Excluding ponies at the county fair that were attached to a center post around which they trudged all day with nervous munchkins on their backs, I first rode a horse when I was 12. Enamoured with riding, I soon imagined becoming a jockey, sitting high in the saddle in big name races like The Kentucky Derby, The Preakness, The Belmont Stakes. Unfortunately, despite being slender and light for my height, I was already too tall and heavy to make the cut as the undersized squirt you must be to ride a thoroughbred in a money race. Still, I loved the horses and the cadence of trotting and cantering, jumping, the strength and speed of feeling one with a large mammal, the smell of horse sweat, hay and manure. The aroma of oiled leather. My first teacher was a sturdy and self-assured woman, maybe the first I had known. Short with a confident swagger, a bobbed blond haircut and jodhpurs with knee-high black boots, she took no shit from anyone. Margie with a hard “g”.
I do not know why she left the horse rink near the river on the south side of town, but maybe it was the regular flooding and the lack of good trails, late night redneck threats, the absence of supportive neighbors. Anyway, she moved her horse riding operation to the northeast side of town, out into the county several miles, in the middle of thousands of acres of empty roads and farmland. She built a barn with a long central aisle flanked by individual stalls, a hayloft above, a tack room at the center, a couple of white-fenced riding rinks for training and jumping, trails for riding the horses through the woods and out onto the dirt country roads, and parked a modest mobile home for herself.
A couple of days each week, she would drive her pickup truck with a cap over the bed into the carpool line at our junior high school. Several of us would pile into the covered bed with the loose dusty hay for the twenty minute ride out to the stables. Each of us was responsible for retrieving the horse we were riding that day, bridling, saddling, and then brushing them down when our lesson ended an hour or so later, an hour of trotting around the oval rink, practicing English form trotting (“posting”) and occasionally a few small jumps. Even the short jumps could be exciting because it was a chance for the horse to balk and send its rider flying through the air alone. Surprise.
The morning of my 13th birthday, my parents came into my bedroom with the kind of grins on their faces that said “We know something you don’t. We have a secret, and you can’t guess what it is.” They were right; I was baffled, and there were no clues. “Get dressed. We’re going for a ride.”
Even when we pulled into the stables, I could not imagine why they would take me riding on a weekend. As I emerged from the car, Margie was waiting by the riding rink with a black mare. “This is Lady.” “Hey girl,” I said as I stroked her forelock, nose and neck.
My parents came up beside me, still grinning, and announced, “She’s yours.” A kaleidoscope of emotions blasted through me. Confusion, excitement, fear, denial. In the modern vernacular of a young teen, I am sure I would have expressed or thought “OMG,” snapped a photo with my cell phone, posted on Facebook and tweeted the news to everyone I knew. As it was, I was speechless. I had not dreamed of owning a horse, had not asked for one, was not sure I wanted the responsibility of caring for one. But in the moment, I had never seen such a beautiful animal. Black with a white star on her forehead and shades of brown highlights in her coat. Heavy framed. Unlike other riders I knew, I was not partial to Old Gray Mares, palominos, Arabians or Appaloosas. Black suited me.
As the end of the school year approached, Margie asked me if I would like to work at the stables. She would pay me, but mainly I would have more riding time with Lady. I agreed. Two days per week, for as long as it took, I would muck the stables, a nice term for shoveling horseshit. Remove and replace the hay, haul the soiled mixed hay and horseshit to the mountain out back of the barn through the permanent soggy bog of shitty mud where planks had been laid as a sort of walkway. A local country boy who was a couple years older and bigger than me was my guide and nominal boss (he was experienced shoveling shit). The pay was $15 per week for what generally took a total of six hours, sometimes more. My first paying job.
Except for rainy days when the pathway to Horseshit Mountain became so wet and deep that the wheelbarrow wheels stuck when they slid off the wonky boards through the bog, it was a decent job, the organic, earthy, fecund aroma and fresh country air stimulating. No one bothered me, I hung out with horses, especially Lady, and I had plenty of time to ride in the afternoon.
Lady and I quickly merged as horse and rider. She was responsive to my voice when we rode around the rink and when we attempted higher and higher jumps. She kept me in the saddle even when I might have deserved for her to fling me airborne. On the surrounding trails, she handled herself. She did not need me to prepare her for the trees that blocked the trail; she anticipated the jumps and cleared each one smoothly, and she adjusted her pace when the trail became narrow with sharp curves. She slowed if there was a large branch I needed to duck under. On the one day I recall joining a group for a longer ride through the woods and returning on a long dirt country road, Lady seemed eager to do more than trot or canter. Ahead of us was a straight stretch of road between two fields with no intersecting roads. I dropped the reins, leaned forward and whispered, “Let’s go, girl.”
Lady broke into a gallop, wind in her mane, her hooves floating over the dirt surface, and she carried me faster than I had ever ridden. I am certain her smile and happiness matched mine. Pure elation.
Summer soon ended as did my job at the stables. When school started for the fall, I decided to play football which meant less time riding. I was conflicted, but I was also a southern male whose father had played high school football and walked on to his college team. I liked the sport, and it seemed a sport I had to try after proving to myself that I sucked at baseball and was a klutz at basketball. (Soccer had not yet found our town in those days.) I was no superstar but learned that being allowed to avoid PE on game days identified me as member of the football team, a membership that attracted girls. My riding time continued to dwindle as the football season deepened.
One day, our family vet, Dr Randall, a good family friend, called the house. “Lady’s been injured. She got into a fight with another horse. She has a bad herniated stomach muscle from a kick and a gash in her forehead from a nail in the shed where she reared up. I can sew up the cut, but we need to give the hernia some time to see how she handles it. The only full repair would require putting her under general anesthesia, and I am not ready to recommend that.”
“When are you going to sew up her forehead?”
“This afternoon. Do you want to be there?”
“Definitely.” She was my horse, my responsibility, even if I had been less than diligent in the recent months.
I met Dr Randall at the stables. The crooked rip in Lady’s forehead was deep, angry and nearly to the bone. I held her neck and told her Dr Randall would fix her up and I would stay while he did. I wanted to comfort her while Dr Randall stitched the wound, but guilt swelled inside me. Tears began to flow.
“You okay, son?”
“Yessir. I’m fine. I just hate seeing her hurt like this.” I could not admit to him how my tears were more about my sense of failure than about Lady’s actual pain.
As Dr Randall pushed the needle through her flesh and pulled the stainless sutures taut, I stroked Lady’s neck and talked to her. As the negligent owner of a loving horse, I wanted to ease her anxiety as much as the local anesthesia eased her pain, but I could almost feel her pulling away from me.
I have no idea whether my presence might have prevented her injuries. It is one of those unanswerable questions. What would the present have been if the past had been different? How is any future affected by our actions in the moment? Is there an atmosphere that is shaped by the choices we make even when seemingly unrelated? Regardless, I knew in my heart that I should have been more attentive and caring. I could feel her isolation, and I was responsible.
I visited her as she recovered from the stitches in her forelock. I joined Dr Randall when he removed them. She remained aloof from my entreaties and affections. I understood and felt justified in my guilt.
Lady did not recover from the hernia. Dr Randall suggested that, so long as no one rode her hard, she would live a comfortable life. That meant no trails or jumping for me with her. I continued to play football. He soon found a farm where she could roam pastures freely. The rest of her long life she was content.