I was a horse-crazy kid from birth.
When other children were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, their answers were things like "teacher", "doctor", "fireman" or even "President". I wanted to be a horse. Not just have a horse, be a horse. I spent hours galloping around my back yard, perfecting my technique for the metamorphosis that would surely occur if I just worked at it.
It took my parents some years to convince me that becoming a sleek, glossy, four-legged equine simply wasn't in the realm of possibility for little human kids. Even if you prayed really hard and could whinny almost perfectly and knew just how to kill a rattlesnake threatening your foal. I argued my position, but in the end, I had to admit defeat.
So I settled for second-best, which was to obsess about horses. I drew pictures of them constantly. I had an imaginary friend who was a horse. His name was Sundance. I practiced "riding" him every day on the playground at school, supremely indifferent to the jeers of the more sophisticated nine year olds. I ran for the horse pasture at the edge of our local park, coaxing the occupants to come take my wilted offerings of grass and dandelions. I read every printed word about horses that I could get my hands on, from The Black Stallion to My Friend Flicka to Misty of Chincoteague to horse care handbooks to magazines and 4-H flyers. I posted more centerfolds from horse-related magazines on my walls than a teenage boy with a stack of Playboys and a lock on his bedroom door.
My passion was complete. It was all-consuming. It was also, alas, mostly unrequited. Our family didn't have the sprawling ranch with the rolling pastures of my dreams. My mother was slightly scared of horses and my dad viewed them as smelly nuisances best replaced by cars. Still, they indulged me as much as they could, with books and Breyer figurines and trips to the local rodeos. They did their best, but I still spent a lot of time feeling frustrated at not having regular access to horses.
When I was 11, however, my dad's company threw the company picnic at a place outside of town called Plum Creek Stables. I remember lying in bed at dawn, the light just beginning to pink up the spring sky. There were knots in my stomach and I'd been up for hours already. You see, the most coveted activity planned for the day was a trail ride. Not a little kid's ride, where weary, dusty ponies shuffled around in an unsatisfying, never ending circle. A real trail ride, and I was old enough to go by myself with the group!
I must have driven my parents crazy that morning, as I nagged them through breakfast, their second cups of coffee, chores, loading the car, and every other thing they insisted we complete which did not involve any horses. Finally, we arrived at the stables. I paid no mind to the groups of my dad's co-workers and friends. I impatiently brushed off my mother's request for help setting up our things. I didn't want to eat hot dogs or even have a soda. I ran right for the paddock area where the horses were saddled and waiting. Looking back, it's likely that none of them were particularly outstanding examples of horseflesh. They were resigned trail nags, selected solely for their ability to (mostly) ignore and endure squealing, overly excitable adolescents and half-drunk weekend cowboys.
But I didn't care. To me, every one of them was an enchanting creature, the carrier of noble bloodlines from ancient, mysterious lands. I was surrounded by beauty and grace. I was in heaven.
When we got to ride, I was somewhat disappointed that I wasn't chosen to ride my favorite, a large bay gelding named Cheyenne. He had been earmarked as being for "experienced" riders, and despite my surely relevant experience reading twenty seven books on riding, I was passed over. Still, my bruised feelings were soothed when I was paired up with a little gray Appaloosa named Blue, who was small but just feisty enough to satisfy me. I tried hard to impress our Trail Guide by sitting up straight, keeping my heels down and out, and moving with the horse, as the books had instructed. With all that effort, I'm sure I looked exactly like what I was: a clumsy, plump little girl with messy, flyaway hair and a dirty face, who had never been on a horse in her life, yanking awkwardly on the reins and hunching in the saddle, wearing a smile that would light up a city.
Somehow during the 30 minute ride, Blue became "my" horse. When we came back, I suspiciously eyed his next rider. I paced the picnic grounds while the second group was out and dashed to see Blue as soon as he was back. I'm sure I was an annoying little pest, but the staff took pity on me and let me brush Blue as he rested, one leg cocked up at a time, lazily swishing away the flies with his straggly tail. I fed him hay cubes and carrots. He snorted and sneezed green goo all over me. I told him all my girlish horse dreams and fantasized that my parents owned Plum Creek. He seemed to nod and understand.
All too soon, it seemed, the day came to an end. My parents, tired and probably half-crocked at that point, shooed us into the car as the sun started to fade. I watched the horses as long as I could see the stables, chattering incessantly to my dad about horses, the stables, how fun it was, did he see me ride Blue, how did I look, did he think we could come back soon, did he think his work might have another party there soon? All without taking a breath, too. He never got a word in edgewise.
I didn't know it, but sometime during that day, my parents had spoken to the owners. They had probably noticed me clinging to their horse and talking to him for hours and hours and hours. The next morning, as I moped around the house, they said they had a surprise for me. Of course, my first thought was that my parents had purchased a horse for me at the stables! Maybe it was Blue! Hey, you gotta dream big, right?
That wasn't the surprise, but I was delirious with joy anyway when I found out I would be starting riding lessons the following Saturday. Oh! Bliss! I screamed. I called my best friend. I kissed my parents over and over. My mom and I spent the afternoon shopping for a suitable pair of boots and new jeans, and I was dreaming of the weekends to come.
