Sunday, March 6, 2011

Equine Beginnings - a Memoir

Judy and Fay

Jerry and I were hovering on either side of sixty with very little horse experience when we decided to become horse owners in 2004.

I’m not sure what made us want to keep horses. Maybe it was the Westerns we grew up watching on television in the fifties - Gunsmoke, Rawhide, and Tombstone Territory.

Traveling photographers and their ponies nourished our love of the Old West. My husband grew up in southern Louisiana and my childhood was spent in northwestern Florida, but we both have pictures of ourselves at about six years old - each astride a brown and white Shetland pony with a fancy Western saddle and bridle.

Then too, I think Silver marked me for life. In the rural Florida of my childhood, stock laws - if there were any - were not enforced. Pigs, cattle, goats, and horses roamed at will. A big white horse frequented our neck of the woods. We never knew who he belonged to, but he often jumped over our cattle guard which was installed at the driveway gate to keep him and other roaming animals out. We called him Silver.

One of my earliest memories is waking to a noise I couldn’t identify. I could tell it was outside, so my tiny feet padded over to the open window. As I gazed out, Silver’s large white head appeared, illuminated by a full moon. He looked me in the eye as he munched on grass that had come from below my window. I cherished the nights when I fell asleep to the sound of Silver snorting and champing grass. His presence was comforting.

When I was about twelve years old, my parents started taking me to a riding academy on Sundays. It was run by a friendly young couple. They had several horses that they rented out to anyone who wanted to ride over their acreage which was bounded on one side by a sleepy bayou. They also gave lessons. I learned to ride at a trot and a canter and to weave in and out of barrels.

Sometimes we rode out on the trails in a group, and occasionally my parents joined us. My mother usually ended up on a horse named Toby who liked to try to get her off his back by rubbing her against a tree. Looking back, I doubt that these outings were much fun for her. But for me those were glorious days. I thought I was a great rider and nothing much scared me.

When my parents thought I was ready, they bought me a horse - a stallion that couldn’t have been more than three years old. He was reddish brown with a white streak down his face. I named him Blaze. He stayed with his previous owner - about five miles from our house - until we had a place ready for him. My father fenced a portion of our five acres. We cleared out an existing out-building and used it to store feed and tack.

While these preparations were going on at home, my father made arrangements for Blaze to be gelded. I didn’t understand exactly what this meant, but my parents said it would make him easier to handle and I figured that would be a good thing.

Every morning for two or three weeks after the surgery, my father and I got up at five in the morning and drove to the place where Blaze was stabled. We exercised him by walking him up and down a country road for thirty minutes. It was winter and cold enough that we could see our own breath as well as Blaze’s. We returned home every morning just in time for me to catch the school bus.

Eventually Blaze came to live at our place. His previous owner delivered him in a trailer. After that, I was on my own. I didn’t have brothers or sisters, and evidently my parents thought I was experienced enough to handle this young horse by myself. They didn’t know much about horses, and I think they believed that Blaze’s surgery would give him the temperament of the old seasoned horses at the riding academy. 

I remember taking care of Blaze's needs - feeding and watering him every morning before school and again in the evening after school. And of course I remember that fateful day that led to our separation.

I had saddled Blaze and was riding on a sandy road not more than a half mile from our house. All of a sudden Blaze arched his back like a Halloween cat and all four of his feet came off the ground at the same time. I was terrified. To this day I don’t remember if I rode him home or led him home. But when I got there, I told my parents what happened and said, with all the rashness of youth, “I’ll never get on that horse again!”

Of course, I didn’t mean it. I was frightened, but - more than that - my feelings were hurt. I couldn’t believe that Blaze had wanted to get rid of me. I thought we were friends, buddies, pals. How could my parents possibly think that I never wanted to ride him again? How many times had I been mad at my best friend, Anna, and swore that I’d never speak to her again? Surely they had noticed that I was often chatting with her shortly after making this rash statement.

No, I didn’t mean it. I wasn’t a quitter and neither were my parents. I fully expected them to say that I must not give up, that maybe I needed some help - some guidance - some support - but I must not give up.

But to my horror and surprise, there was no effort to talk me out of my resolve to give up my partnership with Blaze. It was decided immediately that he had to go. Before I had time to sort through my emotions, my father was on the phone talking to Blaze’s previous owner who agreed to buy him back.

The next day my mother tried to comfort me while Blaze was loaded into a trailer, never to return. But I wept bitter tears, and I knew in the depths of my young heart that this was unfinished business.

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