Monday, September 29, 2008


Horses appear to be on our brains. Jeanie and Bush Babe beat me to it with their separate but equal (and very, very well told) horse stories so I feel a little funny for bringing mine up--kind of as a distant third.

But I'm going to anyway because it was already on my mind when I sat down tonight; I can't think of my father and my childhood without thinking of horses. Funny how those animals can be so wrapped up in our psyches that it's difficult to separate them from the details of the life we rode them through. There's no way one can really remember riding without thinking about why we were doing it and where we were going (or what we were leaving behind) and who we were with and how those people made us feel. How quickly horses separated the people around us into two groups: those who understood our passions and those who didn't. And then there are those unforgettable lessons they taught us about our limits and our strengths and weaknesses. Like most people who've had them, horses left us better than they found us.

My Dad called today to see how our travel plans were coming. He's extremely excited about this trip. We talked about his newest batch of homemade wine and where we're going to sleep the boys, and showing them all the sites around Yellowstone, and . . . horses. Specifically my boys riding his horses, of which there are many.

I told him I was pretty sure the boys would love to and as I turned to let them answer the question they'd already been eavesdropping on, I considered the gift Dad I were very likely giving them and whether it it would change them the way it had me.

I blame my parents for the fever which first infected me when I was four years old. My Dad sat me on my mother's cowpony and let me ride around the back yard an hour at a time on his back. He was a patient beast who tolerated all manner of abuse around without so much as a hop. The first swat on the behind I ever got was for trying to make that horse run by using a stick. (Guess what Dad used?)

But from then on I was a lost cause. No amount of moving me to cities or suburbs, middle class neighborhoods to trailer parks stopped me from thinking about and dreaming about horses. In my head I owned hundreds of them. My shelves were lined with books by Dorothy Lyons, Margarite Henry, and Walter Farley. I played with a huge collection of model horses.

My own horse, a fifteen hand chocolate brown Appaloosa named Little Bit, was bought for me by my mother when I turned twelve. My parents had just divorced, Mom had remarried my stepfather, and we'd moved to a small town in South Texas, a community made by oil rigs and oil people. I went to school with the resulting snooty offspring. My whole life had been turned upside down at probably the worst time for an already socially awkward preteen. I didn't make friends easily as it was and I couldn't seem to connect with anyone from this slick moneyed culture. After six months, Mom decided that I needed something to go right.

My mother was a horse woman extraordinaire, the original horse whisperer. Even thirty bitter years later, Dad still tells awed tales of Mom's ability to calm, handle and work horses no one else could do anything with. So she saw to it that we did a year or so of ground work together with a lunge line before I was even allowed on Little Bit's back. Consequently we learned to communicate extremely well, reading each other's smallest movements, predicting what the other needed or wanted long before either asked. Little Bit never bucked and almost never purposefully unseated me. I barely needed a bit in her mouth and only used a saddle when we rode with other people. After we moved to the Ozarks in Arkansas, she and I travelled through miles and miles of hills and hollows and galloped up and down back roads with just my knees to keep me on. I learned a great deal about self control and patience (and balance) from those hours on her back.

But yes, I fell off more than once. And trailed her home a time or two--usually when I was riding faster than I should have been or after I'd been unfair or gruff with her or I'd asked something from her that was simply silly. Somehow one of our mad dashes would result in a tree limb that wasn't there before reaching out and grabbing me and throwing me to the ground, or she'd simply go right instead of the asked for left and I'd hang cartoon-like for a half-second in mid-air, until I came to the painful realization that she wasn't there anymore. Those were well-earned falls with lessons I was lucky to survive, looking back on it.

One time we got lost--I was in an area of the hills I'd never been in before and got turned around--and it was growing dark. I had visions of my parents having to send out a search party. And not a nice "oh my goodness honey are you okay. Would you like something hot to drink?" But the kind who take your shoes and order you to crawl all the way back on your knees so you don't ever forget your way home ever again (I was . . . errmm . . . a little over dramatic as a teenager). Fortunately for me, Little Bit was hungry. Hoping she was smarter than I was, I got off her and followed her for miles, all the way back to her bucket under the oak tree in the pasture. To her credit she didn't leave me behind and she certainly could have, but every time she got too far ahead she paused and waited patiently for her dimwitted rider to catch up.

