After the events described in the last installment of our story of Greenspring Hollows Academy, things had settled back into the usual routines. My little friend Maria Boccamotore was denied a place on the school’s elite equestrian team, but because her father had ingratiated himself to the headmistress and the board, the team’s coach reluctantly agreed to let Maria and her mount, Atlas, a 13.5 hand Percheron-miniature donkey cross, accompany the team on their various trips. The coach of the riding team, the formidable Hildegard von Westenhexe, was not happy about this, but because Mr. Boccamotore had agreed to install a sprinkler system in the riding hall, she forced herself always to be correct to Maria. However, behind her back she called Maria “that girl” and poor Atlas “that mule.”
In order to understand Hildegard von Westenhexe you need to know a little about her background. Her grandfather had immigrated to Argentina from Europe in 1945. He was a successful horse breeder, but it was not permitted to discuss what he might have done earlier in his life. Once while visiting, Hildegard had walked into her grandfather’s study and noticed a piece of paper on the desk headed “Rundbrief der SS-Kavallerie-Division Florian Geyer.” Her grandfather looked up and grabbed the paper and locked it in a desk drawer. Her father was a well-known polo player and her mother an heiress, but their marriage was a sham and they lived separate lives. Hildegard was raised by a succession of governesses and grew to adulthood a humorless, lonely, bitter, and friendless person.
Although there is not much good that I can say about Hildegard’s personality, everyone conceded that she was an exceptional horsewoman. She was a perfectionist who drove herself tirelessly and had an absolute grasp of horsemanship, theory and practice. It was believed that she could easily have had a spot on the U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team until an unfortunate injury sidelined her. It was at that point that she was recruited to be the coach at Greenspring Hollows Academy. Hildegard was rich and did not need to work, but she enjoyed having authority over the students and drove them mercilessly. She soon had a reputation of being a top-notch coach, and the school was rated as having one of the best equestrian programs in the country, but the sad truth was there was no joy there; perfection maybe, but no joy at all.
One day the equestrian team was returning from a competition on Long Island. Hildegard, Maria and the other members of the team were in one of the school’s vans, and Joe Simon was driving back in the school’s large horse trailer with Atlas and seven other horses. Joe’s one vice was that he was a smoker, and being by himself he decided to pull into a convenience store and run in to buy a pack. This is an action repeated over and over in the life of a smoker. Joe could not have foreseen the chain of events that from this particular small act would spring and that the ramifications of that act would continue to play out even to this day and in a thousand different ways.
Across the street Oliver Butts had been out of work for many years now and was reaching the point of total desperation. The night before he checked his e-mails, and there was this notice that he had just won the Irish Sweepstakes. With his heart pounding he began to read the e-mail when suddenly the lights went out in the house and the computer screen winked off. The Long Island Power Authority had finally made good on its threat and cut off his service. Butts was awake most of the night and decided that his only course of action was to drive to the Irish Consulate in New York City the next morning. Of course, the sad truth was that Oliver had not entered the Irish Sweepstakes, and the e-mail was totally bogus. When the exhausted Butts finally awoke the next day, he walked out of his front door only to see that his car had been reprocessed and was disappearing around the corner. He also noticed all the vehicles over at the convenience store, and surely he could persuade someone to drive him into New York City for a cut of his winnings. It seemed to go on for hours but everyone he approached averted their eyes, ran to their cars, and locked the doors. Oliver had become positively frantic when he noticed this huge horse trailer with its door half open and the keys still in the ignition. Some impulse caused him to jump in, and he drove off in the direction of New York.
Oliver Butts had never driven anything as big as the trailer and was driving way too fast. While going around a curve, he ran off the road and the trailer became stuck in the soft ground on the shoulder of the road. The only thing he could think of was to lighten the trailer by unloading the horses which he proceeded to do. He had just finished doing this when he became aware of police sirens coming ever closer and the distinct noise of a helicopter. He fled the scene in a panic.
The horses had been standing near the trailer in a group when suddenly a large number of police cruisers rounded the corner with their lights flashing and sirens blaring. The herd took off at a gallop and stampeded onto the lush grounds of the Long Island County Club. Meanwhile the tournament had reached a climax. Golfer Hyman Q. Greenberger was lining up what had to be the final and winning shot of the tournament. He took a certain satisfaction in this because his own grandfather had been turned down for membership in this very club many decades ago, and now here he was about to take the winning shot in front of the national media and some of the most important people in the entire country.
