If the question, “Where are you most likely to see a man on horseback?” was to be asked, most would reply, a racecourse, or a racetrack. A few others — those who get labelled out of the box thinkers — may even say, “In a Western”. The movie, that is.
They wouldn’t be wrong, too, for a lot of us of a certain generation still carry images of horse-borne riders, reins in one hand, flying lasso in the other, broad Stetson hinting at a shadowy jawline, galloping away into the sunset, with a stampeding herd of cattle, everything soon enveloped in a fine cloud of orange-red dust.
If, however, you happen to be driving along a normally quiet suburban street, and encounter this exact same spectacle — a man astride a large brown horse — you could be forgiven for drawing the car to the side of the road, carefully, if only to take in the said “spectacle”. For, although you don’t know it yet, “spectacle” it is indeed going to become pretty soon. It is also that time of day that Oscar Wilde in humorous fashion described as “midday”.
What is a man doing riding a horse down the grassy central median of this road where the traffic runs two ways? Evidently, that’s the same question a little old lady is asking at the exact same moment, peering from round the curtains in her old ground floor house. She recognises the man at once. He is a friend of her grandson.
Horses, however, don’t appear to have a terribly good history of dealing with raucous attention in a calm and detached manner. They start displaying signs of wishing to be left alone.
He is a person who (it will be revealed later) displays tendencies to take on authority. Even right now, he could be imagining he’s a mounted policeman, like the ones in Canada, and it is his business to patrol the streets and, while about it, invite curious young onlookers to get up close and witness him, in all his majesty, up on high.
In fact, by the time you pull your car off to the side, there is a small throng of spectators crossing the road willy-nilly, from different points, disregarding the traffic, just to get to the central median.
A horse standing proud beside a road in any suburb is bound to draw unwanted attention. Horses, however, don’t appear to have a terribly good history of dealing with raucous attention in a calm and detached manner. They start displaying signs of wishing to be left alone.
Sometimes these signs begin with a simple swinging or swishing of the tail, or a pricking or twitching of the ears. If those subtle warnings go unheeded, the animal may allow itself to progress to a second stage which may involve tiny stamping manoeuvres and the turning of its body in little clockwise, counter-clockwise directions accompanied by a restlessness of the head.
If you’re one of the bunch of youngsters milling excitedly around, you’re more than likely to misinterpret these as signs of entertainment. The animal is perceived as “putting on a show”, happy to perform for its audience. The little old lady from behind the partially concealed curtain has seen enough. She reads the horse’s growing anxiety correctly. She picks up the phone. She calls the police.
Now, the last thing an anxiety-ridden horse wishes to hear — apart from the nervous whinnies building up inside its own chest — is the nearing wail of a siren. It is this that spooks it, sending it charging into its shocked, taken-aback mob of viewers and across the road, swerving past your own car.
How this whole bizarre scene ends without serious injury to anyone — discounting a hairline hip fracture to the thrown, illegal rider — is something that can never be explained. Only something to be grateful for. On certain random days, you certainly get served up random fare.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.