Some people will tell you I’m not a particularly good rider. I’m first among them. Someone recently tried to encourage me by drawing my attention to a legendary South Australian jockey.
Les Boots never won a race. He never placed or showed. He never stayed in the saddle for more than half-a-mile in any of his races.
Boots started out as an apprentice jockey and found work with the stables of Harry Butler. He began working horses and mucking stalls. One day, Harry called him into his office to give him great news.
Harry wanted Boots to ride a horse named Umbalir in a jump race at Cheltenham, a racetrack near Adelaide. Naturally, the young man was excited. In that first ride, Umbalir and Les parted ways at the first hurdle and Les paid a visit to the hospital.
He rode Umbalir twice more. The result was the same each time: a close-up view of the turf followed by a ride to the hospital.
After the third race, Mrs. Boots began packing some comfortable hospital garb with his lunch for his after-work activities in the emergency room. "My wife used to wrap my pajamas in a brown paper bag and put them with my riding gear, which was embarrassing when other jockeys spotted them," Les said.
Les competed in 39 races. The ground came up to meet him 40 times. Some argue it was actually 41 times due to a non-horse related incident.
Les explained that, while riding a horse at Cheltenham, the horse fell going out of the gate. Boots grabbed his mount’s bridle and heaved himself back on with the horse at full gallop. Two jumps later, Les fell at the half-mile, breaking his leg. An ambulance was summoned. Once in the vehicle, Boots fell off the stretcher and out the back door to the pavement.
Les broke just about every bone in his body, including a broken neck that sidelined him for two years. He claimed “The nurses at the Adelaide Hospital used to check out the fields for the races and if they saw I had an engagement they'd get my usual bed ready in advance. I was in the saddle for about 18 years and I reckon I spent twelve of them in hospital."
Someone unkindly nicknamed him "Autumn Leaves" as he was always falling to earth. Boots claimed he’d attended a picnic and was forbidden to ride the merry-go-round as too dangerous. But he was an enormously popular crowd-pleaser and so he was never banned from the track. No matter how good his horses were, the bookies gave him 100-1 odds against victory.
He rode half-a-dozen horses at work, two or three times a week, with no problems. “When it came to the real thing, he said, “I couldn't stay on.” In every race, he fell, the horse fell, or they both fell.
“It got a bit much when, just before releasing the field, the starter called out, 'We'll come around to the hospital through the week, Les, and bring you some fruit.'”
He said he quit only after "a bad fall off a horse called Paila when I broke my neck and spent two years in hospital. I never did realize my life's ambition to ride in the English Grand National at Aintree. My wife canceled my passport; she reckoned I'd be the first jockey to drown at the water jump.”
Les Boots lived to be 80. He lost every race, but never his sense of humor.
The first sentences of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between are “The past is a different country. They do things differently there.”
Horses, too, are a different country: sensitive, emotional, intelligent beings who form their own agendas. Humans are apparently incidental to them.
Each lesson at Southmowing Stables in Guilford, Vermont begins with a routine. I go to Merlin’s paddock, pick up his halter and lead rope, unlock, open, and relock the paddock gate, halter him, lead him to the gate, repeat the ritual at the gate, lead him to the barn, and tack him up.
Merlin disagreed with me in early-December. He had other ideas. He was at the far end of the paddock, up a rise. Unusually, he didn’t come to me when I called. I walked up to him. He gazed at me. I opened the halter to pull it over his muzzle and onto his head. For the first time in the two years that we’ve been working together, he pulled his head away and went walkabout.
I followed him. We paused every now and then to repeat our physical comedy. Finally, he stopped walking and let me halter him.
As I relocked the gate, he saw a lovely patch of grass some 10 feet away. Pulling the lead rope from my hand, Merlin walked to the grass and began eating passionately. I grabbed and gently tugged the lead rope. He ignored me. I bent to grab the lead rope below his jowl, where it links to the halter. I intended to raise his head and start running toward the barn.
He wanted no part of that. He dealt with an annoying human as he might deal with an annoying stable mate. He swung his muzzle back and then, quite firmly, into my torso. Merlin’s head and neck weigh more than I do. An 1800-pound horse puts some force behind his swing though he means no harm.
Thus I was reintroduced to equine-inspired wingless flight. I flew some 12 feet, neatly passing between the fence’s wires into the paddock. An all-point landing followed. Merlin munched on, indifferent to my fate. I understood how the ball may have felt during the third game of the 1932 World Series when Babe Ruth pointed to the center field stands and then slammed it there, some 490 feet away.
I let myself back out of the paddock. Then I seized the lead rope and sprinted toward the barn. He went along with that. I secured and began grooming him. He began nipping at me. I kept gently swatting his muzzle with my glove and firmly saying “No.” I avoided the teeth, cleaned and tacked him up, seized the reins, and led him to the indoor arena. On our way, I talked to him in a normal voice, telling him about what I hoped we do during the lesson. I also reassured him that he was yet again the hero of a published essay. He might well be the best-known horse at Southmowing Stables. I doubt he understood me, but he behaved himself.
Dorothy, my instructor, wasn’t in the indoor arena. She was dealing with another student. So I led Merlin around the arena at a walk, still making conversation. I can talk to anything, even a horse. I felt he’d loosened up and turned to the mounting block. He stopped where I wanted him to. Then I climbed up, put my left foot in its stirrup, swung my right leg over Merlin’s back, and plopped into the saddle. I walked him for a minute or two.
Then Dorothy arrived and we began working on my balance, which she believes has perceptibly deteriorated over the last six months. When we were done, and I think it was a good lesson, I led Merlin back to the barn and groomed him thoroughly. It makes him visibly cleaner, lets me find and remove ticks and other unpleasant insects, and removes any sweat. That last must have made him uncomfortable by early-December. Grooming also builds some kind of relationship between rider and horse.
Then I led him back to the paddock. Along the way, he suddenly saw another enticing clump of grass and lunged for it. He incidentally stepped on my left boot, which tripped me. He kept munching. I lay on the path, pulled my foot from under his hoof, rolled on my side, got to my feet, and grabbed the lead rope. He followed me into the paddock without further incident.
The broken toenails will heal.
As my back began aching on my way home, I remembered that on the following day I had my regular appointment with my massage therapist, Wendy LaBelle, LMT. She maintains my back between falls, working to correct some preexisting back problems, too. This time, she noticed bruising. She asked how it had happened this time. I explained, repeating my mantra that there are no bad horses, only bad riders. Having heard and read a few Merlin stories, Wendy murmured that the Very Big Horse, as my sister calls him, may be testing my belief.
At these moments, I always remember that I chose to ride.