Gift Horses (Originally published in Horse and Rider magazine, May, 2007)
He was the type of man who carried pictures of his horses in his wallet instead of pictures of his family. His name was Jack, and although you wouldn’t normally think of him as the sentimental sort, he was one of my father’s oldest and dearest friends. And together, he and my father gave me a gift that I will never forget.
As a kid, I used to look forward to the times that Jack came to visit us in the North Carolina mountains. Along with his wide-brimmed cowboy hat and ironic sense of humor, he always had a pocketful of pictures—and stories—about his horses back home in Florida, He and my dad were cousins of sorts and had been close since childhood. The shared bond between them was grounded in tradition, family, and history; perhaps more importantly—at least from my young perspective—it was grounded in a genuine love for horses.
I was always crazy about horses. This was a well-known fact around Green Valley Elementary School where I read every horse story and book that the small library had to offer. Other kids dutifully did their math; I, on the other hand, hid my library book in my math book and immersed myself in the equine worlds of the Black Stallion, My Friend Flicka, and any other book that had a picture of a horse on its cover. My dad introduced me to the Zane Grey westerns that he had read as a young man, and I spent hours reading-- and rereading--every novel that I could get my hands on. The feelings that horses evoked in me seemed best manifested on the open range—a vista resplendent not only in romance but also in powerful and sweeping scenery. I would imagine myself galloping through the sage on a shiny black horse. The wind would be at my back, the sunset before me. The horse and I would be as one. In my mind, it was always a sweeping and epic ride, an unforgettable story.
The reality of having a horse is, of course, quite different from reading a western novel; nevertheless, Jack and my father understood my love of horses and nurtured it. Both of these men had grown up with horses and had worked and ridden them all of their lives. Jack and my father weren’t the fancy kind of horsemen that you saw in the magazines or at the clinics; rather, their type of horsemanship was more of the common-sense variety. They both believed in gentleness, patience, and discipline when it came to horses and to life. They understood horses, and they also understood kids.
I was a baby when Jack first started visiting our farm regularly. By then my dad was already riding me around in front of him in the saddle. When I was five, I had my own spotted pony, and at eight I was fortunate enough to have every horse-crazy girl’s dream--my very own horse named Blaze. He wasn’t black, and I didn’t have any sage to ride through, but that didn’t matter. He was mine.
There’s a blurry black and white movie of me —filmed by Jack—that chronicles some of my beginning rides on Blaze. I wasn’t the most skilled of riders then, but I was determined. Blaze wasn’t exactly a kid horse; instead he was a feisty little sorrel that loved to run and also loved to buck. I went off a few times, suffered a broken bone or two, but I always got back on.
We weren’t professional riders by any means. We didn’t do shows ourselves although we were faithful spectators at every horse show, rodeo, or wagon train within a hundred mile radius. It was in the pasture in front of our house that I learned the virtue of patience as I circled the field seemingly endless times as my father did his barn work in the evenings and watched me out of the corner of his eye. I started at a walk, transitioned to a trot, and then finally graduated to a gallop. It wasn’t exactly the open range, but in the cool mountain evenings, it was nevertheless magical as Blaze and I galloped through the pasture with the fireflies of early summer winking their own individual sunsets.
Eventually Blaze and I moved from the pasture to the trail. My dad and sister rode too, and after we had stuffed our saddlebags with beanie weenies, sardines, and my mom’s chocolate chip pound cake, we would ride all day. The steep trails didn’t give us many places to gallop, so I learned to cherish the silver-laced mountain streams that we forded, the high keen of the red-tailed hawk circling over us, and the velvety blue mountains unfolding in the distance. I learned to pay attention, not only to the natural canvass that lay around me, but also to my dad and sister as they shared pieces of their lives, their voices rising and falling with the rhythm of the horses’ measured walk. .
