A HIGH-PITCHED whinny echoed across the pasture as I swung my scarred legs from the dusty four-wheel drive. A series of guttural grunts and explosive snorts preceded an unnerving "Bang!"
I hurled myself to the ground and lay prone, hands over head and face buried in a mouldy carpet of hay perfumed with the pungency of dung.
"Calm down Rajah," a relaxed but firm voice called.
The reassuring tone had no effect. A thoroughbred, chestnut and shiny, reared on hindquarters and pranced on spring-loaded hocks. Lithe forelegs spun and, in a display of boxing prowess, unshod hooves swung at an invisible speedball.
An alabaster blaze began beneath a dishevelled forelock. It separated ferocious eyes and ran all the way down to a muzzle of soft pink. Nostrils flared as drips of snot vaporised and blasted into the air with every heave from blacksmith-bellow lungs. A violent mane flicked and, with a stock-whip crack, the creature snapped a leather strap clipped to the scant constraint of a bridle.
"He was a racehorse, you know," the man said as I later stood beside the ring. He tilted his Akubra back on his head. "I saved him from the knackers."
The man reached between the rails of the circular enclosure and bowed like a servant. A roughened palm cradled a mound of lucerne chaff. He held it out as though it were a peace offering to a king. The beast calmed a little and sniffed at the dried husks before nimble lips devoured the treat.
That was my first contact with Rajah. Untamed, skittish, and out of control to the point where, like my emotions, the horse resisted any form of restraint. At that point I'd already saddled myself with alcohol and painkillers or anything else that would obliterate the haunted images and disturbed sleep. But on top of all that, the beast inside continued to roar. I wanted to take the monster out of my brain and down to the valley where I would hold it beneath the watery gurgles of the stream until its struggles became still.
I came to Rajah after losing faith in my therapy sessions. Corralled, my emotions were trapped inside. The despair I felt at night disappeared in the hours of daylight and I worked hard to hide my feelings. My thoughts were a stubborn oyster. The counsellor strained to prise open a powerful muscle then poked the delicate flesh of my spirit with probing questions.
Naked and vulnerable, a mental adductor tensed as a means of defence and the shell of my mind clamped shut. The razor-sharp armour remained sealed and could no longer be opened. We decided to try a different path to find what lay inside. My counsellor mentioned a farm and horses but I wasn't sure how they could help. It did sound practical however, and would be a chance to get outdoors and perhaps figure some things out.
I felt panic when I first stepped into the ring with Rajah. Unlike battle, it was me and him. David versus Goliath but this time without support from weaponry or brave comrades. Scared and exposed, I faced the challenge alone. The more I worked with him, the more I engaged with those around me. A common language evolved from the training and the sessions offered a chance to "talk sideways" with others or resolve issues through shared activity rather than intense, one-on-one conversations conducted in the vacuum of a clinical environment.
I discovered ways to communicate with Rajah that were exclusive to us. I found I had to calm my frustrations and anxieties before I could saddle my emotions or bridle my fears. When I worked with him, a window opened into my mind. I could replay how I responded to the horrific images inside my head by how Rajah reacted to his training: fight or flight. The horse became an extension of myself and the more I controlled him, the more he controlled me until, in the end, we surrendered.
Today, we follow the brook as it winds through lush, rolling paddocks. Hooves clatter like staccato, machine-gun fire on the smooth pebbles. During our journey we've opened different gaits of understanding. From the hesitant haltered walk to the slow saddled meander, the oppositional bounce of a trot to the rhythm of a canter, and the euphoric speed of an ear-buffeted gallop.
Now, as I fly above the water, droplets splash in the air from shiny-steel shoes and scatter like diamonds across the surface of the smooth flowing stream. Muddy fetlocks are washed clean and the kersplosh-kersplosh rhythm bathes my soul.
This is our last ride. The job done, there are other horses to train. But today, like the Indian king of Rajah's namesake, I ride with dignity through this domain. Crowned with pride, I hold my head high in the regal morning air.
Entrants were asked to write a short story inspired by one of four photos. Short-listed stories will be published every day in the Newcastle Herald until Friday, January 23.