This is my first published piece (The Storyteller), which I'm proud to say won a very small award from the Society of Southwestern Writers in 2008.
If the little girl I was could see me today, she would curl her tiny fingers into a fist, climb onto a step stool, and punch me right in the face. And I wouldn’t blame her. It’s images like these that make adult decisions so difficult.
It all started with Charlie. I was around five years old, and it must’ve been after church because I remember wearing a dress. I would be spending the day with my grandpa and his new wife, and they weren’t quite sure what to do with me. My “Auntie Sue” wanted to visit her uncle in the country and thought I might like to meet his horse. I jumped up and down, clapping my hands. I had never seen a horse up close before. We brought apples.
The adults talked while I climbed the white rail fence to get a good look at Charlie. Napping in the cool shade, the old, fat, grey horse might not have impressed many onlookers, but to me he was beautiful. As soon as my grandpa took out his pocketknife and began cutting up the apples, Charlie perked up and sauntered over from his sleeping spot. Auntie Sue showed me how to flatten my palm to feed him, so that my little fingers wouldn’t get in the way. Heart racing, I tried not to flinch as Charlie’s enormous, sniffing nostrils poked through the fence toward my small hand. His huge, flopping lips and biting teeth were monstrous. I shut my eyes, certain I’d wind up in the hospital after losing my hand to this child-eating beast. But not to worry, Charlie was a pro. His soft muzzle was adept at accepting treats, and in one slightly slobbery snuffle, my hand appeared apple-free, and unharmed. I looked up at Charlie in awe. That was the moment. I was hooked.
I spent the rest of the afternoon yanking handfuls of grass out of the fencerow to share with my new best friend, planning all the fun we were going to have together, for I was sure he would want to come home with me. Charlie swished his tail at the flies and patiently waited for the next helping of grass while I wondered aloud if he’d ever thought of joining the circus. I imagined myself standing on his back, waving to the crowd as we flew around the center ring, big plumes of white feathers on our heads, the spotlight gleaming off my star-spangled costume. The crowd loved us.
Upon finishing their visit, Grandpa and Auntie Sue dragged me reluctantly to the car. As we drove away, I craned my neck to watch Charlie through the window. I never saw him again. But I never forgot him.
I read every horse book I could find, including the classics Misty of Chincoteague, Black Beauty and The Black Stallion. My bedroom walls, a collage of posters, displayed a variety of breeds. Appaloosas, Arabians, the all-American Quarter Horse, the regal Budweiser Clydesdale, and the obligatory unicorn, prancing in a rainbow-and-butterfly infused fairyland. Along with my books, shelves were lined with Breyer horses and all of Barbie’s horses, although Barbie herself was mysteriously absent. Shining among these were one or two porcelain beauties that my grandma had given me for Christmas.
Christmas...ah, Christmas. That magical time of year when all you had to do was behave, eat your vegetables, not kill your brother, and you could get What Ever You Wanted for Christmas. Except, apparently, a horse. How many years in a row did I accompany my mother to a shiny department store in the city, with slushy, dirty snow seeping into my tights and Mary Janes, to sit on Santa’s lap, and whisper hopefully in his ear for a horse?
My dad especially hated the year I read the book Summer Pony, which was about a girl who was lucky enough to rent a pony for the summer. Her slightly unrealistic, begrudging father built the pony a stall in the garage. Their house wasn’t in the city, but not quite in the country, which described where I lived. So now I had a plan. Back to Santa.
I knew all I needed was for Santa to get me the horse, and my dad could do the rest. He was handy. He worked in a machine shop, made bookshelves for the living room, and fixed everything by himself. I knew he could put a stall in the garage. How hard could it be? He’d listen to my pleas, shake his head and spout off things like, “Yeah, right, a horse in the garage. That’s all we need.” Then I’d get lectured on zoning laws, needing more land...blah, blah, blah...what are we, the Rockefellers? Why couldn’t I just be happy with a bike? It took quite a few years before I realized the Santa method wasn’t going to work.
Well, not the traditional Santa, anyway. Thirty some-odd years later, my happily indulgent husband played the role of St. Nick, and made my dreams of horse ownership come true. I am now the proud owner of two beautiful Gypsy Cob mares. We have a small acreage in an area that at one time was on the fringes of a rural western town, and ironically, is now part of the suburbs of an ever-growing-larger city. In-town horse property, they call it. People from the country laugh at the idea of keeping horses on such a small acreage, but I’m thankful for it.
A mid-size draft horse, Gypsy Cobs were bred by the nomadic Gypsies and Travellers of England and Ireland to pull heavy wagons, and still be suitable for the family to ride. As flashy as they are practical, the best specimens are adorned with loads of hair - thick, long manes and tails, and feathering around the hooves that swings and sways when they trot. Any girl who’s ever played with a My Little Pony toy is sure to be enchanted by a Gypsy Cob. Many refer to them as “magical.” They just seem to have an otherworldly quality to them, as if they have ancient tales to tell. Think knights and dragons, castles, and fair maidens.
