Ponto--My Hero: An Elegy in Prose

1/27/16   A gunmetal grey winter day.  A heavy layer of ice frosted the fields and made my morning walk to the barn a bit treacherous.  When I saw Ponto lying, head down, in the unsheltered riding ring my heart sank.  No horse should be lying down on a raw day like today, I thought to myself.

Ponto—our horse with a heart of gold.  To know him was to love him.  Our fastest horse.  There had been a day when if you gave him the least bit of rein he’d fly across the open field with thundering hooves, a thrill to behold and to ride.  And he did so joyously, eager to please.  Then you could turn around and put any child on him and he’d walk patiently around the ring, trying to guess what that kid wanted him to do.  It was so remarkable to see him trying so hard to do just the right thing, tenderly, when any other mount would find the first opportunity for advantage.  We came to think of it as Ponto babysitting our young riders.  Because of his gentle spirit, he was our trusted go-to horse for any novice.  And yet everybody’s favorite horse to ride.  A versatile Cadillac of horses. 

Within the herd he held a love magnet, too.  All the other horses were fond of him and fought to graze beside him, even though he was at the bottom of the pecking order.  He was the jokester of the bunch, prancing about the other horses, insisting that they lighten up and play with him.  He was also the brains of the herd, always figuring out first to come when called, to open gates, to sort things out.  He stood out.  The others followed.

He had grown up as a cattle horse in Florida, and moonlighted in rodeos on Saturday nights, and had been ridden hard—too hard, really.  In the rodeo he was what they called a pick-up horse—running in to grab up the cowboys bucked from raging bulls.  “I’ve seen him gored by bulls,” Jack told us years before he came to us.  Cousin Jack, a dear family friend, had gotten him off the cattle rancher who had been injured when he and Ponto had taken a hard fall.  “Wasn’t the horse’s fault” he told Jack, but still, it was time to move him on.  Jack enjoyed many a trail ride on him and swore to us he was the best horse he’d ever had. In his 70’s, Jack was finally ready to get out of the horse business, and was eager to see his steed in good hands he knew, where he could visit.  So in 2004 he offered to sell him to us.  More exactly, to our horse-loving 12-year-old daughter Mary Ellis.  A bill of sale was drawn up for all of one dollar “plus other considerations”—which, Jack explained with a wink, was a hug. 

At that time Ponto was still in his early teens and running strong, but already had the first signs of arthritis beginning to set in—evidence of having been overworked when young.  We used him more gently, and in recent years retired him from steep mountain trails when, with stiff legs, he struggled to make the grade.   The previous winter his hind quarters had gotten so stiff it was painful to watch him work his way to the barn from the flat pasture at feeding time.  He was no longer the first to come when called, and at times seemed confused, unable to sort out which stall was his.

Then the days warmed up and lengthened, and the old feller seemed to get along just fine, enjoying one last season of summer sun and sweet grass.

 I looked at him lying there, motionless in the ice, and hoped to God he was dead.  I called to him; in response he raised his head and my heart sank further, realizing what was to come.  As I approached him he tried to stand and floundered, unable to get up.  Again he tried, pitifully, and again.  As if by some miracle, finally he stood on three legs, his right rear dangling limp as rope. 

Whether he slipped on the ice and broke his leg, or his leg just broke under him and down he went, it was one and the same:  an era ended.  Over twelve years we’d seen not one but two daughters grow up on him.  Dozens of young guests had gotten their first rides on trusty Ponto.  Reflected in his big brown eyes I could see that day we brought him to our new farm, and raced him across the pasture, floating over the buttercups, and that radiant day Mary Ellis left us all in the dust, galloping across the mountain top on him—riding like the wind.  It was anybody’s dream—a scene out of the movies. 

We stood with him a couple of hours, too cold for tears, waiting for the vet.  Aside from his leg he seemed fine, not so eager to say good-bye.   Thinking back, only now do I realize Ponto was the long-deferred dream horse of my youth.  I had not grown up riding horses, but rather dreaming of having a best friend horse I could come home to every day after school, and hang out with on weekends.  I wanted my own Winged Colt of Casa Mia, my own Fury of Broken Wheel Ranch, my very own Black Stallion.  In Ponto I got them all.  The grass grows greener now over where he lies.  Rest in peace, good buddy.

                                                                                                                     Walton Conway

For more on Ponto (and his buddy, Scar), see Gift Horses, by Betty Miller Conway