It was a bright April morning when Kenny, the trainer at the race farm where I was working, introduced me to our new exercise rider. A slim figure, around 5'7 wearing a straw cowboy hat and scuffed boots slipped around the corner of the barn. A cigarette waggled precariously between his lips.
"The name's Jerry," he said, offering his hand. I shook it and gave him a big smile. "Nice to meet you," I replied, stepping back from the cloud of smoke that was surrounding him.
"Jerry here is going to straighten out all of these knuckleheads, " Kenny said. I refrained from saying "about time", since I had to parse out my smart ass comments judiciously, lest I get fired. Truthfully, the string of racehorses had been running rough shod over all of the young girls who'd been riding them over the course of the winter. It was becoming a joke all over the farm on how many times we'd have to yell, "Loose horse!!!" each day, because they literally got dumped multiple times per morning. Jonathan and I had debated about getting on some of the horses, but in the end we decided we didn't want to take any risks on these two bit, flea brained idiot race horses. It just wasn't worth it, despite the frustration of watching them leap, wheel, go sideways and flat out run off with the girls.
I set about tacking up the first set to go out that morning. A tall rangy dark bay gelding would be Jerry's first steed. This horse was as dumb as can be, but he was smart enough to have terrorized everyone who had ridden him for months. All he needed was someone who could sit up there, take hold of him and get him going in a straight line. Jerry walked into the stall wearing his skull cap, jockey bat in hand. He started checking over the tack, muttering about how it should be adjusted, tightening this, shortening that, basically rearranging everything that I had already carefully set up. I kept my mouth shut and silently smoldered. Just give him a chance, I told myself, it's no big deal. I legged him up in the stall and with great pomp and circumstance he shooed the horse out into the shed row and began to kick him in the ribcage, yelling "HAA". The horse shook his head back and forth in protest, but he listened. Soon they were jogging around the shed row, with Jerry hollering, "Coming around, jogging in the barn" before each corner. After a few minutes, he jerked him out of the barn and galloped him up the driveway to the race track. Though the guy had irritated me, by treating me like I didn't now what I was doing as his lowly race groom, I had to hand it to him; the dude could ride.
The rest of the morning went much the same. The naughty horses all got a dose of what they needed, which was a positive, confident ride. With each ride under his belt, Jerry got more and more cocky himself. Crowing about his skills, like a banty rooster. He'd been riding race horses for over twenty years at tracks all over the country. His face was a battle of wrinkles, from years of riding in wind, rain and heavy drinking. Most of his teeth were gone, but he had a fastidiously manicured mustache perched above his upper lip. I suspected at one point in his youth he'd been able to seduce many women with his pretty blue eyes and long lashes, but there was a sense of deep fatigue in them now, like he'd lost too many nights of sleep that he'd never make up.
It became a routine that Jonathan and I would pick Jerry up on our way to the farm, since he had no transportation except a bicycle with a hinky motor that left him stranded more often than not. At a quarter to seven his powerful odor of Irish Spring and cigarettes permeating our car was nearly gag inducing. He began to refer to himself in the third person, using his nickname of "Cowboy". It was so absurd that I'd have to hide my smiles and snorts. As he got comfortable he starting regaling us with tales of his conquests from the previous nights. Often, I had to put up my hand and tell him to just stop. He had no filter. Some days he'd be so hung over we'd have to stop and get him a beer on the way just so he could get through his rides and collect his paycheck. It was pathetic, but he was still doing a good job on the horses. We had to give him that credit. If he was still drunk from the night before he'd get a little uppity and start giving me advice on riding. I'm all for learning new things, but listening to him slurring tips on basics, just made me crazy. Being a groom was already kind of bumming me out from a professional standpoint, but to be treated like a moron by this washed up dude? I've always been a fairly civilized person, but this guy would get under my skin. I started to really let him have it, and sometimes I even shocked myself with what I'd say to him.
"Jerry, just get on the mother fucking horse and zip it!" I'd yell, causing my co-workers to titter and scuttle off.
He'd act all offended, but he never argued back, no matter how mean I was to him. I reckon he was conditioned to being yelled at. You can't be that big of an arrogant jerk, while swaggering from too much beer and not get some payback for it. In fact, he admitted that he was usually the guy at the bar who got beaten up, because he was big enough so it wasn't embarrassing to kick his ass, but little enough that he got his ass kicked.
And so it went for four months, until one morning Cowboy announced that he'd be moving on.
"You two are real decent people, and I want to thank you for all you did for me while I was here," he said, tipping his crumpled straw cowboy hat, a small belch popping from his lips.
I wasn't going to miss him, but he sure was a character, unlike anyone I'd ever met. He was true to himself, for better, or worse, which is more than you can say for some people. He'd created this persona for himself as "Cowboy" and he was going to ride it to the bitter end. We wished him well and he took off, with his bike motor sputtering.
Happy trails, Cowboy.