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Horseback & the six foot Diamondback

Nicolette Mallow on a 2,000 lb. Percheron war horse named Dan in Colorado.

Close to where I grew up, earlier this year, I was driving down a lake road by Lake Travis near The Oasis village (or at least what I like to call a village because it’s completely transformed from the little place it was back in the 1990s). My black Mustang convertible and I were cruising together. I refer to her, my Mustang, as Black Beauty. I named her Black Beauty after the childhood novel written by Anna Sewell in the 1880s. She’s an entertaining car to drive, especially when the weather is nice and I put the top down. Black Beauty and I were twisting and serpentining through the rolling green hill country. This particular road can be dangerous, one lane each way, and people often plow through at over 80-100 MPH.

I don’t wish to wreck or die on the lake road as there are steep drops, rock walls, cliffs, and sharp turns that can be fatal. Plus, there are bicyclists, motorcyclists and occasionally drunk drivers. But, I admit I enjoy the terrain, which creates excitement if you love to operate machinery. The scenery is beautiful with wildflowers, green hills, and endless waterfront views of the lake glistening in the sunlight. As she and I rolled by house after house, mansion after mansion. Tiny house after tiny house that are decades old, one empty lot after empty another filled with trees and greenery, areas yet to be overdeveloped and has preserved its natural beauty. There’s another aspect you have to keep an eye out for on the lake road: wildlife. I always try to keep an eye out for wildlife. Whether it’s a fox or a butterfly floating in the wind, I try not to add onto the list of roadkill.

As my sports car and I approached a downward hill right after we passed one of the marinas: I noticed something moving in the grass. It was low to the ground but got longer and longer in size as it moved into the road. Slithering in the sunlight, crystal clear, I see a colossal diamondback rattlesnake crossing the street. It was at least 6 feet, maybe longer, no Texas exaggeration. The shapes of diamonds on its back were undeniable, and the dusty black, brown, grey and white colors on its scales were bold in the sunshine like patriotic flags. Sure enough, at the end of its tail, there was a rattle. I hadn’t seen a venomous snake this big in person for years. I felt an equal amount of fear (imagining being on foot) and yet I was also impressed by its survival tactics to live to such a considerable size.

Since my convertible top was up and I was safe, I slowed down fast and stopped my car at the bottom of the hill. The diamondback rattlesnake didn’t seem to notice me or my car at first. Within a few seconds, once the snake saw my Mustang, it looked terrified. The diamondback froze and tucked its head lower to the pavement. It didn’t coil up into a ball as if to strike, and it looked tail tucked and timid. The rattle was not moving, which is an indication to back off, steer clear, or get bit.

For a few seconds, we stared at each other: snake and human in a stare-off.

“If you wish to live, get off the road,” I thought to myself. I honked my horn twice. It didn’t move. So I lifted my foot off the brake pedal and started to glide forward. The movement of my vehicle scared the six-foot diamondback rattlesnake so severely. It turned back around and disappeared into the grass.

Despite knowing how dangerous those snakes are, I didn’t have the heart to run it over. I could’ve easily hit the gas to floor it and run the damn thing over on my way down. But I felt empathy for it: why should it be killed for merely existing? There were no children, puppies, or kitties nearby. It just minded its own business. A diamondback rattlesnake can’t help that it’s a snake, so I didn’t feel right killing it. Now, had it been in my backyard near my pet or able to attack me, oh yeah, there will be no mercy… But, how could I justify running it over like an execution, especially when I could stop since there was no one behind me? I feel like at that point; I’d just be killing the snake out of fear, panic, or hatred for snakes.

Photo of Lake Travis at The Oasis. Photography by Nicolette Mallow.

Suddenly, as I drove away, I was reminded of another time I saw a rattlesnake while I was on horseback, like literal horseback riding, no puns intended. I was in Tarzan, Texas, horseback riding on a ranch outside Midland-Odessa. What is it with me and horses and snakes? Someone I used to know had invited me out to their family ranch. Or at least thought I knew him, but I had no idea who he was until too late. During the winter holidays in 2007, we both went home to Texas. And I flew out from Austin to visit him upon invitation. This Texas man with blue eyes, 12 years older than me and shall remain nameless, drove me out to his dad’s ranch in his black Jeep from Midland to Tarzan. One of the most extended, most miserable 40-minute drives I can recall.

At the ranch, the newly built guest house was across the older main house and the wooden stables were sort of in-between at a distance. I want to say the houses were painted white, but I cannot recall. I do remember the houses were nice but small and modest in size. His dad lived in the main house, and the kids (now adults) stayed in the guest house. They didn’t want to visit their childhood rooms… At the horse pens, the men had all the trained, riding horses tied up in the stables farthest back from the entry gate and all the wild horses up front running loose. Why wasn’t it the other way around? I don’t know. But I noticed the men in the pens were not scared of these wild horses, that I could tell. Wild horses that no one could ride or saddle up.

