Random Memories of a Fine Old Man

First Game of Tag

From the schoolbus, I saw a flash of roan.

Thirteen years old, totally in love with horses for as long as I could remember, and absolutely useless with them since I hadn't saved enough money yet for regular riding lessons, I still figured that if there was a loose horse at the riding stable, I had better be the one to catch it.

As soon as the school bus let me off at my place a mile down the road, I spun and galloped back the way it had come. It was a well-traveled mile and this certainly wasn't the first time I had galloped it -- you can't tell a horse-crazy girl who lives a mile from your stable that she isn't welcome.

Of course I had met the chunky, strange little roan before, and I liked him quite a bit -- he had four legs, after all, and a tail, and (more or less) a mane, too. If it qualifed as "equine," it was beloved in my book. But in my few visits to the stable, no one horse stood out above the others. I loved Stuff because he was a horse, just like I loved Fancy and Jack because they were horses.

I was not, however, surprised that Stuff was the one who was loose around the farm. Having met him only a few times, I had already noticed that no one ever rode the big pink horse -- and you couldn't look at him without noting the mischieveous expression he always wore. Trotting up the stable drive, I was just a little bit wary of him. I hadn't led him out to pasture, hadn't groomed him or brought him his hay. I didn't know quite what to expect from this strange horse.

When I approached, Stuff trotted toward me, interested. I drew back, wondering if he were interested in making friends or in stepping on me, but he stopped politely nearby, cocking his head as if considering whether or not I was a threat to his freedom.

"Hey, brat," I said. As they left my mouth, the words sounded familiar. Maybe, on some level, I already knew how many times I would speak them over the next twelve years.

He flicked an ear in answer.

Undecided, I looked from him to the barn and back to him. Finally I made up my mind and went for a halter.

Stuff took one look at it and galloped joyously away.

I trotted after him, huffing and puffing, terrified he would leave the farm and end up in traffic and it would be my fault for getting him all stirred up. But the farm was -- as farms tend to be -- covered in a giant horsey salad bar. As he stopped to graze on a patch of clover, I slipped the halter over his head and clumsily buckled it.

Stuff wheeled away, infuriated that I had snuck up on him. He danced his big, chunky body sideways away from me, half bucking and half cantering, casting disdainful looks over his shoulder at this awkward kid who had the nerve to try to catch him.

I thought, I should quit while I'm behind.

I thought, No one will even have to know I was here.

I thought, Oh, crap, he's still got a halter on.

I had no choice but to catch him.

Frustrated and not just a little bit frightened of the silly horse, I decided I had better give his owner a call. (Why didn't this occur to me in the first place? Because then I wouldn't have had an excuse to try to play horse owner!)

I turned and took several steps toward the barn. The path was rocky, but it shouldn't have been quite this loud with just my sneakered feet. Slowly, sneakily, I cast a curious glance over my shoulder --

And, sure enough, there he was, the curious horse who couldn't stand to be ignored, following along only a couple of feet away.

"Aha," I muttered. "I'm onto you now!" I turned my back to him again, feeling very proud of my horse psychology. Continuing my slow walk toward the stable, I was thrilled when I heard his hoofbeats start up again behind me.

Curious, I began to jog.

He began to trot.

I turned to face him and he wheeled away, cantering a few strides and then stopping to stare at me, asking me what I was planning to do next.

I turned away from him --

And RAN. He cantered until he caught up with me and then dropped into a lively trot.

That attention-hungry animal followed me right up to the stable door, where I whirled and grabbed his halter before he knew what hit him. I proudly led him into his empty stall and latched the door behind him. He rattled his feed tub amiably, seemingly unconcerned that he had lost our little game. He seemed to be trying to make it clear to me that he had DECIDED to come inside and that was the only reason I had been able to catch him.

Which I guess was true, come to think of it.

Only now did I finally dial the stable owner -- who, it turned out, had purposely turned the horse loose to get some exercise because her paddock wasn't finished.

That was the first of the many hundreds of times Stuff and I would play our game of chase. He also fetched and chased cars. He was definitely Girl's Best Friend.


Horse Show

There had never been a horse show night I didn't end up crying. Horse crazy my entire life, I was startled at 12, when I finally started lessons, to learn two things about myself:

1) I was the exact opposite of a natural at this, and

2) I was SCARED TO DEATH of these big creatures.

I rode for a few years before taking a lesson horse to a show. By then, I was best friends with the big pink horse down the aisle, but he was too nutty to take to a show yet, and I was sort of glad I would be riding a sweet, bomb-proof baby doll instead of my favorite mischief-maker.

The sweet, bomb-proof baby-doll ended up panicking at the show, right along with me. I ended up in tears that night, though thinking back on it, I almost cry again because I'm laughing so hard.

My next show was with Stuff, and it was bad. We almost ran over a judge, and on the video of that day, over top all of the other sounds of a horse show, you keep hearing this persistant horse-scream. Three guesses whose voice it is.

So my third show, years later, was BOUND to be a disaster. Except I didn't want it to be, so I practiced hard and I hoped for the best and I refused to panic.

