To hear Joyce Carol Oates reading “The Little Whip,” click here.
In training, the whip must be used sparingly. But it must be used.
—horse trainer’s adage
At the practice track, when we owned a Standard-bred pacer.
How happy we were, new young owners of a Standard-bred pacer.
How happy to “own” an animal, and a Standard-bred pacer!
How dazed by the pounding hooves, the black bulbs of eyes
swinging past, shivering and whinnying like the dream horse
is Fuseli’s “The Nightmare.”
We were happy then, not-knowing our future.
We were innocent then, and tenderly-loving.
We were not cruel, by design. Any more than you.
(We are Americans and not of those crude folk
who eat horseflesh though we feed it to our pets, later.)
At the practice track north of Clinton, New Jersey.
* * *
At the practice track in Jersey in sun-splotched June.
God! the happiness! wearepacers.
Our massive muscles fill our hides! wearepacers.
Deep-chested, high-headed. Pricked-up ears.
Happiness is pounding the track—fast.
Happiness is hauling the go-cart—fast.
Fast fast fast as the heart propels the legs.
Fast as the track and the go-cart allow.
Always there’s a track and always a go-cart!
Our hooves pound as if they would break the very earth,
our joy’s in our great hearts pump pumping like fists.
Our happiness is in racing and not breaking stride.
Our happiness is in racing, one against the rest
in a ferocity of hooves, manes, tails, rolling eyes.
So high-strung our trainers strap “shadow rolls”
above our big moist noses so that (don’t laugh!)
our flying shadows on the track won’t throw us into a panic,
so we kill our runty drivers.
Lookit the little whip in the sumbitch’s hand,
and that hand in a glove. Like a toy.
* * *
“What is that leather thing around that horse’s legs?”
“Ma’am, that’s a hobble. It helps her keep her stride.”
“So she won’t break loose?”
“She won’t never break loose. It just helps her keep