Stick and binder twine forts in the woods. Ponies shaking deer flies from their ears. Long trail rides on hot summer days. Braunschweiger sandwiches and thermoses of Kool-Aid packed in saddle bags. The promise of a long swim in the pond ahead. The smell of horse sweat, leather, and most of all, freedom. These are highlights from my childhood.
Were it not for my mother’s love of horses, I would not have been blessed to grow up with them. She saved for and bought her first horse when she was sixteen. Fortunately for her, she married a man who also liked horses. They purchased a farmhouse with sixty acres and plenty of room to keep large animals. The overarching intention was to keep their children occupied and thus out of trouble. We managed to get into trouble anyway, but that’s another story.
I have pictures of me at six months sitting on a pinto pony, my mother’s hand on my back lest I wobble and fall. Years passed, and that same pony became mine. His name was Tippy, and he was the best darn pony a child could have. Good-natured, he allowed me to pretty much do anything with him. I hitched him to a buggy and went for drives down the road. I spruced him up and showed him at the county fair and rode him in the parades held in our small town. It was fun and yet it had a purpose in my parents’ eyes; teaching us responsibility and the rewards of hard work
Tippy carried me over many a mile, never balking, never shying, never bucking. If I pretended to fall and lay on the ground, he would nuzzle me until I got up, giggling from his nose tickles. When Mom taught riding lessons, Tippy was her go-to for rank beginners. He was completely trustworthy which, if you know horses, is rare.
I grew and graduated to larger mounts to accommodate my lanky frame, one being a large quarter horse. He was not a Tippy. One day I rewarded him with a drink from the creek on the way back from the training ring. A small dog came up behind him, he bolted and somehow I ended up beneath him. I was lucky to escape with my life, but my leg was badly injured with most of my right quadriceps muscle ruptured. I was kept in the hospital overnight, my physician-father worried my kidneys may have been damaged given the bruises on my back. I was discharged the following day wearing a leg splint from crotch to ankle. It was a real fashion statement for thirteen-year-old me. I was, of course, teased at school and my moniker became Chester-- as in the gimpy guy from Gunsmoke. We sold that horse.
My next mount was a kind thoroughbred mare. She was easy to train, smart, and could easily soar over four-foot jumps. She came to my whistle, knowing I had grain in hand. When she failed to come to my call one evening, I became concerned. A faint whinny answered my repeated whistles. I found her with both front feet over a wire fence. Most horses would have struggled and become badly injured. She must have trusted that I was going to rescue her for there she stood, nickering and looking relieved.
My last horse was that mare’s first foal, a thoroughbred-Arabian cross. Chestnut with white markings, he was a striking animal. I named him High Card for the ace-like splotch of red in his wide blaze, Card for short. He’d inherited his dam’s intelligence and willing nature. He was also mischievous and liked to retrieve things from the pasture, usually large sticks. If his water bucket neared empty, he’d bang it against the fence until it was filled. Once, when my husband was instilling an electric fence, Card took off with a bag of insulators, shaking his head and scattering them across the paddock as he merrily cantered off. I think he laughed to watch Ron pick up all the insulators. Ron was definitely not amused, especially the second time it happened. I confess I was. Chuckling, I stuck a small whip in Ron’s back pocket and that ended the escapade. That horse loved getting attention and knew just how to do it. He often rested his head on my shoulder and gently nuzzled my cheek. He was my grown-up Tippy.
I had him so well trained that a small shift in the saddle, even the minutest pressure of my leg, would send him into graceful dressage movements—side passes, slow, collected trots, and three-beat lead changes. His willingness to move on demand left me in awe—and delight. We were partners. Sadly, life changes necessitated that I sell him. It was a hard, low day when we parted. I yet remember the pleasure of sitting atop a fifteen-hundred-pound animal, the raw power of his back muscles beneath me.
I miss my equine days, recalling them with fondness and a bit of longing. They are memories to treasure. And I do.
A pastel painting of "Card" and a neighbor girl.
As a yearling...
Taken shortly before we parted...