Saturday, August 16, 2008

Horse Persons

When I was a child, there was only one thing in the universe that I ever wanted to do, and that was to ride horses. My father owned a Quarter Horse mare named Lady. She was a fairly small sorrel horse, not particularly beautiful, but she was my soul mate.

My mother told of a day when she missed me from the house. A missing toddler on a farm was very alarming. We lived by a county road, there was large stock tank full of water, and a river nearby. There was also a new mare turned into the corral with Lady and her companion. The two mares were having a difficult time sorting out who was boss. They had been kicking and biting and chasing one another with great malice for sometime, both determined to be dominant.

When Mom realized I was not in the yard either, she went directly to the barn. She found me there with all three horses. I was standing behind Lady with my arms wrapped around her back legs. Mom was faint with fear, afraid to come into the barn to get me, thinking it might trigger the horses to kick one another. Mom used all her powers of persuasion to coax me out of the barn. She said as soon as I was out of there Lady let the new mare have it with both hind hooves - a powerful, vengeful kick.

I have no memory of this. As a mother myself now, I can imagine how scared Mom was when she found me with all three of those horses crammed in the space of a couple of barn stalls. But I know Lady would never have done one thing to harm me. There was a connection between us unlike any I have had with another animal since.

At some point, Lady was moved across the river to my grandfather's farm. If I could have ridden her every day of my life, it would not have been enough. I lived and breathed for the times when I could go to Grandpa's and ride the horses. Most often I could not ride, but when I could, I was free and happy and in control of my own destiny.

All of the grandchildren rode Lady, and she babysat each of them in turn. But she was not an old, broke down, retired cow pony! She was a serious cow horse and knew exactly how to cut a steer out of the herd.

Once I became strong enough to open and close the gates between the pastures, I could ride Lady anywhere I wanted to go. One day I was in a pasture with a herd of cattle, out of sight of the house. I thought I would just see what Lady could do. At the first few turns, she was not sure what was going on. After all, since when did little kids work cattle? About the third cut, she got the message and it was all I could do to hang on! It was impressive the way that horse expertly stayed on that steer and separated him from the herd. It took me a little bit to dissuade her. If things had turned out differently in life, there might have been a time when I could have ridden Lady and helped my Grandpa with the cattle. Lady and I would have been a great team.

There were times when the strife between my parents caused by my father's alcoholism weighed heavily on me. Sometimes as a child, I was burdened by a sadness for my father that I did not understand. Even if I could not ride Lady, if I could just be near to lean against her warm belly, or brush her copper neck, all was right in my world. I think Lady felt the same. She would put her forehead against my heart and sigh, my bony chest hardly large enough for a horse to rest her face against.

I could write a book of my adventures with Lady. My grandparents lived by the Little Walnut River in Butler County, Kansas. There was a field road that followed the high river bank. It was a perfect place to ride a horse. It was a race track, a wagon train trail, a parade route, an Indian hunting ground - whatever my imagination could invent, that was what the dirt road became. I could fly down that road on Lady's broad back, my hands twisted in her mane, my skinny legs strong enough to keep me securely aboard the galloping horse. The hours I spent with Lady were the best times of my childhood. In a certain consideration, those times were the best of my life.

I had dreams of riding Lady as a genuine cowgirl, as a barrel racer, or helping my Grandpa but they never came about. My father died an untimely death. My mother remarried, and my family moved away from my grandparents, my hometown, and away from my beloved Lady. I still saw her a few times but eventually there was that last time. Like so many last times, it passed unnoticed, and I have no conscious memory of the very last time I saw her.

My life was headed toward a period of great unhappiness and chaos. As I made my way through those difficult years, always when the despair was deepest, I would dream of Lady. Often they were nightmares of something being terribly wrong with Lady. Of course, they were warning of what was wrong with me or my life. But somehow those dreams always seemed to give me what I needed to get through one more day, one more disappointment, one more crazy adventure.

Life carried on and I eventually learn how to live more gracefully, successfully putting to rest my demons until at long last, after several false starts, I now have my own little "farm". I have not one, but two, horses. The boss horse person is a sorrel Quarter Horse mare, Ginger. I love her dearly, but she does not necessarily return the favor, at least not the way Lady did. Ginger likes me okay, but she prefers that I not lean on her big belly or wrap my arms around her neck. In fact, she prefers that I not ride her, so I do not.

The other horse person is Annie. She is a mutt of a horse - kind of lumpy in her belly and skinny-necked. Maybe she has some thoroughbred in her. She has an ugly face and forthright personality. She has beautiful big boned legs and she loves to run. I went to the sale barn in Wakarusa one Saturday night when a January snow storm was blowing in from Nebraska, to look about a pregnant appaloosa mare destined for the slaughter house in Texas. But that horse wanted nothing to do with me. I already had an uppity horse. Why would I want two uppity horses? I wanted to look at the others.

When I walked out into the pen my heart ached for all of those unwanted horses destined for the slaughter. There was ugly little Annie, matter-of-factly eating a sprinkling of alfalfa hay with her best friend by her side. There were some beautiful horses in that pen but Annie was friendly and open and curious and unafraid. Someone had combed out her beautiful mane but there was ice frozen in her matted coat. Her hooves were in bad shape - she was potbellied and skinny - and darn it, she was ugly. But she was the one.

So, now I have two horse persons and I am their indentured servant. I do not ride either horse, so they have a fairly boring life. I have to buy hay, throw bales around, shovel horse manure, scrub the water tank, pay for shots and fly spray and a farrier, chop ice all winter long so they can drink, tote 50 pound bags of feed around - and I am OLD! But oh, how much I love having horses in my life again. There might come a day when I decide Ginger is going to let me ride her and go where I want to go, but probably not. It does not matter. Even if she does not like it, I still hug her neck whenever I want.

Post Script: The appaloosa mare and her unborn foal were not sent to slaughter, but purchased from the kill buyers and saved.

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