My birth name, the name they made me go by, even though I consider my name to be Lisa; because there was already another riding teacher named Lisa, plus the dog was named Lisa.
The best school pony; the one they put all the beginners on. She would go around obediently on the longe line, her tiny palomino body hardly bouncing. I taught little McKenzie—eight years old—how to canter on Butterball. McKenzie fell off the first time, into the hard brown dirt, but she got up right away and brushed her tan breeches off. Surprised but not hurt. Always get back on is the phrase that echoed in my ears but it was her idea to get back on, not mine.
The first victim. A high school student and Dressage rider, a new friend, who took a job at the Noble Horse because she loved the horses; always the horses brought us here. Innocently, and carefully, she rode horses gathered from the Illinois countryside to star in the new show. They were purchased for their sex: geldings, and their color: gray or white, no exceptions. But horses—especially those bought cheap—can be unpredictable, and one flipped backward onto her. I remember her too-still body lying in the arena dirt, and even from a distance I saw a thin trickle of blood running out of her ear. I rode to the hospital with the police, behind the ambulance. To this day I don’t understand why the police were there, and they seemed chatty instead of concerned. A man and a woman who put me in the back behind the divider glass, on a hard plastic seat with no seat belt. When I asked, she gave me a Virginia Slim cigarette through the partition, to calm my nerves, and for that I was thankful.
The Mexican foreman who was doing all of the improvements at the barn, without a permit and without safety equipment. He spent his days wandering the aisleways wearing his tool belt, overseeing his team as they built faux ramparts and platforms and theatrical entry-ways. They spent months building stone walls and moving wooden walls. Over and over again, he tried to teach me the most simple Spanish sentences. I only remember his ready smile and slight limp.
The owner of the barn, a formidable and charismatic man who’d had rickets and wore a skinny, stunted calf as a relic. He’d been through several wives and had the reputation of a womanizer and a swindler. He was constantly trying to get money for the barn, any way he could. The carriage business was lucrative but the riding school and horse boarding “wasn’t bringing enough in.” It had been his idea to convert the historic stable into a medieval-times type dinner theater, and invite guests and tourists to surround the indoor arena where he would display his trick riders, white and gray geldings, colorful coat of arms flags, and cobbled together costumes. We watched him work on this seemingly insurmountable project, willing him to fail.
When the riding students were gone, the stalls cleaned, and the horses fed. Once, we were invited out for dinner and drinks with one of Dan’s ex-wives. She treated us to rich red wine and Italian; then chastised us for not checking the horses’ water and shutting down the barn properly. She made us go back into the monstrous, ghostly barn near midnight to wash and fill the buckets. The lights were off and the horses breathed quietly into our ears.
My Irish friend, living here in the States on a whim. She had been riding horses since childhood, in county Laois near Dublin, and had the burly bravado to challenge Dan on his poor judgment, bad calls, and late paychecks. Not a college student like me, she worked tons of hours at the barn: riding, giving lessons, taking carriage reservations, cleaning stalls, caring for any horse with an ailment. Capable and strong—I thought she might work there forever. She seemed to love it. I was surprised to hear she returned home shortly after I left, cashing a blank Noble Horse check on her way out for the hours Dan owed her.
The color of the sun when it came up on Saturday mornings—my early day at the barn. I had to be there at eight to teach five hours of riding lessons, and I was usually slightly hung over, sneaking out to the front entrance between lessons to smoke cigarettes and drink Dunkin’ Donuts coffee with cream, thinking about how lucky I was to have found horses in the city. The morning light at a barn—any barn—is beautiful.
Why? I asked myself, over and over again. Why did we tolerate the chaos, disorganization, low pay, disrespect? For the love of the horses.
I tried to turn away from horses: I felt I needed to break my addiction and move forward, try something new. So I became a resident adviser at my college. I didn’t like it and I quit after the first quarter. I found the Noble Horse, and I returned to riding horses.
My younger sister by eight years. At age seven, she wanted to ride. To emulate me. But she was afraid of horses – deathly afraid. The size of their hooves, the height of their withers, their sheer strength.
The second victim. A trick rider from Uzbekistan, he was riding the one stallion Dan had procured, to prepare for the performance. My friend Christine was giving a riding lesson to a young child, on a mare named Rosa. Carlos was working with power tools and hammers on one of his decorative stone walls at the east side of the arena. What did you think was going to happen, with that sort of carelessness around horses, I wanted to ask Dan. The dapple-gray stallion bucked Joel off, delivering his head neatly into the barely finished wall. He wasn’t wearing a hard hat. He died two days later.
The street in the suburbs, where Finn and I drove in a borrowed mini-van, to pick up Joel’s wife and daughters and bring them to the hospital after the accident. They didn’t speak English.
