dirty, remember.”
Uncle Edward laughed. “It’s okay. You brushed Pearl so well, Maritza won’t get too dirty.” He led Pearl up to the side of the fence where Maritza sat so she could climb on. “Walk around once together and then we’ll call it quits for today.”
Stupid Maritza always wanted what I had, even though she had her own stuff.
“This is so boring,” she said, halfway around.
“Really?” I clicked and tapped.
Maritza wasn’t ready for that. She grabbed on to the back of my shirt with one hand and my long brown braid with her other. “Slow down!” she squealed.
“You said that was boring, remember? Squeeze with your legs. And let go of me!”
Instead, Maritza slid around Pearl’s side, dragged me with her to the dirt below. Her black curls were close to a pile of dried poop, and I secretly hoped she got some in her hair.
Pearl had stopped as soon as our weight was off her back, and Uncle Edward was standing over us immediately. He didn’t look mad and he didn’t laugh. “You two okay?”
Maritza started crying after he helped her up, and Tia Marta came over to dust her off.
“I’m fine,” I insisted and refused his hand. I got myself up and dusted myself off.
“Gotta get back on, Daniela,” Uncle Edward said.
And I did.