I guess he saw the look of dread on my face. The blue-eyed man turned to me in front of his father and the ranch hands with his forefinger in my face and declared, “Do not touch the wild horses. Do not get too close. Don’t move too fast, or run, or yell. Don’t look scared. Just walk calmly and naturally and follow me to the back.”

At first, I got agitated by his tone and wanted to roll my eyes or swat his hand out of my face. I remember his dad looking at me with a concerned expression almost like remorse or guilt, both of us knowing that’s how he used to boss his son around as a kid. I’d heard the stories of his childhood and how abusive his father was and what a drunk he was… This blue-eyed man was constantly giving me orders, demands, instructions, conditions, manipulations, and stipulations. At this point, the honeymoon phased had long ended. His true colors had come out. I was no longer on a pedestal; there was no sweet nothings and flowers and tender words, not unless it was an apology or an agenda. His heart was like a clock that opened up only at specific seconds or hours of the day. Otherwise, it was shut off. At this point, the happy mask was coming off and the blue-eyed man was trying to break me down and break me in like one of those wild horses. One that only he could ride. [I remember once someone made me cry and he bit their head off in public, and then said to me in private, and it was no joke he was dead serious when he stated, “If anyone is going to make you cry, it’s going to be me.”] By this time, I felt trapped, almost like a piece of treasure or precious property that he owned and thought he had the right to do whatever he wanted with. I felt tricked, lured blindly into a relationship I wanted no part of. And I was scared to leave him. It was the epitome of a narcissistic control freak and sociopath with borderline personality disorder taking advantage of a young girl that was lost and hadn’t yet found her voice or her identity.

However, I must say on this occasion, he was right. So I said nothing and took heed to his advice because I was not used to being in a pen with wild horses. And I knew he’d lost someone he loved as a kid on that same ranch because they were drug to death by a horse, simply because they couldn’t get their foot out the stirrups after falling off. The person who died was a professional ranch hand, just goes to show, ranch life is dangerous and unpredictable.

Nicolette Mallow with Copper at 10,000+ ft in Elk Mountains of Rocky Mountains in Colorado.

Since I was a little girl in elementary and pre-k, I started horseback riding in Texas and Colorado. Horses do not scare me. I love them. They’re gentle beasts. I started riding when I was too small to get my feet in the stirrups and had to use a step stool to mount the horse. My family has a ranch in Texas, also! Looking back, I was blessed to have an upbringing of city life and nature out in the hill country, beach, or mountains.

Nevertheless, I was suddenly dreading this moment to the point of wanting to puke from fear. Because while I’ve been horseback riding since I was a Bambina. I was petrified of getting trampled by wild horses in an enclosed space. Perhaps wild horses could drag me away! (Thank you, Rolling Stones song.) Alas, I was the only girl there that morning because his sister had left for the day, let alone the only city girl. And I refused to be that woman that was too scared to get into the wild horse pens.

“I didn’t notice these wild horses yesterday. How long have they been here?” I asked.

“These horses were born and bred to be free and were only recently put into the pens after being purchased from another ranch. It’s just a trial run to see if any are willing to be a riding horse and how aggressive they are,” he replied. I noticed he answered every other question except the direct one I asked. He was always keeping me disoriented.

As all the men walked through the gate past the wild horses, I hesitated. I see cowboy hats, boots, blue jeans, and leather in front of me. Now is the time to move, Nicolette. At first, I froze, and then I followed, like a scared tiger cub trying to keep up. Noticing a few aggressive horses charging each other, stamping the dirt and kicking up the earth– secretly, I was nervous, but I walked on. Despite the anxiety, once I let go of the fear, it was pretty magical walking by all those wild horses. I will never forget their hooves kicking up dust and dirt, fighting each other, thrashing their tails. None of them charged me, and they didn’t seem to mind me there. Somehow it made me feel stronger even though I was the littlest, youngest, and most vulnerable out of all the horses and all the men. I can see why people with trauma, depression or suffering seek solace with horses because you do bond with them and they make you feel stronger. That day, I minded all of his advice, except I did make eye contact with the wild horses. I wanted to see into their hearts.

Overcoming my fear at the ranch in Tarzan, Texas, with wild horses reminded me of the time I overcame my fear in Mississippi by parasailing and swimming in a mud lake with alligators. Or the time I swam far into the Sea of Cortez in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico — after not swimming past waist-deep in an ocean for 12 years due to getting caught in an undertow in Kauai, Hawaii… I am not a fearful person, but I am human. And these moments when you break through the fear is empowering and life-altering.

“Vivir con miedo, es como vivir a medias!”

(A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.)

Nicolette Mallow in Charleston, South Carolina with a horse that demanded she say hello to him.

