Yilki Atlar (Wild Horses)
I want to somehow give a sense of what we are doing, that we're riding wild horses, to remember my sense of playing cool amid my excitement, also, thinking about the larger context of what's going on, then the small sensory details, how I felt as a woman riding wild horses and the sense of purpose there. And for the writing of it, to think more about the dialogue, what we said, and think about the emotional arc, a sense of resolution, maybe to let the men be the stronger characters, the way they move and look and interact, how I stand in relation to the men by the way the horses are running, how I feel about the landscape and the patches of yellow grass, to give more images of place, smells and tastes.
In the car on the way to Yesilhisar, a village at the base of the Erciyes volcano, outside of Kayseri, Turkiye, we laughed and took photos in the posh hotel minibus we'd borrowed. My eyes had been trained over the past two months to spot horses as we passed yellowing pastures, and to scan them for auspicious markings and build. The fields seemed to die as my visit drew to its end, and today was to be the grand finale.
Ekrem was on his best behavior today, unlike the first time I took the wheel of his grey car.
"What are you doing so far over to the right?"
"Where I come from you're supposed to drive on the right side of the road," I said.
"Well, here we drive in the middle unless a car comes at you," he explained.
I aimed the tires left so that the middle of the car was directly over where the middle line in the road ought to be and sped up so he'd think I was a real cowgirl.
Today, however, Ekrem was the grand chauffer. I was able to drift in and out of conversation as I noticed the quality of the livestock and how the rocks here differed from the sandy volcanic tufa of Göreme, and how the fields were still green at the dry summer's end.
Mount Erciyes seemed to laugh at us through the left-hand window; no matter how fast our car could drive, his base would always account for two hours of our travel time.
I sat backward in the van, which carried eight of us facing in two directions. Clara and I shared a luke warm Efes beer that neither of us wanted to finish. I'd accepted it only to calm my nerves about riding with the wild horses. I set it down on the floor of the van and tried to keep my knees from touching Murat's who sat across from me.
"This van's really nice, Hasan, but there's no cupholders," I managed to say before the beer spilled. No one noticed.
When we arrived, Ali's children greeted and gawked at us from a distance -- this time Ekrem had brought four foreign women to the remote village. They didn't seem to notice as we transitioned from one language to another, they just stood there with their faces tanned from sun and dusty wind.
Ali led us to his barn door, where I heard stallion voices agitated by his fumbling with the locks. These were strong, stocky horses, meant to pull a heavy plow, but mostly used for breeding. The smell of their urine was strong as a flap of leather curtain banged against the broken window flashing sun bolts onto the dark, wooden stalls.
Aside from Ekrem, Ali was the only other person who captured wild horses in this area. It's his responsibility to look after them after they're caught. I don't understand why wild horses would pasture in this semi-industrial area of the Anatolian plain.
I don't know much about Ali. He seems quieter than the other men, I guess because he's from a small village with no tourism, and because the only other adults in his home are women. When his friends visit, they hush the children and go about their business, unobtrusive, but listening to the men's conversation.
Four of us were to corral the horses today. Murat, the young gigolo, owns a horse that came from this herd four years ago. He operates a small tourism agency, entertaining at least three women every week during the busy season. He's dashing, actually, and though it seems unfair as I watch the women fall in love with him only to be quickly replaced, it seems an even exchnage. The tourist women have an authentic Turkish experience, spend a few days with a talented lover, and return home smelling like çay and Murat's kisses.
Hasan owns a restaurant, a four-star hotel, and a traditional carpet manufacturing shop. He has seven or eight horses, although only one is wild. He prefers sleek English and Arabian horses, the equivalent of a Rolls Royce or Jaguar.
Ekrem is the only real cowboy. He's tall and thin, never without the hat brought to him from Texas, molded into perfect cowboy shape several times a day over tea and a cigarette. He can manage nearly any horse. His face is handsome, but weathered from the smoke and the sun. Like most of his friends, his teeth are yellowed from years of sweet tea.
There are at most ten people who have ridden with these wild horses, and I am without a doubt the first woman. I couldn't help but feel like I had some sense of purpose in doing this. Women are smart, we are beautiful, and we can handle a horse as well as any man.
Ali brought three stallions from the barn. He passed donkey saddles to Hasan and Murat. They're very typical of the region -- sheep's wool in bright geometric weavings, braided tassels closed at the bottom by protective blue plastic beads. The stirrups are attached and adjusted by soft woven straps, and they can make a wild steed feel like a well-used rocking horse.
