Riding Etiquette for the Proper Young Lady in Training

— Erum Khan

“That’s it. Come on, pyaara.”

Deenah traced circles in the dirt with her foot, waiting for the attendant to finish fondling the steed’s brown hide so that he could help her onto its back. She would have liked to say she didn’t need the help anymore—she’d been mounting this one for weeks now—but the men at the club knew better. She was a good foot too short to hoist herself onto the animal, and so they continued to grab her primly by the waist and lift until she was high enough to grasp the saddle and swing a leg over it. They never asked, only occasionally glanced at the thirteen-year-old patron’s mother before handling Deenah like a newspaper-stuffed doll. Khalid sahib and his wife were executive members and had to be kept happy, which limited the number of crude Punjabi jokes thrown around in their child’s presence. Still, she always caught their unabashed smiles and the way their tongues rolled over each coarse word. How cautious did they really have to be?

“Put your gloves on!”

Deenah’s mother waved her hands from a lawn chair by the table with the spare helmets. She bought Deenah her own riding gear after two weeks of twitching at the sight of the stable’s extras. They weren’t real riding gloves and left too much space at each fingertip, but the man at the custom leather shop had assured them that they would protect her hands just fine. She found new headgear for the same reasons, preferring not to subject her daughter to the lice and sweat those worn domes had already hosted. Wordlessly, Deenah tugged out the gloves scrunched in the denim pocket at her hip and shoved her fingers in. As soon as black engulfed every inch of light brown skin, her mother settled back into her lawn chair.

Deenah always wished her mother would drop her off and find something else to do during her lessons. The woman never rode herself. She balked at the mere suggestion of straddling an animal and letting it circle around with her atop. No, Mrs. Khalid merely saw to it that her offspring was secured on a horse and pulled out whichever book or grocery list had made it into her purse that Sunday.

The girl always imagined it would be more interesting if her mother snuck off to have elicit affairs during her rides, or at least flirted with the man who checked their membership cards on the way in. He was handsome in a rough, blue- collar sort of way. It wasn’t as if her husband was ever with them to disapprove. It would give her mother something to do besides regulate the placement of each employees’ hands on her decidedly curve-less frame.

By the time Deenah was lifted into her seat, there were already five other horses in the pen, trotting and prancing. She recognized the riders, most of them the grown sons of bankers or telecom tycoons whose job titles granted them automatic membership to what her mother called Islamabad’s attempt at a country club. Today they wore riding boots and a rainbow of polo collars, but she’d seen them in uniforms of crisp suits and ties at her father’s dinners. Evidently his coworkers liked dragging their families to work functions just as much as he did. It wouldn’t do to be seen only at the club, after all.

“Chalo, did you practice your trot, little one?” Her instructor—an elderly man with almost no teeth and certainly no accreditation but who gave her orders as if he had both—had taken charge of the horse and was pulling it alongside the edges of their square enclosure. Deenah smiled vaguely at his semi-joke, wondering if he really expected her to practice squeezing her thighs around an inanimate object at home and moving up and down on it as if it were a horse.

“Let’s do an extra lap today. You can finish at the same time as Fahad.” His bearded face pointed toward the man-boy bouncing and smiling ahead of them, riding crop dripping casually from his large fingers. He wasn’t trotting, but speeding ahead on the gray mount as if miles lay ahead of him instead of meters.

“Can I canter?” Deenah heard herself ask, eyes never leaving the gray blur of motion. She had been doing the same thing for weeks in the tiny enclosure. If she couldn’t move faster by now she doubted she ever would.

Her handler gave a raspy laugh. “Not today.” Turning his head, he spat in the dirt. Deenah wondered if all the excess spitting was what lost him his teeth or if one day a horse had tired of his prattle and kicked them all out.

She knew he wouldn’t wait for a response, and she didn’t give one. Instead she imagined the canter, one step above trot and one below gallop. She would jump the wooden fence bordering their little arena and ride through the surrounding brush into the density of trees. She didn’t see it from her own perspective, though. It was as if she was one of the men pouring water into a trough, catching only a glimpse of a horse’s tail and the back of a girl’s helmet as she disappeared into the wilderness. He would wonder where she had gone and wish he had gotten the chance to speak to her before she left.

