Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight. As long as I can remember, I wished for the same thing – a horse.
I can’t remember when I was first bitten by the horse bug. Maybe it started when I used to lie on my great-grandfather’s horse-hide blanket as a child. When his favorite horse died, he had its hide tanned, hair left on, and attached to a woolen blanket. I remember lying on the blanket, both indoors and out, stroking the soft brown fur and inhaling the wonderful scent of horse hide.
As a child, I remember having a hobby horse and stick horses. (In between the stick horses I wore out I found that mom’s golden-handled broom made a great palomino stallion!). Many of my toys were horse models - as many as I could get my parents to buy for me, and later on, I saved up and used my allowance money. My sister and I would walk downtown (about a mile away) to the local G.C. Murphy five and dime store where I would drool over the latest horse in the Johnny West collection. Johnny West was a moveable action figure similar to G.I Joe and was based on a Western theme. It included Indians such as Sitting Bull and Geronimo, George Custer as a cavalry man as well as male and female cowboy figures. Also, part of this toy series was horses for these action figures to “ride”. I had all of the horses – Thunderbolt (every available color - black, brown, and brown and white spotted), brown body and black mane and tail Comanche with moveable joints, the red mare, Flame, and the pony, Pancho. I’m sure you can guess my favorite ride at carnivals and fairs – the horse and pony rides, and, second best, the merry-go-round. The best part of parades was the horses and riders from the local 4-H clubs.
Discovering books about horses fueled the flames of my horse passion. I remember my first horse book – Star of Wild Horse Canyon – a small paperback bought through the school’s paperback book club service. The elementary school library had some great fiction horse books: the Billy and Blaze series by C.W. Anderson (including his wonderful pencil illustrations), Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion series, and Marguerite Henry’s many horse books such as Misty of Chincoteague and more. The public library also had a wonderful selection of horse books with a beautifully illustrated book about Pegasus, the flying horse, and Will James’ Smoky with gorgeous oil painting print illustrations showing a black, well-muscled Quarter Horse against a panoramic backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. I rode through the country side, I rode a bucking bronco, I stroked a silky-smooth nose, and I jumped fences along with the characters in the books. I belonged to a horse book club – I couldn’t wait for the mail to deliver My Friend Flicka, Peter Lundy and the Medicine Hat Stallion, Black Beauty, etc., which all had vivid, color-printed front and back book flaps, not just a colorful dust jacket.
I begged my parents to take me along to the local hardware and recreational stores which had saddles, bridles, and other types of horse gear. Inhaling the scent of the new leather, feeling the suede seats on the saddles, holding the cold steel of the bits in my hands - I couldn’t wait until I actually needed these items for my horse.
If we could draw anything in art class, I always drew horses – running horses, standing horses, rearing horses of all colors.
I can remember buying my first horse magazines at the local grocery store around the age of ten. (Cool – they have magazines about horses????) I then subscribed to most of the horse magazines available, even a few from Great Britain where I had to obtain foreign currency money orders in pounds sterling from the local bank. (Did I mention I have almost all of the issues of Practical Horseman going back to 1977?).
My favorite television shows and movies had horses in them – so almost any western series, such as “The Lone Ranger” or western movies, was great. And, of course, there were all of those wonderful Disney movies about horses – “The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit,” “The Horsemasters,”” Miracle of the White Stallions,” “Run,” “Appaloosa,” and “Run”.
Probably due to the Walter Farley horse books being set in the Thoroughbred racing world, I became very interested in and started following Thoroughbred racing. I watched any televised races, including the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. When I was older and had more funds, I subscribed to the weekly (and pricey!) racing periodicals such as The Blood Horse and the Thoroughbred Record which gave race results, individual horse and rider statistics, stories about the people, horses and places relevant to racing, and Thoroughbred bloodline studies. I even sent a letter to Churchill Downs inquiring about tickets for the Kentucky Derby, receiving a reply that all seats were sold out years in advance.
I joined various local and national equestrian organizations such as the local horse 4-H club, the United States Equestrian Team and the United States Combined Training Association. Attending as a spectator, I went to the local horse shows with my friends, watching horses of all colors, breeds, and sizes compete in various classes such as pleasure (walk, trot, and canter) and games such as barrel racing and pole-bending. As I watched the horses both in and out of the show ring, I was always dreaming of the day I would be able to have a horse of my own.
When I was around fourteen, my next-door friend and her sister received two horses (hmmm…I don’t ever remember her being “that” horse-crazy – did I rub off on her or did her father think it was a good idea for her to learn to ride/have a horse???). I was often invited to ride with my friend because her sister didn’t really care that much about horses.
