Sighing I sat down in the green grass. She’d be back. The lure of apples would overcome her fear. The period between running and tentatively returning decreased steadily daily. From the corner of my eye I watched Tam watch me. Her nostrils flared, and she exhaled as she walked cautiously over.
“Here Tam. I brought your favourite.”
Still cross-legged, I extended my left hand. She sidled up, planted both front legs in front of me, and with a velvet gentleness, took the apple between her black lips. I caught a glance of her shiny teeth as she crunched the green fruit with evident satisfaction. Now, she would allow me to stand and take her by the halter.
Tam’s owner was about ready to call the abattoir because she was so unmanageable.
“She rushes jumps. She’s a great show jumper, but she won’t take the bit in her mouth. I can’t ride her, it’s like she has her own agenda.” Sheila stomped around the kitchen, lithe, long legs clad in the ubiquitous jodhpurs. “I don’t know what to do with her. She’s A grade material. Won’t you try?”
So, here I was, in the centre of a meadow with one of God’s own creatures. Sheila was right. Tam was a dream jumper, little horse, huge leap. I think she would tackle seven-foot fences. But she rushed — speed was good, she’d need the swiftness to win, however there was no controlling her.
Going on a week now, and I wasn’t sure I was much further ahead with her. I led her over to the stables, saddled her up and we headed to the paddock with the three feet pop jumps.
“Ok Tam. Ready?” I talked to her as though she were a fellow human. I knew she understood me. She nodded her head, probably to get rid of an errant strand of grass, but I wanted to believe it was in answer to my question.
I mounted, checked the stirrups and tsk’tsked to get Tam’s attention. Suddenly, she quivered; tensed up, saw the jumps and hurtled towards them. I was merely the passenger, along for the ride. Jump, jump, jump, jump and she was done, panting as though I’d taken her on a two hour out-ride, not a fifteen second pop jump course.
I patted her gently to calm her, and turned her from the jumps. Immediately her breathing slowed. Performance anxiety! Of course! Idiot that I was! Tam wanted to perform so badly she was letting it control her.
“Oh Tam. You poor thing. Someone’s put some baggage on you haven’t they?” Gently I dismounted and moved over to put my arms around her neck and kiss her soft, black face. I knew this would take patience, and going back to the basics with her. She needed to find the joy in jumping again, somewhere between owners she had lost it.
Persistence, time and tenderness were the keys to Tam’s success. Performance anxiety was rooted deep in this magnificent equine. For one whole summer I lived with Sheila, at her request, to work with Tam.
I spent entire days with her, and there were times we wouldn’t go near the jumps, but stay in the field, walking together. She would butt me with her head to treat me like a buddy. Slowly I introduced her to the arena, to the pop jumps, and slowly the joy that made a good horse a superb jumper returned. And boy, this horse could jump!
“She’s a different horse.” Sheila exclaimed as I packed my bags, ready to move back to the College dorm.
“I know she is. Her fear that she will displease you, or anyone is gone. You’ve got a winner there, Sheila.” I wiped away my tears as I took Tam’s face into my hands. “You be a good girl for Shell. Understand?” Tam just snorted, and poked through my pocket for the apple she knew she’d find.
As I drove down the rutted farm road, I realized that I was looking forward to getting back into the Master’s Programme for English Literature. I was no longer concerned about the A’s I was expected to achieve, the goals set for me by parents and professors. I was doing it for the sheer love of English. I had rediscovered my joy. In working with Tam, I found myself again.
So, who was the teacher?