The person I remained in my other life, in spite of my stage name at The Noble Horse. Even when the dog named Lisa was gone, and the teacher named Lisa had moved, I could not take this other name back; I was established as Alissa. My given name. Everyone at the barn, co-workers and students alike, knew me as such. I thought of Shakespeare, which I was studying at the time. What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. I had just turned twenty; surely I was as sweet as I would ever be.
The office manager who liked to boss us around. She carried the Noble Horse phone in her jeans pocket as she walked around the barn aisles checking on the lesson horses and keeping things on schedule. Her long blonde ponytail swung down her back, like a horse tail. We started inviting her out for drinks after work, but she had a problem. She drank a lot. One night she peed in the sink of the tavern bathroom. Another night she made out with a bartender, even though she was married. Ten years our senior, we didn’t have the perspective to understand her situation. We may have pulled her off the wagon.
Definition: having or showing fine personal qualities or high moral principles and ideals. Although it bore the name, there was nothing noble about it. Rules were broken, codes of conduct and safety were ignored, people were hurt.
What Dan was hoping for. All of this chaos in order to arrive at his dream: a dinner theater where horses and riders would perform graceful feats of equestrian arts and circus entertainment with skill and authenticity. He was the one buying the horses and hiring the performers. It was his choice to renovate the building and push out the riding school. Even boarded horses were no longer welcome. All he could picture was his final success; his Magnum Opus.
Butterball’s fur. The color of light butterscotch with a creamy mane and tail, innocent and tantalizing for children even more than white or gray, more than chestnut or bay or black. Somehow a horse this color could never hurt you. She never did; she never hurt anyone.
For the most part, horses are quiet. They neigh only to each other. In pain they are silent. If you are listening you might notice the stomp of a foot, the swish of a tail, their gentle breath. I remember the heavy hooves of the draft horses walking up the wooden ramp to the second floor. The construction, the plans, our human tendency to talk over each other, to shout orders—we almost drowned out the horses completely.
The most flamboyant of carriage drivers, he wore medieval costume almost every day and evening, and was quite proud to drive his trusty steed through the city to Michigan Avenue for tourists, weddings, anniversaries, and other celebrations. His long golden hair hung curled past his shoulders. He was Dan’s right-hand man, and had been promised a prime position acting and riding in the new dinner theater.
The horse my friend Christine fell in love with, a small bay mare with no white markings; an exceptionally sweet horse but ultimately not tall enough for Christine’s slender 5’11” frame. In this business we fall in love with horses regularly. Mine, at the time, was Rosie.
Where they brought Bonnie, after the accident. I didn’t mean to, but I saw them cleaning her unconscious body in the ER because it looked like she had lost control of her bowels, beneath her gown, during transport. I really didn’t want to see it. Not only was it a violation of her basic privacy, but even at my young age I knew it meant something was wrong with her—really wrong—and the minute I turned away I saw her parents exploding through the revolving doors, with tears and worry, frantic with emotions I wouldn’t fully understand for years.
I’d like to be cremated, but in Muslim culture it is not allowed. Joel was Muslim. We were invited to the hastily arranged funeral, at a mosque in the outskirts of the city, and I took in the men praying, with shoes off and their heads to the mats. Joel’s wife and children received nothing for his untimely death; he was working at The Noble Horse for cash under the table. A reporter snuck into the funeral—a young and ambitious black-haired girl from The Tribune, trying to rustle up a story. Finn promptly kicked her out, telling her she should be ashamed of herself. I thought to myself, yes, there is a story here.
The most important thing as you teach a riding lesson is to teach it with a loud, strong voice that carries across the arena and over the sound of beating hooves. You must teach with a confidence that proves you know how to ride a horse, and what a student should do, to remain safe. It’s a lie. You know nothing of what’s about to happen. Nobody ever does.
The color of the Andalusian and Lucitano horses that Dan brought in for his future performances. Most still had traces of dapple gray, but they all had white faces. And maybe I’m remembering this incorrectly, in light of what happened, but it seemed that they had confrontational eyes—as if they resented being brought here, to a stable in the city. They didn’t like it, and they would fight us.
When I was a child, my mother took me to get X-rays constantly, for almost every injury, but I’ve never actually broken a bone.
I long for The Noble Horse the way one yearns for the revival of an unhealthy romance. Drama, possibility, uncertainty—all unfolding around me as I was paid to ride horses and teach riding lessons. Isn’t the highest form of success to be paid for something you love? When I moved away from Chicago, I resorted to tears to get Dan to pay me. He grudgingly pulled the tens and fives out of his metal safe, making a show of his annoyance at my thin skin.
The name of the Andalusian stallion bought by Dan for the highest price, a horse with both beauty and training. The horse Joel rode for the last time.Lisa Regen holds a BA in English Literature from DePaul University. She writes fiction and creative nonfiction exploring themes of risk, loss, and contradiction. Her work has appeared in A-Minor Review, Shark Reef, The Belletrist, and elsewhere. She lives in North Bend, Washington with her husband and two children, where she runs a graphic design business. Learn more at www.lisa-regen.com.