Written By Barbara O’Brien
When I was 19, I eloped so I could have a horse.
Now when I tell normal people that I eloped so I could have a horse their eyebrows go up and a question forms on their lips, “you eloped so you could have a horse?”
When I tell horse people that I eloped so I could have a horse they shake their head in agreement and murmur, “well of course, I understand that” and hardly ever ask any more about it.
Let me start at the beginning. As I have mentioned before, some of us are just born animal people and we will do everything in our power to be around animals. I was no different when it came to horses.
I can’t tell you when this fanatical love of horses begins. It is like it doesn’t have beginning and it certainly has no end. I just always remember being in love with horses. No one in my family was particularly horsey. We lived in a little suburban ranch house with a tiny back yard many generations removed from the farm. My grandparents had grown up with horses, but were now all city people and horses were no longer part of their lives.
So how does this happen? Is there a special part of our brain that says, this is it. This is the animal you are to devote all your time, all your money and all your undying love to?
It starts with picture books and learning what horses say. Then perhaps Breyer horse statues and library books. For me it was, Justin Morgan Had a Horse, and King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry and Little Black by Walter Farley.
My love was so intense that I even resorted to stealing, although I like to think of it as borrowing as I had every intention of returning what was not mine. My older sister liked horses also, although looking back, I sense she liked cowboys way more than the actual horses. She was lucky enough to have a set of dime store porcelain horse statues. They stood about six inches tall and came in five different poses. One was bay, one was gray and one, chestnut. There was a palomino and a black. How real they looked. How shiny and smooth their coats were. The detail of their manes and tails and the expression in their finely sculpted face made me believe they could spring to life at any moment and I would be free as I leaped on one’s back.
Needless to say, I was not allowed to touch them. My sister prided herself with this collection and they were very fragile, she said, dragging out the word fragile so I would be sure to understand. They could break and she didn’t want them broken.
Oh how I envied her. I only had a toy stuffed horse that had seen better days. I had had him forever. His name was, originally enough, Pony. His mane and tail was mostly gone and his red coat was threadbare in places. He was nothing like my sister’s realistic beauties.
One day when I knew my sister was gone and the other members of my family were distracted, I took the statues down from their display shelf. I tucked them in my arms and spirited them off to the dark privacy of our living room. No one spent much time in there during the day and I knew I could be alone.
When I set them down, our olive green carpet instantly turned into the grassy plains of Wyoming. The black horse came alive and began to quickly herd his mares to the safety of a narrow canyon. Which in reality was the space between the couch and the wall.
The herd galloped across the plains, stopping only to graze or to prick their delicate ears and sniff the wind looking for any danger that may threaten the herd.
I was so lost in my reverie that I almost did not hear my sister come in the back door. I quickly stuffed the horses under the blue Lazy Boy rocking chair so as not to be found out. I meant to sneak back in later and return the horses to her display shelf and my crime would go undetected.
Being a child of only eight or nine, I completely forgot about them until the family gathered that evening to watch TV and my dad sat down in his favorite chair, the blue Lazy Boy rocker. The moment he sat down there was the tell tale sound of breaking glass. I stood by in shock. Oh no! The horses. My older brother began to pull out what was left of the horses from under the chair. Each had suffered at least one broken leg and the bay had lost her head completely. It was awful. I was sorrier than I had ever been. I just wanted to see them. They were so beautiful.
When I was ten a local Coca Cola bottler ran a contest to win a pony. A real live pony! They even had an illustration of it on the entry form. It looked to be a pinto pony complete with saddle and bridle and bushy mane and tail. The pony seemed to be smiling at me. As if to say… I could be yours.
My best friend, Gabrielle, and I dutifully saved our nickels and dimes to buy the pop which gave us an entry form that we could fill out and mail in that would surely be the winner. We agreed in advance that once we won the pony we would share him 50/50 since we were, after all, best friends and that is what best friends do.
Many dollars, and I am sure, a few cavities later we waited and waited for the phone call or letter that would tell us we had won the pony. Months passed and we slowly became resigned to the fact that we didn’t win.
When I was nine my parents gave in and took me to a rental stable for my birthday. Here was my first chance to ride a real horse. Not the merry go round horses at the fair. Not the mechanical horse in front of the drugstore. No, a real live horse. When we drove up the gravel road to the stable I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were horses everywhere. In pastures, in pens, in stalls and others who stood tied to a rail, patiently waiting for the next group to go out. The smell was intoxicating. The sights and sounds, miraculous. In my eyes, the horses all looked like they were meant for a king. Bays and grays and blacks and pintos. So many horses. All at the same place. It was heaven.
The trail boss put me on a big black horse named Ringo. He was as gentle and slow as the day is long. I can’t explain the happiness, the joy, the unmitigated splendor of the moment. I was actually riding! Ringo’s smell, his movement, the view from up in the saddle. Incredible! When we trotted I bounced but stayed on and when towards the end of the ride we cantered and I knew that this was it. I would never be the same again.
For months afterward, I begged my parents for riding lessons and they feigned ignorance saying the stable was too far away and they had no funds for such things. Horses were wishes and that was all they could be for me at the time.
Oh but what wishes they were! I read every book in the library I could find. I learned all the breeds and colors and how to take care of them. If you were to give me a present it had better be horse book or better yet, a Breyer horse.
The Breyer horses became the bedrock of my friend’s and I horse fantasies. We gave them long fancy names like Willow Hill’s Showboat and drew up impressive pedigrees. We made string halters and bridles and made mangers out of twigs and fed them tiny homemade bales of grass hay.
I tied leather dog leashes to our bike’s handlebars and pretended it was a horse while we rode no handed steering only with the “reins”.
We even were horses once in a while. We would gallop through our adjoining back yards, neighing and whinnying and tossing our manes and stomping our hooves, warning each other of danger as we protected the rest of the herd.
I ran into an old neighbor not too long ago who recalled that I was always a little bit different and she mentioned how she had observed me trotting down the middle of our suburban street swinging a makeshift lariat and crying, “Ho cows! Move on doggies!” as I rode my imaginary cow pony among my vast herd of longhorns.
High Chaparral was my favorite TV show closely followed by The Virginian. Cowboys, yes, horses, even better. In grade school I put a pencil in my mouth pretending it was bit and cantered up and down the halls until the peer pressure forced me to conform. I must admit that a few boys continued to call me names like Horse Face Harry until at least Junior High.
All this longing would finally be fulfilled one day in late summer before seventh grade.
I heard that a neighbor boy that lived down the street was bragging about taking riding lessons to his friends. Riding lessons! Where! Who!
I quickly found him and pressed him for him for information. Yes, it was true he and his little brother had taken a riding lesson from his great Aunt who had a small stable in a nearby township.
I gathered up all the details and ran home as fast as I could bursting in the door announcing Pat Forsythe is taking riding lessons from his great aunt, an old lady named Mrs. Villaume who has a farm in Sunfish lake and that is only 5 miles away and I can take lessons every Saturday for $30 a month and she has lots of horses and I can work real hard to earn the money and isn’t it great that she is so close and so can I take lessons, please, please, please, please!
With the discovery of Mrs. Villaume’s farm I began my real journey into the world of horses. And that is where I have to leave it today.
Next time: Part 2: I ELOPED SO I COULD HAVE HORSE