The crowd fell silent and he was already into his swing when he suddenly heard a sound he could not remember ever hearing on a golf course. It was a rhythmic tha-thump, tha-thump, tha-thump that became ever louder. Suddenly and inexplicably the crowd to his right seemed to explode onto the green, and thus distracted Greenberger’s club totally missed the ball. After that things happened so fast he had no idea just what occurred. It seemed as if a tidal wave of humanity just washed over him.
What happened was that the panicking horses had galloped into one of the plastic mesh security fences that were in place on the course, and the fence became plastered on their sweaty chests. When the crowd heard the horses coming up behind them they tried to flee, and the horses for their part veered to the side but the horses were moving faster and as more and more spectators were caught in the security fence it had the effect of pulling the horses around in a circle, and finally they had wrapped the crowd of both spectators and participants into a struggling pile of arms, legs, TV camera equipment, electronic cables and golf paraphernalia that was some ten feet high and contained some 200 individuals. At the very top of the pile fluttered the flag of the 18th hole and all of this was broadcast live on national television. It took many hours and several search and rescue crews to untangle all the people. The rescue crews pointed out that they might have finished the job much faster if those same politicians had not cut so much of their funding. No one was seriously hurt but there was an entire issue of People Magazine devoted to unflattering images of disheveled celebrities being carried off on ambulance stretchers.
That evening there was an emergency meeting of the Greenspring Hollows Academy Board. All of the members were avid golfers, and they were outraged at the adverse publicity that the debacle at the county club had brought down upon the school. The headmistress and Hildegard von Westenhexe were to be called on the carpet. However, the board had not counted on Hildegard. During her Grand Prix career she thought nothing of taking level 9 fences, and she was not to be intimated by this gang of old fogies. She angrily pointed out that she should not be held responsible for the stupid actions of that incompetent Joe Simon and that the idiot should be fired at once. By the end of the meeting she had had her way and Joe was sent packing. It was a sad day since everyone in the school liked Joe, and he was particularly liked by the horses who somehow sensed that Hildegard was behind this.
It happened that the next week Hildegard von Westenhexe had scheduled a clinic at Greenspring Hollows Academy. Her clinics were popular and all the up and coming riders from the Mid-Atlantic region were coming. This year’s attendance was particularly high, and it was suspected that the notoriety garnered by the recent events at the Long Island County Club might have caused some people to sign up at the last minute. Hildegard used her students to demonstrate various points she was making about proper riding techniques. She had pointedly told my friend Maria to be present, and it seemed that she used Maria and Atlas repeatedly as examples of what not to do and as examples of poor riding technique. At first some of the audience was mildly amused by that was going on but as Hildegard continued it became evident to all that this admired equestrian was bullying a 14 year-old student and in the most cruel way. Maria's heart was breaking when Hildegard pointed out her beloved Atlas' many confirmation flaws. Atlas was lop eared, moose nosed, pigeon toed, coon footed, and on and on she went. After this had gone on for some time the usually ever-positive Maria was feeling humiliated, was fighting back tears, and Atlas was becoming angrier and angrier.
Hildegard was passing in front of Atlas and saying “Only when the horse’s jaw yields is contact lost with his mouth. This, however, is a momentary loss of contact only.” Hearing this, something snapped in Atlas who is usually the most placid of animals. His massive neck leaned over, and he grabbed the back of Hildegard’s breeches lifting her off the ground. He began to shake her violently and there was this loud ripping sound as the seams of her clothing gave way, and the next thing the startled crowd became aware of was Hildegard dangling by her laced rein leather belt with her bare bottom there for all the world to see. This seemed to go on forever, but finally the farrier ran over and cut the belt, dropping Hildegard to the ground. The humiliated and red faced Hildegard scrambled to her feet and ran into her office slamming the door. The crowd sat stunned when suddenly the most unusual thing happened. All of the horses present started nickering. It almost sounded like laughter. The crowd now was laughing also, and people began to applaud. Maria became aware that they were facing towards Atlas clapping and rising to their feet. The school offered to refund everyone’s money and was surprised that no one took them up on the offer.
Hildegard von Westenhexe’s long reign of terror had ended. That night she wrote out her letter of resignation and quietly left the school. Maria’s father was appointed head of a search committee to find a new riding instructor for the school. The headmistress was persuaded to rehire Joe Simon. The horses were happy to see Joe again, and Joe had decided to give up smoking. Maria and Atlas found that the other students regarded them with a new found measure of respect and no one ever called Atlas a mule again. As Maria points out to all who will listen, "He's a Percheron-miniature donkey cross."