Finally, I meet my horse at the end of the line: Colonel Ben. The Colonel was my horse that day, one of the tallest and most giant horses. Even with motorcycles, I choose the smaller cruiser and not a monster bike. My feet can’t touch. Honestly, I was wondering why they gave me such a big horse for a little woman that weighed like 115 pounds.

“He’s too tall for me,” I said, “My neck and forehead is practically eye level with the stirrups.”

The owner of the ranch, his father, said to me in a thick southern accent, “Ben will keep you safe. You’re young. I am sure you can find a way to get up there.”

I recall thinking, “Safe from what? I’ve been riding my whole life”. But I decided not to sass off to a man in his 70s or 80s. It’s not the Texan thing to do.

As I tried to mount the horse in my blue jeans and knee-high riding boots, Colonel Ben was so tall I had to lift my left leg with my arms to get it into the stirrup as I reached for the horn of the saddle. Then my boot got stuck in the stirrup and here came the tricky part. Thank goodness I am a dancer and an athlete because that was seriously stretching my body in strange ways trying to get onto the saddle of this gentle beast. I was worried Colonel Ben would get annoyed, but he was a patient horse. Everyone, myself included, had a good laugh watching me get up there. All smiles, he and I rode off to explore the ranch. Everyone else stayed behind.

Since Colonel Ben knew the land better than me, I let him lead the way, which in hindsight, infuriated my host. The Colonel liked to walk near the barbwire fences because I assume it helped guide like a map.

“Nicolette, stop walking so close to the barbwire,” the blue-eyed man shouted at me.

I replied, “Tell that to Colonel Ben. He keeps wanting to walk alongside the fence.”

I recall this Texan got really annoyed with me, just like he was always getting annoyed with me.

“Get control of your horse and tell him where to go,” he demanded.

“Look, I know how to guide a horse, but I am here for the ride, and he can guide me today. I also don’t feel well. I never ate breakfast or had any water. Why are you so aggressive with the horses anyway?”

He didn’t reply.

[Side note: This was one of the most uncomfortable and horrid trips of my life, most of which I blocked out. However, I remember that morning we went horseback riding like it was yesterday. I remember his family was kind to me, even if he wasn’t. The day we went horseback riding in Tarzan: I remember we didn’t eat breakfast. I didn’t even get any coffee. We just walked straight to the horse pens after waking and getting ready. Which was not good because I’d had surgery for pretty bad ovarian issues only a few months prior, and even though I was not even old enough to buy an alcoholic beverage, my body was still healing from a severe loss of blood and a lot of physical and mental pain. I was always a star athlete, and for me to be, this weakened indeed shocked me to the core. They had to perform my surgery early because I started hemorrhaging blood, and I remember having to call him at the bar to take me to the hospital because I was at his place. He’d told me to stay there while he went to play billiards, and then he showed up drunk at the hospital. So drunk, I sent him home and stayed at the ER alone. The level of stress I was under was making me ill. In hindsight, I know that his energy and his abuse made me sick from anxiety as I’ve never become that weak around anyone else, literally or figuratively. I’m far stronger now than I was then. Regardless, without breakfast, I was very fatigued that day. And because I was nervous to ask for food, because that’s how much he stressed me out, I tried to go without nutrients or water. From the get-go, I was not prepared for this encounter.]

About 20 minutes later, I asked if we could head back. We were gone for an hour tops. I could tell he was mad at me, but I was feeling faint and also unsafe in the middle of nowhere with him. As we were heading back because I was weary without protein and wanted to cut the ride short: I see something dreadful to the left. Colonel Ben was only a few feet away from the barbwire fence to our right. Suddenly, between the other rider and I there is a poisonous rattlesnake several feet long on the ground, emerging from the tall grass to the left of my horse. A pissed off, enraged, angry rattlesnake that is upright, rattling, and fangs fully exposed and looks as if it were drooling poison. A slew of profanities ran through my brain and all I could hear was my name echo.

“Nicolette!” He stated loudly in rage, panic, and fear without screaming.

“Yeah, I see it,” I replied. Absolutely terrified of my horse getting spooked and something horrific happening. I stroked Ben’s mane and told him, “You’re a good horse, Colonel Ben, and I trust you,” and Ben walked by calmly and didn’t pay the snake any mind. I gave the Colonel lots of scratches behind the ears on the ride back.

I also guided Ben away from the barbwire fences for the rest of the ride.

When we got back to the house, this Texan got off his horse and straight into my face. This time I could feel the heat from his breath, “I told you not to ride by the fences. Why didn’t you do as I said?! If your horse gets spooked, it could throw you onto the barbwire fence, trample you or drag you to death. You need to be away from the fences so you can run away from snakes or killer bees”.

“You never explained any of that to me. Why didn’t you just tell me why you were so upset? If you had expressed concern over my safety and told me why not, rather than yell at me over and over. I could’ve heard you better. Why are you always biting my head off instead of just speaking your mind?”

