Flowers, boxes, gates, blue water, castles, walls, lanterns, bridges, bright colors glistening against white sand, wooden rails on solid standards, combinations of fences, two, three, four in a row, ready to squeeze every last ounce of skill out of my body Ė limp and shaking.

     I stand with my arms propped up against the railing, taking it in. I feel as if Iím melting. I forget about winning. All I want is to make it through this course without being disgraceful.

     My mother comes up behind me, sporting an obnoxious grin.

     She doesnít know anything about horses. She gloats about her eighteen-year-old son riding his first international Grand Prix, but wonít come with me to the stables. For her itís only glamour, soaking up my ribbons and the praise. At the barn, she wonít deign to come out of the car for fear of stepping in a puddle.

     The gate opens. The riders go explore the course.

     My trainer couldnít make it. Neither could my dad. The first is selling a horse in Poland. The second I never met.

     I close my eyes and picture my trainer walking at my side, explaining me every stride, every line, every turn, but I realize itís my own advice Iím taking.

     I replay the sequence of fences in my mind and come up with a song. I believe every course has its own music. Riding a flawless round is poetry in motion.

     I pick up a solid baseline. It builds. It persists. I realize the song is Keep Yourself Alive by Queen, my favorite band. The rhythm pulses through my stomach as I walk toward the stables.

     Scheherazade, my mare. Her big eyes look peaceful. She is eating straw and comes to greet me at the door.

     I take off her blanket and admire her shiny coat, the color of varnished oak or chestnuts. Her long, slender neck flows into a slim but muscled back, rounded off by a pair of svelte, sinewy haunches. She is half thoroughbred, which you can tell by her elongated silhouette and big, open nostrils. Sensitive, easily nervous, a fighter in the show ring.

     She puts down her head and lets out a soft snort, like a sigh. I place both hands on her head and whisper in her ear: ďAre we ready?Ē My breath tickles her. She shakes her head. I take it as a yes.

     I donít have grooms or stable hands. Tacking up my horse before a show is a ritual. I take my time to brush her. It relaxes us both. Disentangling her mane and tail disentangles my stomach. My thoughts are clear. Our breathing synchronizes. We merge.

     The real athlete is Scheherazade, put on this earth to jump over fences. When I feel her pushing off the ground with elastic ease, her back stretching like a cat, her hind legs kicking out behind her, I know that I am in the presence of somethingÖ sacred.

      The warm-up area next to the main arena is steeped in an atmosphere of sweat and concentration. I used to worship some of these riders back when I was still a novice. Right now I am too nervous to make eye contact. I keep my focus on my horse.

     She moves softly underneath me and responds to the subtlest of my shifts in weight, hands and legs.

     A few warm up jumps. Thatís all it takes. Weíre ready.

     Everything around me has stopped to exist. The only real thing right now is the course we are about to negotiate.

     They call my name. I walk up to the ring. The gate opens. A touch of spur and Scheherazade gallops into the arena. My world ends where the crowd begins.

     Inside of me, the baseline trembles: Keep Yourself Alive.

     I pick up my pace, establish a cadence. My horseís stride is long and fast. We cover a lot of ground.

     The first fence looms up between my mental crosshairs. It gets larger as we approach. The distance fits. Scheherazade takes off. Her hind legs swing out and clear the fence with plenty of room.

     I close my legs and pick up speed for a wide, yellow castle.

     My horse picks up my tension. She hesitates. I take a breath and soften my legs. Scheherazade relaxes and floats over the jump. I stretch my hands all the way down her neck, trying not to tip over as a giant abyss flashes beneath me.

     A solid white gate comes up. My horse goes, snaps off the ground: crisp and clean.

     I guide her through the turn. My heart beats in my throat. The giant triple bar before us. Scheherazade lowers her head, looks down at the blue water. It sparkles. I use my spurs and cluck my tongue. Her ears prick up. She lifts, but loses momentum. I do my best to help her get across, but hear the sound of hoof tapping against wood.

     We touch the ground. No rail has dropped.

     I breathe a sigh of relief and steady her for the next line. Touching that rail has made her tense. Her back is tight, her hind legs choppy.

     I get anxious. She canít start going too fast. I need every last bit of control to finish this course.

     Another tap against wood. The rail still on there. Scheherazade begins to pull. I have to be stronger, closing my fists on the reins, leaning back more heavily in the saddle. Her cadence gets rickety.

     We turn the final corner: a tall red wall looms up, a triple combination behind it. I keep my eyes fixed on a point ahead of me, dead straight. We clear the wall and land in good speed.

     One, two, three, four, five, something happensÖ five and a half. Scheherazade pushes off and wriggles over the first fence of the triple. The gapís too wide. She wonít make it over the second. She tries anyway. I grab her mane and toss away the reins to let her move. We fly off the ground and land in the middle of the second fence. Rails clattering around us.

     The music stops. Everything comes to a halt.

     My universe is torn. Suddenly, I hear the audienceís shouts, feel their eyes on me, sense the shaking of their heads.

     I want to disappear from view. Is she injured? Sheís okay.

     I pat her on the neck and guide her to a smaller jump, to rebuild our confidence.

     Sheís too shaken. I give her another pat on the neck and whisper: ďIím sorry, Scheherazade. Iím sorry.Ē

     The bell rings three times. The sound of elimination. I walk out of the ring, too embarrassed to look up at the Olympic medalist who enters as I exit.

     Back at the stables, I close the stall and sink into the corner on the damp straw. Finally I can let out my tears.

     Scheherazade presses her prickly muzzle into my face. Her warm breath gives me goose bumps. I put my arms around her neck and close my eyes.

     I remember the first time I ran my fingers through a horseís mane and felt the silky reassurance of its breath. I was nine years old. Horses were my comfort. I had found refuge with these gentle creatures. I understood their code of honesty: treat them right they will treat you right Ė something far too simple for adults to understand.  

     Iím feel nauseous as I think about my mother and how disappointed she will be. I always have to quiet down my nerves for her. Her emotions are more volatile than my Scheherazadeís.

     I know what my trainer will say: ďYou wouldíve been fine if I were there.Ē

     He isnít here. Heís in Poland.

     I donít want to be fine. I donít want anyone to hold my hand. Iím sick of justifying every round at every competition. My childhood dream of riding at world level has turned into the fantasy of both my trainer and my mom. Today, it has become a disillusion.

     I think of all the things I sacrificed: the weekends I did not go out, the holidays spent catching up on school work, the complete absence of dating from my life, the growing distance between me and friends from high school.

     I look up into the faithful brown eyes of Scheherazade, so full of honesty and wisdom, and I just canít understand how, in the end, something that brought me so much joy could cause me so much pain.

    This is the day I quit riding

Copyright © 2013 Simon Rogghe

Simon Rogghe is a poet, fiction writer and translator of French surrealism and contemporary fiction. His work has appeared and is forthcoming in 3:AM Magazine, Tree Killer Ink, Paris Lit Up, Fiction 365 and other publications. He is currently earning his Ph.D. in French literature at UC Berkeley.