This one’s for you, D. (How wonderful it was to catch up with an old, true friend!) One of these days I’ll get back in the saddle again and join you for ride!
Several years ago Madeline (and Baby Rae when she really still was a baby) and I paid a visit to the mounted police headquarters with our homeschool group where we delighted in feeding carrots to massive, beautiful Percheron-Thoroughbred crosses. Madeline giggled when their velvety muzzles tickled the palm of her hand as she offered them carrots. My fearless little girl approached one of the beautiful and gargantuan beasts and despite my horse history, I found myself holding my breath as I watched her small hand pat a muscled neck.
The sweet smell of hay mingled with manure (yes, I love that smell; that’s how you know I’m a horse person) were almost too much for me that day. Standing in that damp stable surrounded by the familiar smells, a consuming nostalgia gripped me. When the officer leading our tour mentioned they had a horse for sale – a reject of the training program but a wonderful animal that would make “a fine show horse” (his words) – I had to remind myself of the million reasons why riding at that stage of my life just didn’t make sense. My husband was still in the throes of medical training, and we were on a tight budget. We also lived in a city where pasture land to gallop across was in short supply. And it wasn’t like I needed something else – an all-consuming hobby, no less – to occupy my life when I was busy raising one child and pregnant with my second.
Still, I couldn’t stop the obsession from taking a hold of me. I’ll forget about horses for awhile and then something will remind me of them like recently when I finally got around to watching Secretariat. Or the fact that Madeline went to horse camp back in May and truly was in horse heaven. (At the climactic horse show, she won first place for “Most Courageous” rider. The child has no fear.)
Or maybe all it takes is us passing a horse farm while driving somewhere, which happens more often now that we’re country mice more than city ones. Maybe it’s watching Rae who, believe it or not, is drawn to horses even more than my horse-crazed Madeline. When we can’t find Rachel, all we have to do is find her Rody or her rocking horse and she’s likely to be riding them to far off lands in her imagination. Often she asks me to read My Pony over and over again, and she insists the main character’s dream pony is real. “It’s real. I know it is,” she says with such fervor I want it to be true.
We also recently read Misty of Chincoteague aloud together, and both girls begged me to keep turning the pages. They love the story and the coal-black sketches of the horses. I’d forgotten how much I like Marguerite Henry books.
I’d also forgotten how obsessed horses can make little and big girls alike.
Horses most certainly are an obsession for some people (um, like me). Once you fall in love with the beauty of a horse and feeling the rhythm of its powerful body thunder beneath you, there’s no turning back. I enjoy sharing stories of my riding days with my little girls, and they love to see photographs like the ones I’ve included here of me as an awkward, 12-year-old girl with my first love – Sunny, my beloved Quarter horse. Sometimes just seeing those photos makes my eyes prick with tears.
I recently pulled out two of my favorite photos (pictured above and right) and scanned them. The snapshots are normally tucked away in a junk drawer that holds numerous snips of sentiment, everything but junk. I keep stealing glances at them – tattered, faded photos of a gawky 14-year-old proudly holding a prize ribbon up for the photographer (my dad, I think) and broadly smiling despite a mouth full of braces while my horse appears to pose, his perfect head tilted toward the camera.
Although it’s been years since I’ve ridden a horse (other than a few trail rides in between pregnancies here and there), horses were at the center of my childhood. While other little girls were playing Barbie, I was painting red and white stripes on chopsticks transforming them into jumping poles to create an elaborate course for my Breyer horse models to maneuver. I owned horse t-shirts, horse stuffed animals, and horse books. I think I even had panties imprinted with galloping steeds. I took the label “horse crazy” to an extreme.
For me, the love of horses was not just about the riding. It was about the overall care of a horse – the brushing of coats, the meticulous cleaning of hooves, and the braiding manes and tails. Long before I’d even begun to think about motherhood, I had something to take care of, a living creature to look after.
As a highly imaginative child – the kind of kid who didn’t see a rope hammock but a giant spider web instead and who noticed intricate designs in every cloud-splattered sky – I was also drawn to horses’ mystic, almost magical quality. When I was still too young to even spell the word “horse,” I remember seeing a pony with a coat like the copper of a penny at a small fair. While others stopped only momentarily to watch it swish away buzzing flies with its long tail, I was mesmerized. To me the pony was nothing less than Pegasus. My parents let me ride the pint-sized equine and though he loped around the ring barely lifting his hooves off the dust, I felt like I was flying. Even on the sluggish, little beast, being removed from the ground, off of my two feet, unleashed something inside of me, something free and full of hope.
When I around 7, my parents were beginning to see my passion for horses was more than just a fleeting fantasy and let me take riding lessons. Like the stable’s other riding novices, I began my equestrian training on Shadow, a beefy Appaloosa with a coat like a white canvas splattered with black ink droplets. My feverish excitement of being on top of a horse was tempered by his dull lassitude. The gentle gelding was no Secretariat, but he was predictable – just what a beginner needed.