The lessons were everything I wanted and more. I was in a "semi-private" deal, which could mean as many as 4 students, but that rarely happened. Mostly, there would be two of us. A few lucky days, I was the only student. Not only that, but we were expected to learn to do everything for our horses. So my 30 minute lesson actually took about 2 hours, because we had to collect our assigned mount from the stable, get the tack and inspect it, saddle up the horses, then we rode. At the end, we were responsible for removing all the tack, cleaning it as needed, putting it away, watering our horses, grooming them, and putting them up. I did it all, and oh, I loved it. Every minute. I dawdled and lingered and came early and offered to help my instructor, Carol, with any menial chore she would let me do for her. She was so capable and confident on horses. I was duly impressed and I tried to act just like her.
On the final day of the weeks of lessons, I was devastated. I didn't pester my parents for more, because I knew it had been an expensive extravagance for our family for me to even have 10 lessons. My parents didn't know I had heard them talking, but I did, and I felt guilty. We weren't poor, but we weren't rich, and my mom was a SAHM then. I put up my horse that last day and tried hard to be thankful and happy, but inside, I was desperate and sad. If only I could think of a way I could still come back that wouldn't cost my parents any money. Suddenly, it dawned on me: if I worked here, for free, no one would have to pay for me to show up!
So I cornered my mother and poor Carol. I cajoled. I begged. I wheedled. I promised I wouldn't get in the way. I said I'd spend all day just mucking out stalls. No one would have to pay me or watch out for me. Now, I was not a particularly outspoken or brave child. So for me to corral two adults and basically brow-beat them into allowing my inexperienced 11 year old self to work weekends at a stable for no pay is a testament to how deep my obsession ran. My earnest little face and voice probably helped a little, but in the end, I think they just wanted me to shut up, figuring I would tire of shuffling horse poop easily enough, and then both of them would be off the hook.
Little did they know. My mother would drop me off, early in the still-chilly mornings, clutching my sack lunch and bounding down the gravel driveway toward the office, which was just inside the big white ranch house. Carol would give me a list of chores to do and off I would go, toting a pitchfork and shovel as big as I was in a wheelbarrow, determined to do a great job. Into the cool darkness of the barns I would trundle, calling out to the big draft horses who waited to pull the hayrides each day, and admiring the glamorous, edgy purebreds who were boarded there. After a few weeks, they got to know me, and would hang their heads over the doors as I came in, angling for a scratch or a treat, if Carol told me I could let them have one.
I filled my wheelbarrow with manure and dirty straw over and over, hauling it out to the manure pile after each load. I scrubbed saddles and bridles. I filled the water troughs. I passed out oats and hay, checking off who had been fed carefully on Carol's list. I swept the tack room and raked the paddock. It was hard work, but I didn't mind at all. After the last of spring turned into summer, and I didn't give up no matter what she threw at me even on the hottest days, I think I surprised her, and earned some coveted respect from my rather curmudgeonly mentor.
If the day's schedule was light, Carol began letting me do more with the horses. I got to help her bathe the "big boys" as she called the draft horses, and rub them with some strong-smelling liniment to ease their sore shoulders and legs. I got to groom the trail horses and get them ready for the day's rides. Sometimes, if the groups were small and Carol was in a good mood, I was put on an available horse (maybe even Blue!) and allowed to go out on trail rides with her.
My crowning glory came one morning as Karen and Randi, a couple of the college girls who worked summers, were heading into the thickly wooded pasture to bring in the trail horses and the boarders who'd been sent out to graze for the night. I was gazing wistfully after them as I put my lunch away and started to head out to the shed for my wheelbarrow & tools, when Randi called out to me to hurry up, Jenny was sick and they needed some help bringing in the horses, did I want to come? My heart pounding, I looked at Carol carefully. She barely glanced up from the stack of bills she was reading, but she did say two, magic little words:
So I ran as fast as I could to catch up with my unexpected allies. I knew what to do already, because I'd spent hours watching the older girls do this exciting task. We were to lead and drive the willing horses into the paddock, and then, and then...we were to grab onto a horse we knew, mount them bareback, and literally round up and drive the wilder ones in while we rode!
I was nervous, mounting bareback from the ground was hard even for better riders, especially on an unrestrained animal. But I would not miss this big chance, I vowed. After the tame group came in, I found my friendly horse and got up on the first try, then guided him with my legs back up to the pasture to collect the rest. It was gloriously like my fantasy rides. As we thundered down the hill, whooping and hollering behind a cluster of recalcitrant stragglers, Carol was waiting at the gate. When I passed, rosy-faced and triumphant, clinging tight to the back of one of the very horses I'd admired but not been allowed to ride before, she gave me a small nod and smile. It was one of the happiest days of my life.
People tell me horses stink. I suppose to those who do not love them, they do. I only rarely notice the smell, myself. Though the years went by and I got lost in puberty, boys, parties, and bad choices, the little girl who loved horses above all else never really went away. One day, yes, I will have that small ranch with the rolling hills and pastures. I will muck out stalls and haul horse poop and hay, and rub liniment into tired muscles while I watch my breath fog in the cold autumn mornings. I will have a horse of my own, one that nobody rides but me, and I will thunder down the hill behind the stragglers we chase in. And because my son is already displaying the same affinity for animals that I have, he will have lessons as soon as someone will take him (currently age 6 is the youngest). So one day, on that ranch, he will be beside me, riding with the easy skill of a horse-crazy kid who has been around horses his whole life. That will be success enough for me.