It’s what drew me to them. My first mare, Chroicoragh (cree-KOR-ah), looks suspiciously like a unicorn masquerading as a horse. I keep looking for the horn under all that hair. She’s mostly white, with a blanket of grey dapples across her back. She has one blue eye, one brown. Like many blue-eyed, fair-haired girls, she demands royal treatment. She loves to show off her graceful trot, with an attitude that says, “Look at me, look at me! I’m pretty! I’m the prettiest horse you’ve ever seen!” If I had a tiara big enough, Chroi would wear it. Although, she is the first one to roll around in the mud - especially after a bath. Not very regal.
My second mare, Siofra (SHEE-frah), is the exact opposite. More of a work horse in appearance, people often mistake her for a mini Clydesdale. Siofra would fit right in with the big Budweiser guys, only she’s about half their size. She can be a bit strong-headed, but she’s quiet and shy, and loves to be groomed. Which is good, because she’s got three times the hair of any horse I’ve ever seen. The sweet to Chroicoragh’s sassy, Siofra is a lover, not a fighter.
My dilemma is this: I have my horses, now what?
The problem is I don’t really know what I’m doing. I was sure that after reading every training manual out there, I would be able to have my horses trained and ready to ride in no time. The girl in me would love to believe that all I have to do is ply Chroicoragh with carrots, whisper in her ear, and somehow, magically, she won’t notice me slipping quietly onto her back. That will be all it takes, and we’ll be riding like the wind.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that easy. It seems horses actually have a different idea of the human/horse relationship. There are variations, of course, but the general idea is: human brings fresh, leafy alfalfa hay, carrots, apples, grain, cookies and peppermints. Human scratches horse on rump and behind ears. Horse eats, sleeps, and poops. Human scoops poop. Human should not, under any circumstances, try to clean hooves, or attempt to put a bit in horse’s mouth.
So, when you watch the lesson of the cowboy with the unbroke horse, and he throws his rope one way or another, and the horse instantly performs exactly what the cowboy wanted, well, let’s just say, it ain’t his first rodeo. These guys were born with a lariat in their hands. They’ve been around horses their whole lives, watched their dads and cowhands, and know exactly what to do to get the animal to behave.
And here I am, trying to put an upside-down halter on my horse. I’ve got my training manual on the ground in the dust, open to the day’s lesson, rocks holding the pages open. I’m in a tangle of buckles, lead rope, and training whip, in my stiff new boots. The horses are laughing at me.
Think of it this way: if you want to improve your golf swing, you might get an instructional video by a reputable pro. You watch it, and try out a few of the moves. It takes practice. You have to master the club. That, as any golfer will tell you, is easier said than done. Now imagine the club has a mind of its own. You want to swing it forward and follow through, but it decides to jump behind you and run around in a circle. Now imagine that your golf club weighs 1200 pounds and has four fast, hard hooves. Try getting that to follow through.
In the end, I usually end up throwing the halter over the fence, giving them a handful of grain and scratching them on the rump. So much for the day’s lesson. Oh, well, at least they’re happy. I mean, I don’t think Chroi and Siofra will be too downhearted if they never have their idiot human servant crawling all over their backs and kicking them in the sides. Then again, I can’t just have two monstrous eating, pooping, hooved dogs in my backyard. They are there to serve a purpose. As much as I love them simply as themselves, and enjoy having them even as pets, they’re pretty damned expensive pets.
This is when it happens. These are the days when I’m frustrated. All that fun adult reality stuff sneaks in. My husband is adding up vet, hay, and farrier bills. We’re scooping poop in 100+ degree weather. I pick up my kids from school, and I’m covered in dust, hair and horse sweat. I smell. Flies are everywhere. I can’t get the silly horse to go left instead of right, and she drags me across the dirt. The other one, meanwhile, prances around on the other side of the fence, entertained by the whole fiasco. I’m sore, filthy, tired, crying, and I wonder, what the heck am I doing? That’s when the thought creeps into my mind: should I just sell them? Wouldn’t my life be easier? Cheaper? Cleaner?
It’s at this precise moment that the girl in me comes in with that furious little punch. I remember all the horses I got for Christmas. Plastic, porcelain, plush. Then I look at my horses...my horses. Quietly grazing in the sun, nickering when they see me coming with carrots. Somewhere, Santa’s got a twinkle in his eye, chuckling.
I pick the hay out of my hair, think of Charlie, and smile.
(c) 2008 Heidi Horchler not to be used without permission