This wasn't the post I'd intended for today, but I was inspired by TheHorse.com where they are asking readers to post pictures of their geriatric horses on the Facebook page. Seeing the pictures and stories of these beloved friends made me realize that I haven't really posted much about the horse who epitomized the title of this blog. This is excerpted from an early draft of an attempted memoir now gathering dust on my hard-drive. It's a little long for a blog post; think of it as a love story.
Horsemanship in the central San Joaquin Valley of the 1980’s was utilitarian. Matching tack trunks, handmade boots, monogrammed blankets: the vast array of equine paraphernalia now ubiquitous in tack stores and on the internet were, for us, props for movie sets and novels about fancy boarding schools. Our horses were not specialists – if we wanted to jump, they jumped; if we put them in front of trail obstacles, they maneuvered the course; a Western saddle meant drop your head and jog slow; an English saddle told our horses ‘tuck your head and extend that trot.’ We were cowboys, Olympians, circus-style bareback riders, rodeo queens, and daredevils. Breeches were expensive and consigned by our purse-watching mothers for use only in the show ring. We did our riding in blue jeans.
True horsemanship is determined not by money, time, equipment, style or supposed expertise, but by a mindset – a gritty practicality, a determination to finish the job, to solve the problem, to use all of the resources at one’s disposal. The first lesson is persistence.
“Mom! We have to call them right now. They’ll sell her to someone else. Please!” Standard pre-adolescent demand, except, I wasn’t that sort of teenager. I was the quiet girl, the A student and pathological people pleaser. In a family where the last cookie is courteously halved to the last molecule, demands for anything, let alone luxuries like horses, were not standard, nor tolerated.
“Are you sure she’s the horse you want? You haven’t even looked at any others.”
“Yes.” I would die if I didn’t have this horse. Squirrels ran indifferently across the telephone wire that hung at table height along the tops of the pines outside of my grandparent’s breakfast room. The fog rolling toward the room-length window from the distant bay was alien and eerie to eyes adapted to searing August sun. I was trapped in the Oakland hills, and back in Merced, other people were trying to buy MY horse. To my thirteen-year old brain the very fact that they wanted to turn her into a parade horse demonstrated the criminal incompetence and inhumanity of my arch-rivals.
Looking back through a mother’s eyes, I realize that my parents showed remarkable tolerance and courage in the face of their new adolescent’s foray into insanity. When we had gone with my riding instructor to “check out” this prospect for my first horse, Goldie had not interviewed well.
The irrigated pasture was the only square of green in the buff, oak-blotted landscape. One horse-shaped body grazed amid the rectangular forms of the cattle. The ranch owner looked at Suzie. “She’s pretty green. They’ve had a saddle on her a few times, but she’s mostly been a broodmare. You’d better try her.”
She was going to be my horse. I wanted to be the one to ride her. And I didn’t. An electric jelly traveled up my legs and into my stomach. My glasses slid down my nose; I pushed them up with my right index finger and tried to be invisible. I had a theory that if I stood sideways, at the edge of a wall somewhere, and avoided eye contact, that no one would notice me. I was later to learn that this is a great technique if you want cattle to move past you. Everything rested on this moment. With all of the intensity of adolescence, I felt that this was the only chance: the only horse, my only opportunity to live something other than the stories in my beloved books.
My instructor swung her leg across the saddle. The horse shifted her weight and froze. As the faded denim of Suzie’s legs closed around her barrel, the horse shuddered: ears went back, head went down, hind legs kicked out in a buck. The out of shape broodmare with the still engorged udder was no match for Suzie. The mare’s last foal had just been weaned less than a week before. Suzie guided her around the sand arena using spur and direct rein. She pulled up. “Yellow horses,” she said in disgust. “They’re all ornery. She’s pretty green. You sure you want her, Chris?”
I nodded. My throat closed around a tangled knot of hope and fear.
Suzie looked at my mom. “Well, Jean. She’ll need a lot of work, and she’s not papered, but I think she’s,” this time she nodded at me, “up to it. But,” and now the glare hit me full force. “You’ll have to toughen up. No dreaming. If you don’t pay attention on this horse, she’ll hurt you. Bad.” Then she spoke the words dear to my mom’s Scottish DNA. “The price is sure right.”
