The campfire was dying down. Not everyone was camping; the whole idea was, we trekked on horseback across Juri's farm with clients, a lovely couple who were spending a month riding with us, and then all of our friends joined us for a braai, a traditional South African barbecue, on the banks of the small lake where we had set up camp, some guitar-playing by Juri, spinning fire poi courtesy of Cornelia and LJ, and good company. Our friends were a lively bunch, and everyone felt welcome and right at home. We sang and drank, drank and sang, and drank some more as we watched the stars come out, because there's nothing like nation-wide rampant blackouts to really make the night sky shine, until the full moon started to come up. Marie and I were going for a moonlight ride.
When I was a kid riding horses, I was fearless. Getting hurt never crossed my mind and nothing was impossible. I was invincible, and I had infinite trust in m horses to take care of me. We would jump bareback, bridleless, while cracking whips, stand up on our horses while moving, and ride into the canal to dive off the horses into the water. Over the years, my passion for horses transformed from a romanticized one to a realistic one, and I realized that my skills had a limit and my bones were mortal. Furthermore, when horses became my career, I eventually reached a point where every horse I rode was a project, even my own. I always had a goal in mind, and every ride was a training ride. I never felt that the joy was lost, I still enjoyed every minute in the saddle (well, almost every minute, since even good horses have bad days), but something had died. The saddest part was, I didn't realize this until much too late.
This wasn't just any moonlight ride. Marie and I rode bareback and the light of the moon didn't shine into the canyon where we were camping. We were riding blind. The herd was loose in the campsite, since the general vicinity was fenced in, but the horses stayed close to the giant tent, knowing that that was where they got fed, so we didn't have to go far to fetch them. Even though it was just the two of us riding, the herd stuck together. We had six horses total, but everyone else was tired and didn't want to ride at night.
Marie's horse, Arrow, was the leader of the herd. Where he went, they all went. We were able to bridle he and Snapdragon by the light of the campfire embers and scattered rays of moonlight, but when we mounted up and began to ride, we lost the light entirely as we rode through the gorge. The whole herd followed, and we picked up a trot, then a canter, then a gallop. The horses could see in the dark where we could not, and we had to trust that they knew the way. We could hear thundering hoof beats all around us but could barely make out the other horses. Their energy fed off of one another, and the picked up speed. We couldn't have stopped them if we wanted to. At the end of the gorge, we sprinted up the hill to the top, with handfuls of mane, wind in our eyes, and stars in our hair, and then we emerged onto the plain, washed in moonlight. The horses circled at the top of the plateau, finally slowing down. Snappy tossed her head and whinnied, Grafiki answered, then Major, and Arrow took off again. We raced along the ridge, circling far above the campsite, and we could see the full moon reflected in the water below. Coming back down into the gorge on the other side, the horses slowed, out of breath from running, as were we, panting from exhilaration. We slipped off at the bottom and right into the tent, letting the horses loose again.
It wasn't just about the ride. It was trusting the horses to be our eyes where we couldn't see, our feet where we couldn't feel the ground, to take care of us and keep us safe. We had to ride with the kind of faith we rode with as children, trust our horses with all he innocence and naivete of little girls, and lose ourselves in our horses. This was no schooling ride, and none of that mattered, this was riding for the pure joy, the thrill, the rush. Food for the soul. This is what I had lost all those years ago, and getting that back was a feeling I can't even put into words.