Pride and Grace
We were all young once. And every time we look back at it, we're appalled. "How could I ever have been that young?" The gauche glory of youth is best wasted on the young, in my own opinion. Now that my hair is threading with silver, I look back on those times with fondness, but not with longing to repeat them. No one in their right mind would, I think.
As younglings, we pulled pranks that weren't safe, pestered our parents and other adults to distraction, and worried every possible avenue of amusement to rags. Why? Because, as children, while we may have known better, we just didn't really care. We were young, stupid -- and immortal in our own minds.
My much older brother had a wonderfully well-trained Appaloosa stallion named Elam's Red Tomahawk*. He kept him in the same barn, one that belonged to some relatives, with my own gawky blue roan gelding. They were an odd pair for stablemates, and they got along well despite it. 'Hawk was as dignified and organized as four-years-old Blue was goofy and awkward. The older stallion, about as old as I was at the time, was rodeo-trained and the gelding was a rank, raw amateur. Both horses were gentle and well-mannered, not a violent or mean bone in them that I was ever able to see.
Yet I was forbidden, as a young girl of about twelve or thirteen years of age, to ride the stallion. Considering how clumsy the silly roan gelding was, that was hilarious to me at the time. I did understand their logic; I simply thought I knew the horse better than that and considered him to be harmless and mannerly. On rare occasions, I was permitted to take 'Hawk around the yard under close supervision. It wasn't enough, and I let them know it. He was a great horse, and silly Blue wasn't even in the running with him.
Regardless, I was forbidden to handle him unattended, simply because he was an uncastrated male. I fumed.
Things got worse when a neighbor's nephew moved in with them near us. My brother hired him to care for 'Hawk. I still took care of Blue, in the same barn, so it seemed ridiculous to me. Worse, the boy had no experience or understanding of horses whatsoever.
Every time we took the horses out for a little exercise and a long drink of lake water, I had to put the saddle on the Appaloosa. The big boy couldn't tie the complicated girth knot on the western-style saddle. The bitless mechanical hackamore, a type of bridle, had the wanna-be groom completely confused until I, some three years younger than he, showed carefully how it worked and how to apply it to the horse's head.
Blue was a pacer that Dad hoped to get trained to do a showy running walk -- he failed utterly, having no grace -- so I sat a "postage stamp" saddle on him. This was an English-style saddle with a cut-back in the top front, the pommel, to allow a high withers to protrude. It's a style of saddle that once was very popular in this area on Tennessee Walking Horses. (Ours, which I still have, was made in Buenos Aires, Argentina.) Blue did have a few simple tricks he'd try, one of which was bloating with air to prevent the girth strap on the saddle from being properly tightened. Lazily, I often asked the boy-groom to use his more considerable strength to get the buckle-on girth tight. Making sheep's eyes with a red, embarassed face, he always did as I asked.
One day it occurred to me that I might work this saddle thing to my advantage. In the process, I could make all those grown people (who kept me from a really good horse) into liars in the process. I rolled the idea around all night, and the next day, which fell on a sunny spring weekend, I put my plan into action.
Pulling Blue from his stall, I tied him to the hitch-rail and went for the tack. In a few minutes, along came the big, awkward boy, thrashing through the weeds to do his little job of caring for 'Hawk. Ignoring him, I slipped the long-shanked broken-style bit into my horse's mouth and buckled the bridle on properly and hung the reins aroung his neck in a loose but safe knot. A light brushing removed all the bits of bedding from his coat.
I swung the saddle from the rail I'd hung it on and up onto his speckled back. As usual, I buckled it in a barely snug fashion, just enough to hold it on, and went about checking his feet. Shoes all there, all tight, everything clean. The horse, as was his habit, followed me the whole time with large, comical eyes. He had to look at everything carefully, as if he couldn't believe it was real.
Waiting, I combed Blue's mane and tail out a little, though I'd done a thorough job of it the night before. Blue checked clumsily for a carrot nub, which he got.
