Like his father before him he had kept a small number of horses in a wooden corral during the winter. He caught them in the autumn as the leaves were falling, mostly youngsters and mares with foals at foot. During the long, dark days of winter they milked the mares, tying up their deadly hooves with thongs of leather and eventually, when their supply of salted meat ran out, they would eat them. But the past winter had been mild and short and now the snow was melting and there were still four brown horses standing quietly in the yard. All through the winter he had fed them gathered grains and dried grass until they were used to him, sometimes even calling out as he walked past their enclosure.
For days he had spent his time watching the horses in the yard, angering his wife who would have liked him to cut wood for the fire or hack apart the ice bound meat that they had stored beneath the ground. She had also yelled at him for spending too much time making leather ropes, sawing and twisting them back and forth along the sharpened jaw bone of a horse until they were straight and strong in his hands.
He had already chosen which of the horses to ride. A big, round bodied mare – the easiest of the four to milk and so tame that some days she had even taken grain from his hand. Despite himself, he liked the feel of her warm muzzle on his skin and the smell of her breath when she was close. In his dream he had seen her with leather straps around her head and he held the loops with his hands while he watched her, imagining the knots that he would tie.
He took a deep breath, looked around to make sure his wife wasn’t watching and climbed into the yard. The horses shuffled aroud to face him, curious but not frightened. From inside his skins he took a handful of grain and held it out to the big mare with a loop of rope hidden behind his back. She was cautious but hungry, leaning over her front legs and stretching her neck as far as possible. Ancient man was not as fast as the horse but he was skilled with a rope and his hands were strong from years of work. Before the mare could run away he threw a loop of rope around her neck and took the ends in both of his hands. She plunged and bucked but she had been milked many times over the winter and eventually she stood quietly, looking at him.
He worked his way down the rope towards her, hand over hand, stretching his arm out when he was close enough and feeling her thick dusty coat. He found himself quietly singing one of the songs that his wife sang to soothe their babies to sleep and he looked around quickly to make sure that no one was watching him. Standing at the side of the big mare, looking at the power of her muscles and the width of her shoulders he could feel his heart beating, half fear, half excitement. With a nod to the gods and a quick, deep breath he swung himself onto her back. For a moment she was still and he saw the sky big above him and the light on the fields of snow. He could see further from on her back, over the top of his low house and into the forest beyond and he felt like singing.
Suddenly, with a deep roaring breath the mare lurched forwards. Her head went down between her knees and she bucked. Ancient man was strong and he clung to her mane with all of his strength but after just two bucks he felt himself airborne, landing with a heavy thud on the ground of the muddy yard. He brushed the clinging mud from his skins with a quick smile – he wasn’t really sure how he’d explain it to his wife but he didn’t have the time to stop and think of excuses. He looked at the mare in the yard and the straps that he had tied around her head with deep creases between his eyes. He knew if he could stop her from putting her head down he might have a chance of staying on. He thought about the horse jaw bones that his people used to scrape leather with and the long gap between the biting teeth at the front and the chewing ones behind. He realised suddenly that a strap through her mouth might give him the control that he needed.
He caught the mare in the yard and quietly adjusted the leather harness that he had made. She fought him when he tried to get the leather in her mouth and he felt himself flung around like a falling leaf in the wind but he was able to get it done at last. He was glad the gods hadn’t wanted him to ride one of the moose that roamed the valley over summer – the mare’s back was level with his chest but a moose was taller than his shoulders and it had sharp, hard antlers that could easily kill a wolf.
Again he took a deep breath and leaped onto the mare’s back. Again she roared and bucked but this time he was able to keep her head up and the bucks were not as high. He sat about five before flying through the air and landing in the mud. Ancient man’s body ached all over from where he’d hit the ground but he could see that the mare was tiring after a winter spent in a small yard. He caught her quickly and leaped up onto her again. She bucked and roared but he kept her head up. She tried galloping around the yard, pushing her way past the other horses and rubbing his leg on the rails, but he clung tightly to her mane until eventually she slowed.
After a while she stopped running and walked quietly amongst the other horses. Ancient man allowed himself a small smile, his heart beating and his bruises not yet sore enough to bother him. He slid from her back and pulled the harness from her head. She stood next to him for a moment and he reached into his skins and found one last small handful of grain to feed to her. As she chewed he reached out and touched her sweaty neck, feeling the warmth of her and something else too – a kind of gratitude that together they had fulfilled the wishes of the gods. He stroked her fur like her would stroke the hair of his children and she stood for his touch almost, he thought, as though she enjoyed it.
He leaned on the fence, feeling the sky bigger and more blue that he had ever seen it and the sun on the snow and the singing of the first birds in the forest. He stretched his arms out wide and felt the cool air enter him – he knew he would be as stiff as his grandfather tomorrow but today he was happy. He climbed out through the rails and saw his wife standing, watching him. She looked so surprised that she might as well have been watching him fly like a bird. He walked past, looking at her hanging jaw and the wide open circles of her eyes. And just before he bent down to enter the small, low doorway of his hut, he turned back to his astonished wife and closed one eye in a slow, deliberate wink.