When I went to college, my mother and stepfather, ever the gypsies, decided it was time for a dramatic change. They moved and left Little Bit in the care of some friends. After a year it became clear that they were never going to be in a position to come back for her and I came to the sad conclusion that she deserved better. You don't need to know how much I cried over that decision, probably one of the first mature, less selfish decisions I ever made.

But a woman in the community I'd grown up in heard she was for sale and sent me a long letter telling me how much she'd always wanted a horse and how she'd take very, very good care of her. Little Bit went to live with this woman who made an even bigger pet out of her than I had. She lived in their yard, was ridden by children and grandchildren, greeted every guest at their car, and developed a taste for candy, which she asked for every time someone stepped out the door. For Little Bit the ending to the story is a happy, well-deserved one.

In response to my question about riding, shouts of "yes" arose from my less than subtle young. I told Dad that none of them had ever ridden and that they'd need "soft" horses.

"Why?" he asked.

"Because I don't want them to fall off?"

"What's the big deal about falling off? You did it. I've done it, we both survived it," he pointed out.

Ruefully I considered the bone spurs in my neck from one rather bad spill off a horse--not Little Bit-- that did set out to toss me and succeeded. And I (very politely I thought) didn't point out his near-death experience two years ago when a panicked young horse reared and rolled over on top of him while he was on a cattle drive in the Montana back country. He really did nearly die before they got him down the mountainside and it landed him in the hospital for six months. The day after he came home, he was literally back in the saddle. The fever is just that bad for he and I.

Despite my over-protective leansings, ride my sons will. And if they come out of it with the same condition, we'll just have to figure out how to pass one of Dad's ponies off as an animated lawn ornament so the neighborhood association doesn't grow suspicious. If all else fails, we'll move to Montana.


Scotty said...

Nice story, Mary - reminds me of how many years it's been since I've ridden a horse myself.

There was a time when I was about 15 when we were getting ready to go cattle mustering on a friend's property. I was on a friend's horse (a feisty thing) and he said to me, "Whatever you do, don't raise the reins up high."

Did I listen?

Nooooo, I was gonna impress the pretty niece of the property owner with my riding prowess - I lifted the reins to give the horse a giddy-up and it took off like a rocket across the yard with me attempting to hang on and regain control.


That's the sound of me hitting the generator cable strung across the yard and being knocked off said horse in a most undignified manner.

She rode past me and smiled while I wiped the dust off my sore arse and the bruises from my ego.


Nic Sebastian said...

I love your stories! And, lucky, lucky boys with such a treat coming up!

Debby said...

Alas, I am not a horsewoman. Er. Maybe not so alas, based on some of the horse stories I've been hearing.

jeanie said...

Gorgeous story, Mary.

One of my biggest heartswells at the moment is the relationship between my own father and 'Salina - based mainly on her being his best jillaroo!

You got tears from me, too, when Little Bit was no longer in your life but moved to that wonderful lady's.

Pencil Writer said...

Great story. Wish I'd been able to have more horse riding experiences in my life. I think horses are nobel animals. My youngest daughter recently confessed her life-long love the horses! Why didn't I know before? And now she has friends who have horses and she's "a natural" according to some of them! Who knew? Do I get to love horses vicariously now? My poor old joints may not take well to riding again. It's been well over 30 years since my last (painful) experience. But still, I love the creatures!

Mary Paddock said...

Great story Scotty. :) It's a shame there wasn't a video camera available.

Hi Nic! Thank you for the compliment.

Debby--the pleasure way out weighs the aches and pains.

Aww Jeanie, thank you.

PW--I haven't ridden in years. It's never too late to start riding. Just choose a quiet horse. :)