I found myself thinking today about Emma Peel, the last horse I owned. I used to let her goof off quite a lot when I rode her. Most riders who compete don’t ever let horses do this. But sometimes I used to let Emma do total no-no’s like eat grass while I was on her back, and sometimes I’d walk around on a totally loose rein with the stirrups dangling and such.
Anyway, I was thinking about how, given this, she and I so often placed in Central Texas Dressage Society schooling shows and Third Coast Eventers competitions. This is what I realized: I knew Emma totally. I knew her when she was a yearling because she was in a stall right across from Palatino, my Arabian.
Emma was a big girl, and her owners weren’t really horse people. They got scared of her when she bullied them, which horses can quickly learn to do, and after that they pretty much ignored her.
I felt sorry for her. I used to pet her and talk to her and give her treats, but she was never grateful. She’d flatten her ears and twitch her tail and generally act mean and ugly, even while chomping the carrot I’d given her.
I ended up buying her kind of accidentally when she was only 2. Another rider and I heard the owners were going to sell her, and the other rider really wanted to buy her. She asked me if I could lend her the money. When I told my then-husband, he said not to make a loan. He suggested, instead, that I buy Emma and have the other rider pay me for her.
I called the other rider, but she couldn’t come to the phone. So I went to the barn and paid for Emma. Then the other rider stopped speaking to me. Finally, she told me why: “You bought that filly right out from under me,” she accused, stomping away. And to make matters worse, my husband got really ticked at me, saying I’d planned the whole thing so I could buy a second horse.
It is comical now that I think about it. I had two people mad at me and owned a horse I had never wanted in the first place.
On top of all that, Emma Peel was really a lout! She would bite. She would just as soon kick you as look at you. When it came to naming her, I considered Uzi, after the submachine gun, but decided instead to use the name of the heroine in the British TV series “The Avengers.” Emma Peel didn’t attack everyone—just the people who deserved it.
Determined to win her over, I started out just softly touching her body with a long whip until she acknowledged that it felt kind of good. I got her to where she would accept being brushed without flipping out. I was the first person to lay a saddle on her back, and several days after that I was able to cinch the saddle’s girth. I was the first person ever to sit on Emma’s back (this was always an iffy proposition).
Most of Emma’s life, I kept her at home. She saw me every day. I was the person who fed her. I was the person who shoveled up her poop. I was the person who could get her into a horse trailer in an orderly way, and I was the person who so gingerly drove her wherever she was going.
Emma really hated horse trailers. I remember my vet pooh-poohing the notion that she’d go in just for me. He bulldozed her up the ramp and inside a trailer, only to have her come flying out backward even though he’d solidly latched the door. I can still see the astonished look on the vet’s face as he stood there holding the now-severed door like a Viking shield while Emma ran around snorting and whinnying triumphantly.
Throughout the time I competed on her, I was her only rider, so she knew every single movement of my body and what it meant. On the ground or in the saddle, I could tilt a shoulder and Emma knew what I wanted her to do. So despite the fact that I let her goof off so much of the time, when I (or my body) said, “OK, kid, this is it. This is the real thing,” she would straighten up and really do her stuff.
She was not a top horse and I was not a top rider, but when the chips were down, she and I both were good competitors. Even years later, I still have a framed certificate for our “Outstanding Achievement” from the Central Texas Dressage Society propped up on a bookcase. It’s dopey, but it’s also kind of wonderful to remember the bond that Emma Peel and I had—and the way we both could gather our meager talents and, when the time was right, make them mean the most.
Carolyn Banks, a member of Bluebonnet EC, lives in Bastrop. She is the author of five comic mysteries based in the equestrian world, available through amberquill.com.