Hasan's grey horse groaned and backed himself aggressively close to the others while Murat's stood small and un-amused.
"Typical male behavior," said Clara, filming the episode from outside the corral.
Ekrem's horse made it evident that he was the superior rider, as he was nearly six inches taller than the other men and their horses. I stood anxiously, still not knowing whom I was going to ride. I had visited this strange place in winter, and watched Ekrem corral all the horses. I never dreamt that I would be back, preparing to ride with the herd.
I paced the rock-enclosed corral chatting nervously. Clara talked with the other ladies in Portugese and Spanish, and to the men in a mélange of English and Turkish. A horseless hoof cut at the ankle sat on the edge of one rock of the corral wall, but the dry climate kept it from smelling. This is something that would have disturbed me in the past, but now it was somehow just another phenomenon -- the herd of cows and their dirty water-buffalo coats blocking our passage for twenty minutes, the daily wedding processions of honking vehicles that passed through town displaying the couples' popularity, the men who came to the ranch for lunch to hide from the town's eyes during fasting holidays.
I asked if I could have a try at riding one of the horses, and Hasan put me up on his. The horse was mellow, and as he walked around the corral area I made kissing sounds and tapped my heels against his belly in an attempt to make him trot. He moved toward the other males and I pulled the reins hard to turn him, but instead he reared up on his hind legs. Somehow I managed to slip my feet out of the stirrups and land standing on the ground. I held onto the reins and made sure the horse didn't come down on my feet. The men had accepted that I could control a horse, though my only experience was the two months I'd been working on the farm. I was the cowgirl of Göreme now, so no one batted an eye at the fall, and frankly, neither did I, but my blood raced with more excitement for the ride.
Meanwhile, Ali had disappeared, and soon he rounded the corner of a dirt road chasing four horses into another enclosed area. He called me over. I hauled my heavy leather saddle and reins to where he stood offering me a fat mare with a small foal standing next to her.
"She's pregnant," I said.
"No. She just looks like that normal," Ekrem told me, the inflections of his untrained English falling on the wrong syllables.
But now that I had already fallen off a horse once that day, I wanted a mount with more energy. I saw a tall, shiny black stallion behind the mare and asked, "What's wrong with that one?"
"You can ride him if you like," Ekrem told me. When the newspapers came last year to write a story about him, they printed a photo of Ekrem sitting atop a bucking horse.
"This horse is from when I was going to be in the newspaper."
I remembered the black and white newspaper cutout taped onto a frame inside the ranch house. Behind it was a colored poster from the seventies of Göreme's caves -- the same caves one sees out the window from the farm. Turks I've met who tried to leave Kapadokya have told me about a deep depression they go through just a few months into their relocation. It's instances like these that make me believe them. The posters aren't there to remind the tourists of how beautiful this place is; they're for the locals.
I asked Ekrem if he thought I could handle the horse. Ekrem had been my teacher for the summer, instilling in me some unyielding faith that I would learn how to ride by mounting the rowdiest horses on the farm.
"You can do it," he said. "Just be strong with him."
I straddled the horse and rode him in circles trying to feel how I needed to hold the reins and shift my weight in order to guide him without rousing him to act out. Hasan's grey horse was being troublesome. Instead of moving forward at Hasan's urgence, he grunted and patted his feet on the ground. Hasan jumped on the fat mare, the foal following closely, and gave the grey horse to Ali.
We took off down the road, crossed the bridge housing the water that kept the horses on this land, past the other foreign girls and their shaky cameras. We rode by looking proud for them, just as a fierce wind lifted a blanket of dust so thick that it surrounded us and put us out of their sight. I saw a dark mass in the distance that Ekrem announced were the horses we were visiting.
It was different than the riding I had become used to. Göreme was dry and yellow in summer; here the plain was green and the ground dipped into small swamps and raised into green cookie cutter patches. We wove among each other, Ali on the difficult grey stallion, Murat and I battling for second toughest cowboy as we raced, Hasan didn't stand a chance. Ekrem led us to a big puddle of water and dashed through. He looked back at his disciples and lover gravely. A few yards later was a bigger puddle, and as I nudged my horse into the water, I felt his feet sticking to the muddy bottom.
The next pond was even deeper, and my horse went in like a warrior, the water rising to his belly. It sprinkled me with dark brown stains as he pulled his legs up to his neck and ploughed across the pool, following the other horses.