I didn’t care about price, training, papers, or ornery attitude. Left to untack and brush the mare while the grownups babbled the meaningless polyglot of adulthood, I wrapped my arms around her neck, tangling my fingers in the white mane and breathing the smell of horse sweat and valley dirt. “You’re going to be mine.” My breath was a whisper. “I’ll train you and take care of you. We’re going to be best friends.” As though touching a precious artifact, I reached my hand to the muzzle where the white blaze dropped into velvet pink. Nothing had ever seemed as soft or perfect. I was thirteen; I didn’t care about anything else. She was beautiful.
Palomino: coat the color of a newly minted coin or three shades lighter or darker. So said my 4-H manual. The summer before I began eighth grade, Goldie’s coat hovered half a shade to the light of that mythic coin. Each leg blazed with a white stocking, a white blaze streaked from forehead to nose. Her main and tail were white, peppered with a few black hairs. Slight broodmare belly and bad attitude were invisible to my eye. She was Trigger, Pegasus, and the unicorn. Every other girl would wilt from envy. Whoever said that dreams had to be wholly altruistic?
The stucco arches of the house hid behind the immense shrubs, pines, and half-circular drive that in the mid-80’s proclaimed loudly the “upper” in upper-middle class. Our house had two stories and a deck over the garage, but the driveway was a standard cement slope -- pull in, back out. Our family hovered just above middle, with an “upper” that was lower-cased, non-italicized. Creatures flopped against my stomach wall as we waited under the yellow circle of the iron pendant porch light. Dinner had writhed on my plate, squirming from the tines of my fork as my family dawdled over their meal.
School had just begun; dark had started to fall during dinner, making the time seem later. I knew that we would get to the seller’s house and find out that my dream was sold to someone else. I would wake up the next morning, in the same state that I had awoken that morning, an eighth grader with a flat chest, thick glasses, and no horse. My foot pressed on the non-existent accelerator on the passenger-side floorboards. Dad had to be missing every light on purpose.
In the house with the immaculate carpets that made me look twice at my Nikes for mud, Dad swooped the illegible, sprawling signature that mine now mimics across the bottom of a check for $800. Both grownups signed the deed, and that was it. I rode home in a shining chariot of glory, the owner of a horse. And nothing was ever the same again.
When I was in college, a male friend informed me that he doubted I would ever marry. “You’re married to your horse,” he said. He was wrong, and he wasn’t. Like a marriage, a first horse is a complicated thing. And Goldie was a complicated horse. After that night, Goldie and I came to an arrangement. I would work on training her to neck rein, to lope, to circle, to back, and generally to be a civilized riding horse. She would buck me off at least once a week for the year it took for me to learn to hold my seat long enough to make the effort less worth her while. At one point the rodeo performances were dramatic enough that my friends began timing my “rides.” I learned to fall. I learned to get back on, to start again. And I learned to sit, to hold my position until we achieved the outcome I desired.
Ours was a strange relationship, that yellow horse’s and mine. Flying through the air, hitting the sand with a roll and a grunt, I would look up to see a blaze face peering down at mine. ‘Oh crap! Did I kill her,’ the brown eyes would say. The ears would flicker as I hauled myself to my feet. ‘Oh crap! I didn’t kill her,” the hindquarters would say as she turned to run from my outrage. Halters became irrelevant; Goldie and I were inseparable. “Come on,” I would say, and my big yellow dog would follow, lead rope or no. We played tag in the manner of The Black Stallion. I would lean against her legs, sitting in the shade of her neck as her copper coat dried in the summer sun. And she never let me forget to pay attention.
Goldie last bucked beneath a rider at age 34. The rider in question was my then 3 year old daughter, and the buck was just a crow hop, but as I snapped. “Whoa. Quit it!” the ears flicked forward and the neck arched even as she stood. ‘I’ve still got it,’ my horse told me.
Goldie was 36 years old when she took her last bite of grass in our orchard. When I helped my best friend from this life, I ended a part of my own. I have children of my own, including a daughter now who is nearly as old as, and far more self-assured than, that skinny teenager with the thick glasses, but some part of me will always be that girl with the golden horse.