By Sarah White
Two other girls boarded their animals at the Horse Farm. Getting to know them was essential as I got to know my horse, and myself as a horse owner–they were my guides to the new world I now inhabited.
Nancy was 19 and kept a thoroughbred and a pair of tiny ponies at the farm. She spent most of her time training Destry for competitions, either in the riding ring or somewhere beyond the farm. The ponies she occasionally harnessed to a bright red cart and rode out through the subdivisions, startling the little girls and stabbing them with jealous desire.
Nancy was living the dream. Her home was a motel where she worked as a maid to support herself and her horses. She competed in shows and had a series of horsey boyfriends and nobody, not even the boyfriends, told Nancy what to do.
About the time Cocoa and I arrived came 12-year-old Denise with a beautiful red mare who surprised everyone with her pregnancy. Denise came from Texas, from poor rural people migrating north into upward mobility, her father now an insurance executive. It took Denise many tearful battles to convince her father to let her keep the foal, but she won.
With Denise I could almost slip into the world of childhood again, that world I lost when my menstrual periods arrived and somehow my brain chemistry would not let me lose myself in “pretend” games anymore. Denise could still pretend and I pretended I could still pretend with her.
No pleasure could be greater than playing “pretend” with horses! With those big animal props on your stage, you can be a cowboy, a Civil War soldier, a runaway girl among the Indians… you can be anything, galloping across the open field or filing nose-to-tail through the thickets by the creek, or making camp in the shelter of the woodlot. In a few weeks Denise’s mare gave birth and our games included the new foal nosing along at our sides.
I enjoyed the “pretend” and I enjoyed the horse chores and I enjoyed the beautiful landscape of that farm in any weather. But I didn’t enjoy riding Cocoa.
She was a small thing, under 15 hands, with a short spine that made her gait choppy and uncomfortable. And worse, she had an attitude problem. She didn’t care to be ridden. Bareback she would tolerate carrying me around the farm for a while, and bareback I tumbled off easily when she tired of being a beast of burden. I took all kinds of spills and bounced back to lead her to a fallen log – I knew all the good ones – where I would remount and ride on, if she would let me. Bareback inside her domain we got along.
But once saddled and pointed toward the front gates, she changed into a fearsomely stubborn opponent. My heart’s desire—to ride into town where little girls would beg to pet her satiny nose—remained far from reach.
Some days Denise and Nancy and I would attempt to venture off the farm. Every attempt turned ugly. With enough kicks and slaps Cocoa could be threatened into motion. With horrible use of force I could even get her to carry me to the nearest subdivision under construction. I was finally one of the big girls clopping up the street, but the houses didn’t yet hold any little girls to run out and admire me. Any sweetness of that moment was lost in the furious effort it took to keep that damn horse moving.
When we gave up and turned our noses toward home – lickety split! Cocoa shifted to that choppy gait that left me ricocheting around on my bareback pad and wishing for a western-style pommel to hang onto.
I hated riding that horse. Loved the horse, but hated the riding.
Fall and full days of school arrived. Rain and cold followed, and riding my bicycle to the farm proved unfeasible. In a process invisible to me, it was arranged that my father and brothers would shoulder the chore of running me out to the farm and picking me up again.
In the shortening tail-ends of those days, riding and playing “pretend” gave way to simply getting the horse fed. I would brush and curry Cocoa as she ate, and the–while the weather was still warm enough–go read a book. Just outside the barn the broad crotches of a fallen beech tree presented magnificent reading nooks. Reclining there lost in pages was as great a pleasure as any other offered by the Horse Farm.
Then the weather turned cold enough to send me into the tack room where a kerosene space-heater was permitted. I’d join Denise and Nancy and listen to them talk while our horses finished eating. Glimpses into other horse-crazy lives opened before me–Denise in heat-haunted Texas, going to bed with damp sheets hung over the windows to cool the air, a family doing without air conditioning so she could have a horse. Nancy fending off boyfriends in her motel room because she wanted show trophies more than babies.
When winter’s short days and school commitments squeezed riding out of my horse habits, I must admit I was grateful. The stories were way better.
But why own a horse you don’t ride?