Stuff must have picked up on my resolve, because he was CALM that day at the horse show. He strolled peacefully about in the warm-up ring, he didn't try to kill any judges, and he even drank water back at the horse trailer, usually something he refused to do if the water tasted different from his water back home.

We took third place in our class and had a lovely evening lazing around the show grounds. Hanging his yellow ribbon on the horse trailer, I gave Stuff a kiss and told him I'd be right back; I wanted to go watch my baby niece ride in the stick horse class on someone's borrowed walking stick, whom she lovingly named "Brown." I left Stuff peacefully munching out of his hay net by the trailer.

I was halfway across the show grounds when I heard the shout behind me: "LOOSE HORSE!"

I didn't even have to turn around. I would know that arrogant horse- scream in my sleep.

It took us fifteen minutes to catch the nutty creature. He was very proud of himself, cantering up to me in the field, leaving a trail of panicked ponies and angry 4H-ers in his wake. Broken lead rope swinging crazily from his halter, he tossed his head as if asking, "There, now, didn't I make things more interesting?"

Of course you did, brat. Every single minute.


Winter Morning

I woke up to a cold, frosty morning. Used to be, I would shove my feet into my boots and pull on my barn coat, the rest of me still in pajamas. I would shiver my way out to the barn, blinking sleep out of my eyes and with my hair all over the place.

It wouldn't be all the way light yet, but winter dawn would be doing that thing it does, putting on its dramatic show, red and pink streaks coming up over the mountains. Snorts of steamy horse breath would meet me at the gate. He snorted more, was louder and more demonstrative about good-mornings, in the winter. Maybe he knew I liked being able to see his breath on the winter air. Maybe he was just full of energy or trying to keep himself warm.

There was a chance I had remembered my gloves. There was a bigger chance I hadn't; that's how most mornings were. I would uncurl my frozen fingers long enough to work the gate latch, the one that had to be so complicated because Stuff could open anything simple. Could open anything at all, if he had practiced long enough. If he couldn't find one he could open, he would chew the fence down or just jump the whole thing anyway, so I don't know why he bothered, but most mornings I found him inside the paddock, just playing at unfastening the gate latch.

I had to use my shoulder to move him back away from the gate, he was so excited to see me (and, more importantly, to realize the imminence of breakfast). He danced backward a couple of steps, tossing his black mane, stopping his constant motion only long enough to lower his head and greet Carter, once my cat, but after the first few weeks, more Stuff's cat than mine. Carter lived in the barn, played with strands of Stuff's tail, slept on Stuff's broad back. He was a horse-crazy little animal and Stuff loved him.

Scooping Carter up onto Stuff's back, I would make my way past both of them and measure out the grain with freezing hands. God, what possessed me to buy a metal scoop instead of a plastic one? Now I know why the broad, brightly colored plastic ones were more expensive than the metal. I feel like the metal scoop has frozen to my fingers and I'll never be able to put it down. I'll walk around all day waving it like the villian in a bad horror movie, scaring small children.

But when I uncurl my stiff, cold hand, the scoop falls away into the grain bin, which smells of molasses and something deeper and sweeter. While Stuff munches the hay and Carter walks circles on the horse's back, getting comfortable, I cut the hay string at the knot so I can pull out the strings without messing up the hay, a trick I just barely learned before I brought Stuff home, and I'm still proud of it because it makes me feel like a real horse person. For the entire sixteen years I've been alive, that's what I've been trying to be, and now I feel like it's finally true.

Carter meows from Stuff's back, loud. All right, all right. I pull the cat food back out of its hiding place, nestled down in the grain bin, and pour Carter's breakfast, reminding him, "If you ate mice, like you're supposed to, I wouldn't always have to feed you cat food." Carter purrs like I've given him a compliment and his cat crunching is loud, but can't compete with the horse jaws crunching nearby.

When Stuff's got hay in his net and grain in his feed tub, and I've chopped the thin layer of ice that's started forming over his water bucket (and picked out all the loose hay -- he's so picky about his water being clean), I hurriedly shove my frozen fingers up under his mane and find a warm furnace burning there. Aaaah. After a minute, I can feel my hands again, glad for his long, thick, Paso Fino mane that is such a pain to keep untangled.

When Stuff moves from his grain to his hay, I climb up onto the side of his stall. I sit there for a minute. Then, unable to resist, I slide myself onto his warm, shaggy back and sit there instead, practicing two-point or pretending to post, while he munches away at his breakfast.

Later we will ride, and I'm looking forward to it, though my anticipation is threaded through with nerves and doubt. He is too much horse for me. I have always known that, but I have never cared. Just five months ago, I bought him, this best friend of mine whom I have known and loved since I was twelve. Who cares, I think, sitting there, whether I am good enough to ride him yet? We have a whole lifetime together to figure that out.

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Amazing what happens when you write. You start out with "I would" in the past tense and end up writing in the present tense, transporting yourself totally into the center of that memory. What a treasure.

And what a treasure he was, and the lifetime I spent with him -- his. Shorter than I would have liked, but then again, one hundred years, one thousand, would have been shorter than I liked.

He really was too much horse for me then, when I bought him at 16, but when I bought him, I bought a best friend for a decade. Not many people can say that.


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