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Nicole and Tango

“One, two, three,” Aunt Mary counted as she lifted me onto Tango.

“Thanks!” I replied. The early morning light danced off Tango’s dappled chestnut hindquarters. I watched as she vaulted herself onto her 18.2hh Belgian draft. I pressed my heels deeper into the stirrups and repositioned myself in the deep Stubben as Tango picked up a brisk walk to the herd of horses gathered for departure.

Tango and I were to be part of the second flight of horses in the Rappahannock Hunt Club fox hunt that day. My aunt was leading the third field on Caesar, and her friend, Janet, rode my aunt’s prize mare, Ghost, to lead the first field. Third field was a hacking group, second field was hacking and some jumping, while first field was everything. I longed to be part of first field to be right up with the hounds and galloping the countryside for hours, but my aunt held me back since it was my first time riding on a fox hunt.

The horn bellowed and the huntsmen and hounds bolted off. The rest of the hunt meandered to a “V” in the path, then split. I watched as Janet and Jessica, the only first fielders that day, cantered up the hill to the right. Tango trotted left behind Gus Edwards, MFH, fieldmaster of the second field, or as he put it, the other first field!  A girl about my age named Kaitlin, who rode in the second field with me, also had a relative in the hunt. She told me her grandfather was a whip, which is the person in charge of keeping the hounds from getting lost.

“That’s him right there,” she said, as she gestured to a man on a Palomino draft. Definitely not a common sight in the show ring, I thought. We then trotted along a small stream on the edge of the woods and came to a small plot of land that had several paths leading away from it.

“Mary, do you know where Michael is?”  Gus questioned the radio. Silence.

“Mary?” he said again. No answer.

“Janet, can you see the hounds?” He addressed the radio.

Again, silence.

“Hello?” he said as his voice grew gradually more impatient.

“CAN ANYONE HEAR ME?” he yelled.

“Okay crew, looks like we’re on our own,” he said. The nine of us responded with silence. He talked to his granddaughter who was also in the second field. About a minute later he trotted his horse to the right into an open cornfield. He leaned forward and urged his horse into a big gallop. Tango leapt right up behind him. I paced him about three feet away from Gus and could tell how easily we could overtake the whole field. Last night my aunt and I took Tango and another horse out and just let them go. Boy could this horse run!

Kaitlin’s little paint pony ran valiantly amidst the big foxhunters. After about a half a mile Gus slowed to a walk and halted at a small creek. We waded through it and Gus picked up a trot on the other side. I heard the canter beats of a few people catching up who had trouble keeping their horses from playing in the water. The eerie howl of the hounds echoed soon before they tore through the bushes. Michael, the huntsman, and one of the junior members of the Rappahannock Hunt, Connor, cantered in the midst of them. The whips chased the stragglers. Kaitlin’s grandfather walked slowly behind them waiting for a few others to emerge from the bushes. I thought about what my aunt had briefed me on during the drive over to the meet in Rappahannock’s prime territory. The hounds are supposed to be a tad afraid of the whips so that they think Michael is their daddy. They are supposed to see him as a protector and he talks to them very kindly and sweetly, while the whips yell and screech at the hounds to keep them up with Michael. A rather fool-proof plan I thought.

“Kaitlin, do you want to move up to first field?” the man on the golden beast asked.

“Can I?” she asked. I could see the excitement growing in her eyes as I looked down on her from Tango.

” Of course you can. Just gallop on over to Jess and Janet right up on that hill,” he replied, flashing her a wide smile.

“Okay!” she replied and smiled at me as she began to pick up a trot.

‘Have fun!” I said as she popped her pony over the three foot coop and galloped off after the chestnut and grey blurs in the distance. I could not contain the jealousy welling up inside me. If only Aunt Mary had been there. Maybe she would have said I could join Janet and Jessica too. I sighed as we all filed through the gate. Why do I have to be so ultra-competitive? Why can’t I just be happy that I’m out here? I thought. About ten minutes later we cantered around a corner that led to a shaded area of tall grass. We slowed to a walk and joined the first field under the trees.

“Watch out for holes everybody!” Gus bellowed. I spotted Kaitlin and walked Tango up next to her. I could not get over how well-mannered all these horses where to each other. At home, at the end of a hack class in a horse show, when we lined up, the pony I rode, Charmer, would pin his ears back at the horse standing several feet away. And, here was Tango, probably never having seen this pony in his life, just chilling next to him. I looked up and saw my aunt and her group coming around the bend. I turned Tango away from Kaitlin and walked over to my aunt’s big bay horse.

“How’s he been?” she asked.

