• Alice Whaley

Three Barrels

Updated: Apr 15

Gayle’s a friend of Van’s from way back when; another joy who I’m now blessed with the time to meet. She’s a neighbour of sorts, living deep in the countryside, far away from everyone, but less far away from us. I went, cautiously, to meet her over the weekend. Her grey hair is simply cut, short and practical. Her face is beautiful. We didn’t shake hands when I arrived. The reason we didn’t shake hands hung heavy and unspoken in the shared air.

Gayle’s granddaughter showed up soon after I did, parking her shiny black pickup next to my battered old red one. The big belt buckle around her boot-cut jeans reads BARREL RACING CHAMPION 2001. Taylor’s my age; she must have won that buckle aged four. She laughs when I ask about it, “Naw it’s not the biggest title, but it’s my favourite buckle, I wear it all the time.” Her long black ponytail tumbles down in perfect ringlets from the back of her baseball cap, which looks new. Her wedding ring looks new too.

Inside the house, there’s a display case made of rustic-chic weathered wood and artfully coiled barbed wire holding several bigger, shinier buckles: Taylor & Goldie 1st Place, and, World Championships Finalist. Barrel racing is the only sport open to women in the PRCA (Pro Rodeo Cowboy’s Association). Competitors enter a sand arena, one at a time, to weave around three barrels set out in a triangle. The horse begins galloping before crossing the starting line, and can move around the barrels in the order that they like, as long as there’s a pattern. Gayle explains that most people turn right first, but that Taylor’s champion, Scooter, would always stop or stumble on a right turn.

“I think he must have had some kind of a bad experience one time. They never forget, you know. So we tried him turning left and wouldn’t you know it, he was just great.”

You’re usually looking at about a 15 second race. The clock measures down to 0.001 of a second, and those split seconds, split again, really do make the difference between winning and losing.

Gayle and Taylor have three horses; two chestnut colts and a buckskin with yellow eyes called Copter. I’ve never seen a horse with yellow eyes before. We have a couple of horses with blue eyes on the ranch. I’d never seen those before I got to America either, but I’d heard of them. Americans love them, but the English don’t trust them, they call it ‘wall-eye’ and believe it makes for a naughty horse. I buy into the coat stereotyping of horses - chestnuts usually are more flighty, duns are good performers, paint horses are obedient but not that bright – but Copter didn’t seem naughty at all. The farrier came, and Copter stood quietly with his ears cocked backwards out of curiosity and deference rather than bad attitude. His little eyebrows were raised and furrowed as if he were worried about something, but that something wasn’t the farrier.

Gayle picked up and inspected every hoof individually, making quite sure that the farrier cut the horses’ hooves very short on the toe. (That’s the front centre of the hoof.) Most farriers would’ve thrown down their tools; if you know so much, you do it. Not David. He just laughed. The amount of toe affects the angle of the horse’s hoof. Too much toe, and you stretch out the ligaments on the back of the leg. That’s bad news for a barrel racer’s horse, with all the harsh stops and tight turns they do.

“All the barrel racers want it like that,” said the farrier.

I noticed he had a different accent.

“New York,” he said, “The Southerners would call me a Yankee, but not a Damn Yankee, at least.”

It was hard to get my head around the timeline of David’s life. It was one of those lives that seemed altogether too incongruous to fit inside one person. He grew up in New York, but also grew up around horses. He learnt to shoe because he couldn’t afford a farrier, and started doing it for other people while he lived in Georgia, where he worked as a gymnastics coach. I almost chipped in that I used to do gymnastics when I was little, but then it transpired that he had been coaching Olympic level teams and I was glad I had held my tongue.

As he left, we nodded at each other and didn’t shake hands, again.

“Nobody’s mentioned the word,” he said.

I thought, you don’t need to, please don’t.

“The Word,” he continued, “The Word states that God is coming, and when we meet him, it will be joyful. I believe that. Sometimes you just have to look up.”

He looked at the sky, nodded again, and left.

It was after this that Gayle took me into the woods, and we did look, and we looked again, and we breathed, and the trees breathed, and nobody thought about anything that wasn’t uttered in the whispering of the leaves.

Previous blog: The Heart that Loved Her

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