“Here, I can give you this gift. Trot by yourself while I go speak to someone. That’s good enough for today, no?” Her handler abandoned his position by her ankle, leaving her alone with the reins behind a slow mare being exercised by one of the younger stable boys. Deenah thought she recognized all the men there, but something about this one seemed new. There was something about the way he held his shoulders, high enough to stay balanced but loose enough to sway with each step, which said he didn’t mind the sedate pace. He could go for another hour without it being the slightest chore. She wondered if anyone had even ordered him to see to the animal’s exercise or if he had taken it upon himself.

Denaah loosened her own shoulders, swinging back her heel as she prepared to meet whatever waited just beyond the fence.

Dirt stirred beside her. Fahad was speeding forward as if he sported blinders instead of his mount. The pair galloped a mere inches past Deenah’s horse, jolting it nervously sideways as her foot left its stirrup. Her unpracticed thighs lost their hold. Shoulders lurching with the horse, she rocked over its side.

By the time the attendants reached her, she was dangling like a failed circus act, one foot in the stirrup and the other half on the saddle as her arms clung around the animal’s too-broad neck. Two different men had to right her, one holding her shoulders while the other moved her feet from their indecorous angle to the ground. Still, her fingers clung to the horse’s mane, her face almost buried in it. Her back to her helpers, she squeezed her eyes shut. She couldn’t even fall off a horse on her own.

A voice came tearing down on the men’s heads, wrenching their hands from Deenah’s body. Lawn chair abandoned, her mother stood on the dirt, shielding her daughter with her body and wrath.

“Who left her alone? Why was their equipment faulty? What man was reckless enough to treat a girl like this?”

It was almost like the argument with her father. Sons came to the club. Their daughter had important things to worry about, things which could be hurt from the exercise. In the end, though, status had beat propriety, and her mother gained the self-assigned role of keeping Deenah intact. Tampons were already forbidden, and now horses would move only in the mildest of manners between her legs. After every ride, Deenah shut herself in her bathroom in the hopes of finding pink spots on the inside of her panties that had nothing to do with her monthly cycle, but she always came out clean and unsoiled. Perhaps today her mother’s fear of a damaged daughter would come true.

“That’s it. My daughter is never riding here again. See if Khalid sahib doesn’t hear about this!” Her mother reached for Deenah’s hand, preparing to leave the circle of silent men. “Come, we’re leaving.”

Deenah remembered all the other things she shouldn’t do, all the little things that weren’t in her room. There were no lipsticks on her dresser or eyeliner by the sink to over-paint her face with. There were no clothes hanging in her closet which she could not wear inside a mosque. She had no sleepovers with the wrong sorts of girls, and there was never a bike in the driveway to act as a metal horse. Now, there would be no horse at all.

Deenah wondered, though, how bad was it to be damaged?

The worker nearest her was the stable boy from the slow mare. He was dark, with hair too long for her taste tucked behind each ear. He wore a faded plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up and stood a full two heads taller than her. Stepping around her mother, Deenah pulled her hand from her mother’s grasp and cupped it around the back of the boy’s neck. Lifting herself on her toes, she pulled him down until their faces met and kissed him on the mouth. His lips, an entirely new texture for her, didn’t respond. He pushed her back, one hand against her forearm the other against her shoulder, jolting almost as much as her horse had. Deenah didn’t see his face or notice the hush that had fallen. She only saw her mother’s mouth hanging slightly agape, right fingers curled around air as if they still held another hand in them.

There would be consequences later. There would be reprimands and supplications to the Lord, at least one slap across the cheek. Their family would never grace this riding club again, and Deenah would spend her life switching from one all-girls school to the next until she was legal. Her defiant lips would spend their free hours reciting holy verses and the hitherto unspoken rules of polite society. But for now Deenah wiped her mouth, unclipped her helmet from under chin, and asked, “Should we go?”

 


 

Erum Khan is a Pakistani writer currently based in Orange County, California. She studied English and Creative Writing at the University of California, Berkeley, and writes everything from short fiction to poetry to creative nonfiction.