Once I sharpened my equestrian skills, I graduated to a larger and feistier horse – King Rex – a noble but temperamental animal with racing Thoroughbred in his bloodlines. Rex offered more excitement. He had an innate competitiveness, and we would secretly race the other school horses until my trainer’s cautionary words, “Katie and Rex, slow down.” We would oblige, but we always felt restrained. We both wanted to run, to become part of the wind.
Although I grew to love the schooling horses, something was missing. The bonding wasn’t complete.
I wanted a horse I could call my own.
When I was only 10, my wish came true. (I was one lucky kid.) My parents surprised me with a golden Palomino. I named him Sunny and to say I was in love with him is an understatement. I was obsessed with him. If the pony from the fair was Pegasus, then Sunny and I were a centaur.
Not surprisingly, my love for horses was, at times, seen as overzealous. On the school bus, boys would sneer and whinny at me, clad in my horsy fashions and stomp their Nikes like hooves.
But their mockery could not keep me from first love. Instead it made me seek solitude on a horse even more. I wanted to ride Sunny all day, every day. And while some might argue that horses are peanut-brained animals dedicated to exertion and incapable of love, mine was not an unrequited love. I knew it. I felt it. Like a loyal dog, he came when I called. During lazy trail rides, he allowed me to stand on his back and spring off it like a diving board into a lake. He nuzzled me when I needed to be touched. A long and tortured battle with food and body image had begun within me when I was very young; yet, being on a horse made me feel small and powerful at the same time. Later, when I was in the throes of teenage angst, he would stand stone-still as I sat on his bareback, buried my nose into his mane, and let the tears spill out. I could smell his sweet, earthy aroma, and I would lose myself – at least for awhile. I’d forget about the teasing – the boys calling me “horsy girl.” I’d forget about the part of me that longed to be beautiful and popular like the other girls. I’d forget about the growing conflict going on inside me – the need to be a child versus the desire to be an adult.
Sadly, like so many first loves, my affection for Sunny began to slowly fade. My chubby torso slimmed. I got breasts. I got rid of my braces. The same boys who had called me “horsy girl” were now asking me out on dates. Feeding carrots to horses was replaced with searching for the perfect prom dress. Weekend trail rides were replaced with dates. A boy-crazy teenager took the place of horsy girl. Sunny was left to grazing in the pasture as I became absorbed in adolescence.
Before I left for college, I made the decision to sell Sunny. I didn’t even say goodbye. How could I? It’s rare a girl on the brink of becoming a woman has a chance – an exact moment – to give valediction to her youth. I couldn’t bare to face the finality of it all.
Joyce Carol Oates wrote that “there is no other love like the love for your first horse, but that love is so easy to forget, or misplace; it’s like the love for yourself, the self you outgrow.”
I did forget my first love for awhile, but not completely. I see that now. Bits and pieces of that love come back to me every now and then, especially when a beautiful horse or even just a stout, plain pony at the fair captivates my own daughters. Just seeing a horse now stirs something inside of me, a longing for the youth I so desperately wanted to rid myself of. There are even some days when I want Sunny back. I want to smell his sweet, horse smell. I want to feel the cadence of his resounding hooves beneath me as we gallop across an open field. I want the feeling of possibility and adventure I experienced when I was with him. I long for the horse and that self I’ve somehow outgrown. The spirited, carefree self, the innocence of youth that I can now so clearly see in my little girls.
“When can I start riding?” my girls, especially my Rachel frequently ask.
“I’m not sure,” I say. “Maybe seven.”
(Madeline got away with being only six this summer. Lucky girl!)
Silence. That will seem like a lifetime to a 4-year-old, but who knows if horses will still captivate Rae by then? Other interests could easily rope her in and replace her obsession with horses. In some ways, I hope this is only a fleeting fancy. When I see my little ones stand by a massive horse or even a smallish pony, I can’t help but be a bit nervous. (My husband is really nervous about them riding, but I’ve told him we can’t keep them from their love forever if this really is more than just a passing obsession.) I realized how much trust my parents put in me, my trainer, the horse and even God to allow a peanut like me to hop on top of a huge, powerful and sometimes unpredictable animal.
Wherever my children’s interests someday lie, I do hope they won’t be in such a hurry to grow up and shed themselves of whatever their first love proves to be – horses, soccer, Little House on the Prairie books, ballet, singing and dancing without abandon, or concern for their audience…
I’ve done plenty of things that make me feel independent in the “adult world” I was so eager to embrace. It would be easy to disregard my love for horses and the carefree quality of my childhood. But catching a glimpse of the photo of me smiling beside a beautiful animal of God’s creation, not worrying about my appearance (how could I? I smelled like horse manure and had hay in my hair), or considering money or building an impressive career, and now seeing my own children and their wonderment and innocence, is like holding onto a part of my once-forgotten youth.
What was your first love?