Realizing he had no response to this, he said nothing and walked off, fuming in silence. I can still see his angry walk and his chain-smoking cigarettes in anger. We could’ve gone back out riding after I ate, but he was too scared at that point. I think it brought up old childhood triggers of losing his stepfather, the one drug to death by a horse. A few months later, when he was drunk, I recall the blue-eyed man said to me in Savannah, Georgia: “There’s no way you saw that rattlesnake. You couldn’t have remained that calm in the face of such danger.”

Looking him straight in the eyes, I said his name and then, “You know I saw that snake. And I was scared beyond words. But what choice did I have? Had I spooked the horse, I would’ve been thrown onto a barbwire fence, bit by a rattlesnake, and at least an hour away from a hospital. I was scared. But I couldn’t let it consume me.”

I realized then. He was unable to overcome his fears. That’s why he was the way he was, and that’s why he tried to stand in my light and break me down. Because I was stronger than him, excluding physical strength. He beat me in that department.

It’s been many years since this ill-fated trip to Midland and Tarzan. I’ve gone horseback riding many times since, and I have enjoyed the memories.

The day I was escorted into the Elk Mountains of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado by Dan, a 2,000 lb/907 kg Percheron horse. A gigantic black beauty, Dan was the most badass horse I ever met. Dan was, as Samuel L. Jackson said in Pulp Fiction, a bad motherf*cker not to be trifled with. Centuries ago, Percheron’s were bred to be war horses (a destrier, best-known warhorse of the Medieval era). I’d never taken a horseback ride on an animal this large, and I never imagined something so huge would be so gentle. His eyeball was the size of a freaking softball. When he ran, I had to slightly stand up. Even with stirrups, his literal horsepower was intense and hard to stay mounted. He could’ve easily thrown me off his back without hesitation or difficulty. At the end of the ride, I took some photos with Dan & he nuzzled his big face, snout and head right into my shoulder as if to hug me. It made me scared and happy! This particular horse is somewhat of a celebrity and has been featured on the Travel Channel & Good Morning America. What a beautiful beastie! The second I saw the black warhorse that day: I knew that was my horse. Later that night, a few locals at Cold Creek in Crested Butte told me that Dan is known for throwing people off his back and he must’ve really liked me to let me stay on for the whole ride.

Thank you Colonel Ben & Dan for being sweet, gentle and getting me home safely!

Nicolette Mallow at her family ranch in Comfort, Texas.

Published by Nicolette Mallow

‡ Nicolette Mallow is an Artist: writer, dancer, vocalist, thespian, model, and (amateur) photographer. Writing is Mallow’s strongest artistic skill. Internationally published in the United States and Europe, Nicolette has obtained 110+ publications thus far. Mallow has interviewed an extensive list of talent and collaborated with companies and PR teams from Texas Monthly, National Geographic, Prevention Magazine, HBO Films, The Hollywood Reporter, SXSW, The David Lynch Foundation, Cine Las Americas, The University of Texas at Austin and more. Presently her portfolio entails 12 national awards or scholarships, including both individual and group projects. Working with Press and Publicity teams from companies like Sunshine Sachs, Fons PR, Frank PR, and CW3PR — Mallow can liaise with publicists, entrepreneurs, and their brands. Since 2005, for 17 years, Nicolette Mallow has covered numerous press, corporate and red carpet events as a (dyslexic) writer. Mallow has interviewed talent far beyond her years, including Jimmy Chin, Greta Gerwig, Bob Roth, Dr. Travis Stork, Joan Lunden, Larysa DiDio, Lauren Handel Zander, James White, Jay Roach, Naomi Whittel and Roc Chen. Once, she was a public speaker for a national business conference. Her career is diverse and transcends a vast array of industries, but the focus is always on the arts. Nicolette Mallow does enjoy all forms of writing, but her favorite writing genres to create entail editorial, arts & entertainment, literary journalism, travel, magical realism, nonfiction, technical and promotional publicity. Over time Nicolette has attained Press Credentials to events like Texas Film Awards (hosted by Austin Film Society), The Mexic-Arte Museum, Austin Film Festival, Euphoria Music Festival, and The Blanton Museum of Art. She also wrote for Savannah Magazine, a radio station operated by EMMIS Communications, District newspaper, and the Thinkery (formerly Austin Children’s Museum). In her spare time, Nicolette creates a magical realism novel and turns her nonfiction memoirs into short story novellas. Obtaining two degrees from the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD), she has a Master of Arts degree in Arts Administration (a graduate degree now recognized as Creative Business Leadership) and a B.F.A. in Writing. Born and raised in Texas and NYC—Nicolette Mallow is also a world traveler that lives for art and loves to learn. “L’art Pour L’art.”

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