“Perfect!” I said. I wish I could have told her how much I longed to run with first field but suppressed it. She turned Caesar as Lauren walked up to her. They began to chat about the hunt.

“Janet ! How about going larking while Michael finds the trail again? “Gus bellowed into the crowd.

“Of course!” Janet replied.

“Anyone going larking, follow Janet and Ghost!” Gus yelled. I looked behind me and caught Kaitlin’s eye.

“What’s larking?” I asked.

“It’s where everybody just runs together and we pop over some small jumps.” she replied. I silently cursed my solely “hunter ring” knowledge of riding.

“Thanks!” I said. I trotted over to my aunt who was still casually walking in a circle talking to another lady. I knew she couldn’t go fast because Caesar has ringbone which is why she chose to lead third field. I summoned the courage to ask, and said to my aunt, “Can I go?” I looked over my shoulder and saw the group gathering.

“Sure!” she answered. I said a quick prayer of thanks to God for giving me an amazing aunt and then trotted up right behind Janet. She started off at a brisk canter and then got faster each stride. I assumed a spot at Ghost’s grey hindquarters and next to Jess’s chestnut gelding. I remained focused on not letting Tango pass his stable mate. As we cantered in the woods I sat back and held Tango and we jumped the “in and outs” and logs. Only when we exited the woods and full-on galloped up a yellow flower covered hill and I felt Tango’s mane whipping against my face did I relax. I let his body gather under me and then explode with each stride. I didn’t even look behind me. All I needed to worry about were the two people in front of me. After the long gallop through the fields, we entered another patch of woods. Janet brought us down to a walk and we walked single file along the tiny path up and down the wooded terrain. We turned left and came to a dead end. Janet told the us to stay where we were and she trotted back to the end of the line where my aunt, Gus, a couple whips, and  rest of the riders were. After they talked for a minute or two, Janet turned around.

“First field” she yelled, “follow me.” In an attempt to make it look like I was simply getting out of Kaitlin’s way, I walked up. Then they began to turn right and get back onto the path and started to turn where the leaders where.  More importantly, to where my aunt was.

“Nicole!” my aunt said.

“Yes?” I replied. I knew what was coming. I brought Tango to a halt. “Do you want to go with them?” she asked. My heart stopped for a second.

“Can I?” I asked. I tried not to sound like a begging child but I almost couldn’t help it.

“I guess so,” she said and gave me wry smile.

“Thank you!” I said.

“Stay on,” she shouted as I trotted after Jessica. We began to canter down a steep fifty-foot drop into a stream and then climbed up the opposite side. Once at the top we walked down the steepest hill I had ever seen. I leaned back and gave Tango his head as he picked his way through the rocks. I finally let out a deep breath when we cantered back up and realized I had stopped breathing going down the hill. We cantered around a turn and took a rollback to my first “actual” jump of the day. I closed my legs and stared ahead at Jessica’s back as Tango launched himself over the impressive coop. Deeper into the woods we went; jumping the log sets and fences hiding in the bushes. We jumped a final coop that lead us into the open pastures. Janet halted us and point to the gravel road to the right. We saw Michael and Connor  tearing out with the hounds.

“Janet, do you think it’s time to head in?” the radio asked. It sounded like Michael.  Janet lifted the radio up to her mouth. “Probably. We’ve been out here for four hours,” she said.

“Okay,” Michael responded.

As we walked up to the trailers I ran my hand along Tango’s crest and patted him on the neck. This is what having fun feels like. This isn’t the fun that comes from a blue piece of ribbon. It is the wholesome and relaxing fun that comes from being one with a 1,000 pound animal, out in the countryside (land and space, which we so lack in Baltimore), on a beautiful day. It is having and making friends to enjoy it with.

I swung my leg over Tango’s back and plopped down onto the ground at his feet. I laughed and picked myself. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been in a saddle that long. My aunt wasn’t back yet so I had some time to spend with Tango. A small navy pickup truck drove up. It had about seven people squished into the front and probably nine kids sitting in the bed.

“Do you want a ride down to the house for the breakfast?” the driver asked me.

“No thanks!” I replied.

“Okay! See ya down there!” he said, and he car sped down the hill towards the stone mansion where the food  was being served.

I stroked Tango after I threw on his sheet. I wasn’t going down. I was going to wait for my aunt and then we were going to go back to the farm to have our own dinner and relax in the solitude of the chirping crickets and performing songbirds. In other words, the best way to end a perfect day. I couldn’t help feeling a sense of accomplishment after how I rode as I laid in bed that night. After all, it takes two to tango!

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