Hazy steam rises from the stallion's back as he snorts and sashays across the entrance to the track. I reach down to pat his dark, damp shoulder, and I can feel his muscles rippling under my palm. I breathe deeply, inhaling the sweet mustiness of hay, horses and Florida dew. I can do this. Or not. I have no idea.
"Go ahead and throw your cross," whispers the rider next to me, as he studies my hands closely. He is scowling, this judge of my 6 a.m. job interview — my ability to navigate a racehorse around a gray oval of groomed sand.
My riding partner is French, chiseled face, muscles rippling of his own. I am 18, athletic, with way too many Harlequin romances stuffed under my bed — a cheap escape from two alcoholic parents. This man could be from the cover of a recent page-turner. I try to think of the story line. Heck, this could be the story line.
"Excuse me? Throw what?" I say with what I hope is confident, sexy ambivalence. My heart picks up speed. A horse is a horse. What is he talking about? Crosses belong in churches. Maybe it means I should say a prayer.
"You've never been on a racehorse in your life, have you?" asks the bodice ripper.
"Please, I have experience with show horses and I'm a really good rider. Really good. Just give me a chance. I need this job, I need to be with horses. Please."
I'm not the kind of girl who uses sultry looks, but I let one go. It's thoroughbreds I know, not men. I reek virginity.
After a quick glance behind us to see if the track owner is watching, the Frenchman quickly shows me how to throw a cross: a quick flip inversion hold of the reins so I can pull them in tightly when the time comes to "breeze." I learn that breezing means full gallop. I also get a one-minute lesson on how show horses slow down when you pull on the reins, but racehorses accelerate. To them, it means go. All out. Now.
We start with a brisk trot and then move into a canter, an even rolling movement. My balance is off because my stirrups are pulled up 2 feet shorter than I am used to. My feet feel jokingly close to my body. My knees touch, jockey style.
"Take your hold. Let's go," says a nearby voice in the wind. Instantly, we roar into a whole new dimension of speed and power. I hear and feel a thundering of hooves beneath me. Green hedges and white fences on our left start to blur. Tears from the pressure of the air roll from my eyes into my hair. I can hardly see.
This must be what it feels like to fly.
I've only gone all out on a horse when I was 10 and a nasty pony ran off with me into a grove of old rotting orange trees at the back of a farm. The couple of minutes before he dumped me were swift and full of dread.
But I have no fear now. My fingers curl in the wiry black mane. My mind grasps just a tiny sense of danger — what it might feel like to be hurtled off the back of an animal this size, at this speed.
My body doesn't care. I feel pure exhilaration and a profound personal relationship with this steed. This colt whose legs seem longer than his bloodlines. This horse who is giving me a major buzz. I am exactly where I need to be. No one and no thing can catch me. Not the sounds of screaming fights of my parents, the uncertainty of college or career, money, pride, lust, hunger or thirst.
For the moment, I am free.
• • •
With a bit of luck, the author was able to pass the interview and worked as an exercise rider on Florida's east coast for almost a year. She rode 2- and 3-year-old thoroughbreds between 5 and 10 a.m., Monday through Saturday, and kept the job until she got mixed up in a brief, unhealthy relationship between the French guy, a handsome Argentinean racehorse, a collarbone and a live oak tree. Twenty-seven years later, interrogation by racehorse remains the best job interview she ever had.
Kerri Dieffenwierth, a graduate of Florida Southern College, lives in Venice.