“I’m fine,” I tell Anton, but there’s a watery vulnerability in my voice which I’m sure he’s picked up on. Still, he asks me over and over. My response stays the same. It’s about as generic of an answer anyone could give, and at its core, when it’s not used passive-aggressively, it just means: I’m neither this nor that. I’m just fine. And that’s the truth. My excitement for today’s horseback riding experience is high, but it’s pulled down like a window shade by another, almost-contradicting feeling: pure terror.
We’re standing in front of a corral, 17 miles west of the hubbub of the Las Vegas Strip, watching horses slurp water and feast on their dinner of grass and hay. In examining these animals up close, I’m fixed in stasis, playing out every possible bad scenario my mother ever cemented in my head. “Remember Christopher Reeve?” she’d say every time I brought up the idea of horseback riding. Or some relative, who fell off a horse once and suffered an injury. If I didn’t remember these warnings before, I do now. In fact, I’ve even succeeded at adding my own creative plot twists. Like, what if my horse refuses to walk or canters off in the opposite direction or launches into a bone-jarring show dance?
You see, I was never a brave kid. I grew up in Egypt, where I didn’t live in the best (read: safest) of neighborhoods, and with a single mother who did everything she could to protect me like a relic. I didn’t so much as learn to ride a bike in our neighborhood. The only time I rode an animal was a camel, and that’s only because our tour guide just scooped me up and put me on it — no questions asked. Needless to say, my mom was mortified. Of course, since moving to the United States, I’ve more than made up for my limited experiences. (This sheltered gal even once swam with sharks in the Bahamas). But I can’t help but feel an undercurrent of anxiety whenever I try something new.
I can feel my breakfast doing a slow backwards roll in my stomach when the cowboy rounds us up and calls us over for a brief pow-wow before we hit the trail. He goes over some basic safety tips, and then dives deeper into the equine psyche — what they mean when they stomp their feet, swish their tails, lower their heads. What to do when a horse spooks, misbehaves, wanders off or follows hunger to the creosote bushes off trail. How to control direction through the reins. In short, I feel as though I should be taking notes. Trying to validate my confusion, I scan people’s faces for any signs of fear and find none. This is nobody’s first rodeo.
Then, as if hearing my thoughts, the wrangler sends an important question into the anxiety-charged atmosphere (all mine): “Is anyone here nervous?” Anton glances over his shoulder at me as my hand slowly goes up. To my surprise, in our group of 20 or so people, another member raises her hand. She could’ve fooled me.
Nerves beget nerves. Horses pick up on a rider’s nervous energy. That’s why first-time riders often get paired up with the calmest, most anxiety-averse horse of the herd. Usually, it’s an older horse — one who knows the trail like the back of his or her hoof and is typically stubborn about listening to your bad counsel. For me, that horse is Tommy. He’s a pinto, which just means he’s multi-colored with large patches of white splashed on a gingerbread-brown coat. With the help of one of the wranglers (her name was Gaylene), I mount the saddle, and shortly after, Tommy begins moving, following the herd on auto-pilot. My heart slams.
Tommy and I don’t hit it off immediately. He takes none of my suggestions and carries himself confidently on the rugged terrain. He’s also an expert tailgater, sticking his muzzle where it doesn’t belong, like in another horse’s behind. That said, he is steady in his walk and reliable in his reluctance to deviate from the preapproved route. He’s like that hard-to-get-along-with uncle who might rudely brush off your views on foreign policy but who will definitely show up to pick you up from the airport at 4 a.m.
Tommy and I follow the herd through the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area on a slim ribbon of trail. We ride single-file in the middle of the path, and we only stop for the group to take pictures. I lean into Tommy’s neck, and use that time to pet, scratch and massage him. After all, we’d been riding in silence for a while, and one of us had to break it. In preparation for this trail ride, I’d read a few things about horses, the most important of which preached the idea of bonding.
Horses can develop unique bonds with humans — and they can even show it through body language. Of course, I’m not foolish enough to think that Tommy and I could achieve best friend status in merely two hours, but his complete indifference made the relationship a little too one-sided. “It’s OK,” I tell myself. I might have only met one Tommy today, but by this point of the day, after a few rides, Tommy has probably seen a handful of people who, just like me, clamored for his affection. And he’s probably over it.
Over the course of the two-hour guided tour, however, I begin to settle into the ride. My shoulders relax, my seat bones find a more comfortable position, my legs hang looser on each side. I finally let my anxiety go, and that’s when I begin to truly enjoy the experience. With my mind no longer fixated on handling Tommy (who keeps reassuring me that my mom was wrong and that, really, he’s got this), I can finally take in the ride within context — and that’s the beauty of this landscape.
Large red rock formations and sandstone domes unfurl in front of me. These rocks, some of which tower close-to 3,000 feet off the desert floor, are distinctly marked by striking pinkish-red bands brushed over brown and gray canvases. Closer to the ground, the coarse sand is peppered with banana yuccas, creosote bushes and cacti that look like beavers’ tails. And I’d be remiss not to mention the tangerine sunset (this is a “sunset” ride, after all). It’s peaceful. The rhythmic clip-clop stretches my mind into a calm, tranquil-like state.
But before I really get to cozy up to Tommy and to this view, the mercury drops and a freezing wind barrels through my body, pulling the color out of my face. I stretch the sleeves of my puffer jacket down to cover my knuckles, but I can already see my fingernails turn blue. As time wears on, it gets colder and colder. My mind wanders to strange places, like, how face masks with sewn-in ear muffs should totally be a thing. Or how I could really use a hat right about now. Or how I should’ve invested in battery-heated clothing. And then, worst of all terrible thoughts: that The Revenant scene with the horse. You know which one.
Just when my watery eyes start to blur my vision like a badly focused photo, we turn around the bend, and I’m relieved to see a glimpse of the corral at our starting point. The weather had frozen all of my senses, and I had barely registered the fact that we’d looped around. In short, I’m thankful — oh, so thankful. We file through the corral, and Gaylene helps me off my horse. I hate saying goodbye to Tommy. He was a good, ol’ reliable friend, after all. As I turn to look at him one last time before heading into the shed — where a warm, post-tour barbecue and a hot drink awaits — I catch his sullen dark eye for a split second before he fades in the shadows for a meal. He might’ve not been the most communicative horse in the corral, but he sure did manage, in his own way, to say: don’t be afraid.