"Hey, can you come tie this thing again? I can't ever get it to work!" His male pride was bruised by the grace with which I slid the whole knot into place within a few heartbeats.
Casually, I suggested, "Why don't I walk him outside and tighten this while you buckle up Blue's?"
He fell for it. "Sure. I can do that." The boy walked toward my goofy young horse, who was peering nearsightedly around the barn.
Keeping a straight face, I nodded and walked 'Hawk past them and into the sunlit green grass. I tightened the girth and swung up. Keeping to the grass, I walked him fast for the end of the driveway and out onto the blacktop road. As soon as his hooves made a loud noise on the hard surface of the main road, the boy's head popped out of that old barn.
He yelled something unintelligible. I waved back, grinning like a kid in a candy shop. But I didn't stop. I didn't even slow down! In fact, I hit the end of our driveway, which was nearby, and let 'Hawk charge up that hillside like the athlete he was. The grass was soft and springy, and that horse did love to run. He felt good, and so did I. At the top of the hill, I went to the left, toward the longer stretch of open road. 'Hawk had his ears up and a bounce in his step. We got along well together, and he was enjoying the outing with a much lighter rider than usual.
The boy, left with Blue and sure he was in trouble for letting me on the stallion, rode to the right, where he could see my father walking along the lakeshore, picking up bits of fishermen's leavings. Bait cups and pop cans, small things that got left behind. From the other side of the lake, I could see Dad wave for him to come closer, and I figured that once the tale was told, I was in trouble. I didn't care much; it was worth it.
I rode 'Hawk up to the upper pasture gate and spun him on his heels. Squalling like a banshee, I went with the stud as he rolled around on his hinders and lunged into a gallop on the hard-packed creek-rock road. A woman in wide-seated, tight pink polyester pants was fishing just below, and I hadn't noticed her. She was startled by the ruckus and also spun, only to land on her butt in the lakeside mud. I caught the mini-drama out of the corner of my eye and chuckled, still swinging in the first few strides of that glorious, graceful gallop.
We rounded the first big bend and shifted to a slow lope, then a neat, collected trot. The winding road went down to a muddy, slick hairpin turn just ahead, and I eased him to a walk for it. Just as we passed the muddy mess, I looked over to see where the boy and Dad were. The boy was just coming up to where Dad stood on a sharp point of land very popular with fishermen.
Riding up to my father, he stopped the gawky gelding a few feet away. There, he attempted a dismount from the slick, flat saddle and narrow, chrome-plated stirrups. It was a combined case of a boy's growing body, no understanding or practice with the equipment, and pure clumsiness. And it failed. Miserably, hilariously.
That big boy's rump hit the ground right under Blue. I watched, knowing that he'd ache for a couple days, but it was still funny. Then the unthinkable, real humor hit.
That rediculous, silly horse, Blue ... spraddled out his front legs and poked his long, graceful neck back through them somehow. He peered back at the strangely-posed figure beneath his belly in that big-eyed, nearsighted way -- almost upside down.
Dad flopped to the ground, laughing fit to burst, slapping his cap on the grasses as he wiped the tears from his eyes. I was not far away, as the crow flies, and I saw it all. Laughing so hard it hurt, I let 'Hawk carry me around the lake to them.
In the years that followed, I rode 'Hawk many times. We even showed in a Western Pleasure class at a show, from which we were amicably disqualified once the judge realized he was a whole horse and not a gelding at all. The boy still did some of his care, but I was permitted more access to better horses after that, and quite a few of them.
Blue? Well, he didn't stay long. No one can put a horse in a clown's suit. But he surely did try to fit in one as best he could, poor fool. I miss him sometimes, when the spring winds blow cold.
* This horse was our horse's (Eags')great-grandsire. He was killed along with Eagle's great-granddam; they were struck by lightning in a field that has never since been allowed to hold horses. Also killed was a filly of their get. (By "get", I mean it was their foal. Heh.)
Copyright May 12, 2006, by Rhonda L. M. Tipton.