For the Working Class

Recognizing the class divide.


My favorite part of summer fair season was sitting in the grandstands watching the beautiful, glossy horses canter gracefully about the ring with their smartly-dressed riders in trim and elegant form. Sleek English saddles and neatly looped reins that allowed such dainty people full control over the thousand pounds of skittish animal. I had never sat English style before. My only riding experience was with the heavy working gear of the Western type. Hefty saddle, long split reins, and stirrups covered in thick leather to hold the hard-heeled boot of a rider whose function was work, not show.

I’d watch the exquisite forms of these riders who were not cut of the same stock as I. My people had durable, muscular bodies of generations of hard workers. From Ireland, Scotland, and other regions of sturdy, environment-hardened people who survived the most miserable conditions and disasters known to humanity. The sleek riders on their glistening horses exit to the sounds of demure, controlled clapping.

Shortly after, strong, hard-working boys hustled out into the ring to set up large barrels in the middle. These giant drums summoned the hordes of ordinary folk. The good-hearted country dwellers whose families had the fortune of claiming lands long before the prices soared far out of reach of anyone but the millionaires.

Barrel racing was not my favorite part of the events back then, but I realize now it was my peoples’ sort of affair. A girl with wild unruly hair, barely kept in check by a hair tie and a stiff cowboy hat, pranced in on a horse as spirited as her hair. Not the shiny smooth-coated, long-legged elegant creatures of earlier, but the short, stocky, dappled work pony. The horse danced sideways; the rider knowing better than to temper that drive, reined her mount the other direction, guiding that pent-up energy back and forth until it could finally be released. The grandstands full of excited hootin’ and hollerin’ roared when the shot rang out, signaling the rider and horse to race to the barrels as fast as they could go.

Low and compact, horse and rider hugged the ground as thick powerful haunches drove them past the first barrel. Those hardworking muscles, a product of generations of working-class animal, bulged and rippled the horse’s flanks as it thundered past. The girl’s own hardened and muscular thighs squeezed more power from the pony as it snapped whip-like around the second barrel; it shuddered faintly but stood tall. A sign of agility and excellence in a barrel racer is to keep the gap between horse and the drum as nothing more than a whisper-soft kiss.

They sped back down to the opposite drum and repeated the looping maneuver twice more, sod flying as the working horse’s sturdy small hooves churned it with a flurry of poundings. The thunderous sound of horse and rider charging for the finish line was echoed by the audience. Everyone stood — blood and hearts pumping hard — as one with the work horse and the brawny girl.

There is a distinction between the classes of people that I missed while growing up. It was probably for the best as I only have fond memories of the horses. I loved any kind, though the gorgeous show horses were a childhood fixation. What I appreciate the most now as an adult, as someone who has had to work hard every step of the way, are the working-class people and their wild-spirited horses.

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