Wednesday marks the six month anniversary of my move to Portugal. Unlike my wife, my spoken Portuguese is still terrible. She basically chaperones me in a foreign country. Sometimes she translates the punchline in billboard ads for me and it makes me smile.
When I meet new people, and they graciously speak English with me, they ask me where I’m from. I answer “Texas” rather than the US. Texas is one of two places in America that everyone on Earth knows. The other one is New York.
When someone learns I’m from Texas, they ask me about horses or cowboys about 35% of the time, mais ou menos. I probably inflate that number because I wear western boots.
Western boots have a few different forms. You can wear ropers, which are more like ankle boots and the toe is rounded. Or you can wear a pair that has a pointed toe, runs up your calf, and resembles what most people think of as “cowboy boots.” I wear the cowboy boot kind.
I currently own two pairs: Lucchese 1883s that I bought my freshman year of college and a pair of dark cherry Luccheses that were my grandfather’s. I wear the 1883s most of the time. I love how unique they are and how people associate them with my home. I love how they look. I like the two inches they add to my height and the sound they make when I walk on hardwood floors.
I was at the Gatwick airport yesterday and a member of the security staff told his colleague to check them out and all three of us smiled about it. I was in our London office this week and a member of our German sales team saw me across a table and asked if I brought the boots, having remembered from my visit last June.
And I put my foot on the table, a thing that would normally be very rude, and it brought him actual joy.
Here’s the deal about my boots though: I am all hat and no cattle. I have no business wearing them and they have never been a functional need. In the story I’m about to tell, I was wearing Cole Haan loafers on the horse during its attempted manslaughter.
When I tell Portuguese people about my association with cowboys, I tell them about the last time I rode a horse.
I was 17. I had a friend from school and her family owned a spectacular ranch about three hours outside of Austin. In Texas we measure distance in terms of the time it would take you to drive to the place.
She invited our mock trial team to spend the weekend at her ranch. I was on the mock trial team. Not all people with ranches in Texas have horses on them, or cattle. We tend to use the term for any patch of rural land where you can ride in the truck without wearing your seatbelt.
Except this was the kind of ranch with horses. When we arrived on that Friday night, I met one.
I never spent any time around horses growing up. This was probably my second or third real interaction with one. The horse knew that from the minute it looked at me.
Dogs look up at you but horses look down on humans. From that vantage point, they can also stare into your soul. The horse was an Arabian stallion named Rico. Rico and I made eye contact and that horse immediately decided “huh, this guy sucks and I’m going to try and kill him tomorrow.”
I should have stopped there, but 17-year-old boys are idiots. When the other members of the mock trial team suggested that I ride the rowdiest horse on the ranch I immediately said “yeah.” I was not cool. I needed some help climbing up. Once on the horse, we trotted around the small yard for a few minutes and called it a night.
Here is me getting help. I had a camera case for my point-and-shoot on my hip. That’s a Ralph Lauren vest. I hate me too.
Here is me on the horse. You can see him plotting murder in this photo.
The next morning, we saddled up the horses and went out into the ranch.
They gave me some instruction on how to steer. I just had no idea how to apply the brakes. About ten minutes into the ride, Rico began to accelerate. This was Rico’s decision. He ditched the potential witnesses as we veered off from the group at a pace they could not match.
For a few minutes I loved it so much. We were on an absolute tear across Texas. No car ride or bike or jet ski has ever been that much fun.
We kept picking up speed though. We hit that velocity where you start to realize “I’m not holding on because I want to do this, I’m holding on because if I fall I will probably die.” Eventually, he figured that I was not going anywhere, so he changed tactics.
On this ranch, they have a couple of windmills. One of those windmills sits on a small hill. This windmill has three legs with struts between them close to the fan. For added stability, those legs are connected by a horizontal wire at approximately the height of a person’s neck when on horseback.
We started to race towards the windmill. Not just in its direction, we were on direct approach to fly between the legs. Rico aimed.
As we got closer, I saw the wire and had a few options. I could lower my head, but I probably would not clear the wire and would be scalped. I could jump, but I had enough speed that the tumble would send me through rocks and cacti.
I decided I would try and catch the thing in the chest. I sat up a little taller to avoid the wire finding my neck.
And then that damn horse ducked. I love that he ducked. It’s my favorite thing I’ve ever seen an animal do. Just before getting to the wire, he suddenly lowered his head. I giggle every time I think about how he was smiling when he did it.
As he ducked, he did not break pace. Meanwhile, I came to a sudden and complete stop. I managed to get a hand on the wire to slow my fall.
My aim was fantastic. The bruise I had for a couple weeks after was a perfect connect-the-dot line across my nipples.
Eventually my friends found me covered in dust, wearing only my left shoe.
My other loafer stayed in the stirrup. Rico took his prize with him as he ran off. That was the last time I rode a horse.