We were closer now. It was thrilling, running freely through these pastures, and my horse felt large and strong. He listened to me well. This was his home. He was born on this land and knew how to traverse its dips and rises better than I could navigate. We galloped between Ekrem and Murat, the horses running together like children released on the first day of summer holidays. Hasan and his foal were behind us, familial and sweet. I liked having a more "manly" horse than these other amateur cowboys, and I knew that my ability to handle this large stallion surprised Ali who had never seen a foreign woman on a horse before. This was an exceptional event for me as well because I'd spent most of my time riding mares, and my strong preference for female horses had caused these ultra-masculine atcilar, or horsemen, to question my sexuality.
Now we were very close to the herd. They were grazing peacefully in their different shades of earthy fur until Hasan and Murat rushed ahead. This was every little boy's dream coming true now that they were in their thirties and forties. In the excited dash they'd left some horses behind, so I loped into the frenzy and herded the forgotten ones into the group.
My horse knew exactly what to do. We rode ten feet to the right of the herd, and faster than them, since they were slowed by their mass of two hundred. We turned back to keep the ones in the rear moving with the rest, but my horse was reluctant because of the inertia of the exodus. We made the turns and kept the horses moving at a good pace. Hasan trotted along the left side of the group. Murat made laps for the stragglers. Ekrem rode behind us like an elder remembering the thrills of youth.
As we came closer to the village, I saw that the horses were headed toward a swamp, so I rode in a broad arc to the right trying to edge them away. Suddenly my horse's legs buckled under him and into a pit, and I flew, feet in the air, onto the ground. By the grace of Allah the excited stallion stopped dead in his tracks and saved me from what could have been a very bad accident. I jumped back on, unhurt and with the help of Ekrem's hand, and we finished the "show," riding the horses past the girls and their dropped jaws. The herd's hooves marched in polyrhythm and nervous dust storms. We followed them to our rock corral where I handed my sweaty horse to one of the village boys who had descended from his parent's watchful rooftop to see the spectacle. Hasan and I lifted the heavy log onto the rocks to close the space.
Ali needed to capture a horse from the herd that he had promised to a friend. We moved through the parting sea of browns and spotted grays, a family of angelic blonds, and some with dreadlocks in their tails. A foal, born that morning, now stood close to her mother after the rigorous run with the herd, her awkward legs having carried her through water and panicky bodies to this unfamiliar enclosure. I saw my horse's mother, heavy-set and slow with another baby.
We spotted our stallion and two of the men held a long rope lasso. They pointed to the desired horse and I moved toward him. Other horses scurried away. I moved closer, my arms spread like a threatening bear -- he edged to the rope, then back into his corner. I moved again and this time he went running at the rope hoping to pass it, but his head was in its mouth and the rope tightened to his neck.
Four of us leaped at the rope, trying to hold his strong body without cutting off his air. He panicked, fell violently, rose again. Ekrem, in front, edged his hand along the rope until it was near the horse's head. His fingers moved gently forward and he made contact, soon transforming the rope into a bridle that fit around the horse's nose and neck, that wouldn't impede his breathing. We pulled him to a stone wall and tied him to a small electrical pole. The young Brazilian girl was moaning for him but the village kids who'd gathered along the wall were unaffected by this archaic display of man versus beast. I told myself that without this ugly act I would be unable to ride and love my horse back at the farm. The rest of the herd huddled into their families and we scanned the space for ones that were somehow more beautiful than the others.
Afterwards, Ali's wife brought a tray of glasses filled with ayran, a salty yogurt drink made from their cow's milk. We sat outside the house, the blue paint on the porch fresher than the open sky behind us and decorated with eclectic horseshoes and old leather saddles. The men tried to roll a joint of marijuana and tobacco in secret from Ali's mother-in-law who sat in her usual perch of patterned, dark pillows in the corner. A quail kept her company, singing songs from his wicker cage as she knitted some new trousers for the youngest child.
When it came time to leave, a nine-year-old girl approached us saying she wanted to sing for our camera. She asked if we would follow her to a special place where she sang every day, but the men were getting impatient, so she made an exception. I knelt on one knee trying not to intimidate with my adulthood as she giggled and discussed with her cousins which song to sing. Her face became serious and her eyes became her love song, which she had dutifully learned in an Istanbul accent.
Askam benim, neredesin?
Where are you my love?
As we departed from the village a wedding celebration amplified a soulful oud and the dirty bovine herd parted for our car.
"How do you call that in English?" someone asked.