Jupiter, my friend’s horse, was a former show champion and racehorse. He was an Appaloosa whose main color was yellowish-brown with, of course, the typical white Appaloosa spots on his rump and a black mane and tail. The horse I ended up with was her sister’s horse, Rex. Rex was a dark chocolate brown Quarter Horse with a black mane and tail. I thought he had the most gentle-looking brown eyes I’d ever seen on a horse. His favorite activity besides eating was bucking off riders at the gallop, but he was as gentle as a lamb to work around on the ground, and a perfect gentleman at the walk and trot.
My friend taught me the intricacies of horse care and maintenance – I now learned to apply all that information I had been reading about all those years but never had a chance to put into practice until now. She shared the correct way and order of using the various brushes. The hard black rubber curry comb was moved in a firm, circular motion to rough up the hair and bring the dirt to the surface and which was then brushed away with a stiff-bristled brush (but not on the bony or sensitive parts!). Next came the soft-bristled brush, a “finishing” brush, which flicked off any lighter pieces of remaining dirt and was also used on the sensitive parts such as the face, lower legs, and under parts of the belly. I learned to untangle the coarse mane and tail hairs, only a few at a time, using a special metal comb. The last step in preparing to ride was to clean out the dirt, manure and small rocks from the crevices in the horse’s foot and next to the horse shoe with a small curved, metal hoof pick.
Now it was time to saddle our horses. The right stirrup was placed over the saddle, often hooked over the saddle horn in order to keep it from slapping the horses’ side when the saddle was heaved onto his back. The saddle was also placed slightly forward so you could slide it backwards, making sure the hairs weren’t roughed up and pointing in the wrong direction (which could give the horse saddle sores). Reaching underneath the horse’s belly, I grabbed the hanging girth strap and pulled the leather tie strap through the girth ring, securing it to the saddle with the special knot my friend showed me how to tie. Unbuckling and slipping the nylon halters back on their necks, we stuck our fingers into the horses’ slimy mouths where there are no teeth and gently encouraged them to open their mouths for the cold steel of the bit. We gently guided the bits into their mouths as we pulled the leather head piece over their constantly flickering ears and buckled the strap under their throats, taking care to leave it slightly loose.
My friend didn’t have to show me or tell me much about actually “riding” – that came instinctively (or had I just “absorbed” this knowledge from all of the reading I had done?). I just “knew” how to sit up straight in the saddle but relaxing your hips and back. I “knew” not to hold the reins too tightly or short as that would put pressure (and pain) on the horse’s mouth. I “knew” to squeeze with my legs in order to direct the horse to move forward, and to gently pull back on the reins and say “Whoa” to stop him. I “knew” that you laid the reins over his neck in the direction you wished him to turn.
My friend and I went on short and long trail rides on her grandparents’ dairy farm and in the surrounding hills, woods, and fields of the neighbors. Occasionally, we would get a large group of riders together for an all-day trail ride.
After about two years, my friend now had two more horses and said her father was threatening to sell Rex for dog food. I begged my parents to buy Rex for me – no way could he go into a can of dog food! And, amazingly, they spent $400 to indulge me. My family and I cleaned out the basement of one of my great-grandparents’ outbuildings and attached a stall with Dutch doors. We cleared the brush and small trees off my great-grandparents’ (who lived just a few houses down the street from me) lower yard and fenced it in. Amazingly, the neighboring doctor (very possessive with his land) even let us fence in a part of his adjoining field to use as a pasture.
I rode Rex every chance I could. Having a horse of my own was everything I expected it to be, and more. I attempted to apply the information I read in my magazines and books to improve his flexibility, coordination, muscle development and responsiveness. Riding in circles helped to develop his flexibility. We would practice stopping and starting from all gaits as that improved his responsiveness and attentiveness to the rider’s commands. I trotted him over cavalletti, poles laid on the ground at precisely spaced intervals, in order to work different muscles and prepare him for jumping. We learned to jump a small course of home-made fences which were poles laid across hay bales.
I only rode Rex in one horse show. While my parents’ supported my horse’s maintenance they did not have the money for a horse trailer, fancy clothing and riding equipment nor professional training or riding lessons. I had to ride him to the horse show several miles away and made sure I had a spare bridle as the one we rode in with had green slobber all over the bit from Rex munching on all the mouth-level leaves through the wooded parts of our journey. We entered several classes and came away with ribbons in most of them. It was a terrific feeling placing above the “expensive horses” with “fancy saddles and bridles” and “expensive professional training” – I could pat myself on the back for doing a good job of training.
But the best part of riding was trail riding. I loved getting out in nature – a slow ride on the back of a horse lets you be in touch with and absorb nature. Being out in nature helps you to slow down and pay attention to where you are and what is around you. I noticed all the hues of the vegetation, and the smells of the flowers, weeds, and sometimes dead animals. We often saw wildlife such as snakes, rabbits, deer and one time, even a bear cub up a tree. I could hear the sounds of nature such as the insects, running water, and the wind in the trees. Listening to my horse’s hoof beats was like a meditation drum – a steady rhythmic beat as his hoofs connected with the earth each time he took a step.