As the years passed, I became distracted by boyfriends, high school football games, and my first car. My sister eventually lost interest in riding altogether. Nevertheless, my dad and I rode together as often as we could, and through the mountain trails and roads near my home, I learned to appreciate sensible horsemanship, nature, and the simple pleasure of riding hoses with someone that you love.
Eventually I grew up and moved away from the mountains. I sold my horse and then moved on to college, married life, and travel. My dad always kept a horse or two, though, and when my daughters and I visited, they too knew the joy of being put on a horse. And when I ultimately moved back to the mountains for good, the first thing I did was to get a horse of my own and help my dad teach my girls to ride. By then my mother had passed away, and we all tempered the loneliness we felt by riding almost everyday. I was fortunate enough to find a farm of my own nearby, but we made a point to keep all of our horses together and to ride together.
Sometimes I think that my dad was at his happiest when he was on a horse. As he got older, we slowed down and walked the horses a lot, and stories would loosen up and come rolling out of my dad while we rode--long stories of his childhood, which revealed a different era. It was a world in which he, as a young mountain boy, would ride the workhorses home from the fields in the evenings after a hard day of plowing on steep mountain slopes. He’d hold on tightly to the hames as the big horses, unhitched from the plow, plummeted down the mountain weary after working all day but anticipating a comfortable stall and a plentiful supper of grain. Other days, he’d spend his Sunday afternoons galloping his saddle horse up and down the road in front of his sweetheart’s house, hoping to attract her attention. It was a world centered in family and tempered with kindness and practicality, and I never tired of hearing about it.
But our rides didn’t just embrace the past; sometimes the instability of the present intersected with the fragility of the past. We were riding on September 11th, a beautiful golden morning in early fall, when we first got word of the attacks on the world trade center. I’ll never forget that morning. The leaves were floating lazily through the blue sky as the horses ambled along a familiar mountain trail, and it was hard to imagine that pain and suffering even existed in the world. My aunts met us at the gate as we returned from our ride to tell us that New York was on fire. I remember the shock and disbelief we felt as we quietly unsaddled and went inside to turn on the television and face the news of the day.
Later, there was other news, also devastating in our own little world, when my father was diagnosed with cancer and began the fight for his life. Jack, who was in his seventies by then and a cancer survivor himself, lived in Florida at the time, and visited often that summer. Dad and I only had two horses at that time, having lost our best little sorrel mare—the one that my girls rode—to a broken leg earlier that year. Jack was not able to ride that summer, but he enjoyed watching me ride, and he still found lots of advice to give me. He had two cow horses of his own which had come from a Florida ranch, and he loved them like children. He showed us pictures of these horses, told us stories about them, and lamented that he wasn’t able to use them like he used to.
Then, one day, the unexpected announcement came: Although he had always planned to will us those horses upon his death, Jack had decided that he wanted to go ahead and give those horses to us while my children were young enough to enjoy them, and he was still able to enjoy knowing who had them. They were to be gift horses—a symbol of the type of enduring friendship that withstands even the passage of time.
Between chemo treatments, my dad and uncle made the excruciatingly long trip to Florida to pick them up. I tended the farms at home and waited anxiously for the red trailer to turn across the bridge into the driveway. When the horses were unloaded, they were everything that Jack said they would be—and more—a brightly colored paint with long legs and a big heart and a gentle buckskin with soft eyes and a willing spirit. Ponto and Scar were indeed special horses. Riding them was worry free and easy; consequently, my daughters and I were all able to go on trail rides together with my father, and we were all able to hear—and remember—his stories.
For despite being weakened by major doses of chemotherapy, my dad continued to ride. It was his personal triumph to be on a horse and riding up the road the day after a chemo treatment. And ride we all did that last beautiful fall—cherishing every moment that Jack had made possible with the gift horses. We rode with Dad every day that he was able—and many days that he wasn’t--when we held our breaths and prayed that his big palomino horse would remain steady as the two of them forged ahead of the group always leading the way. By then, these rides weren’t about pleasure; they were about persevering in the face of insurmountable odds. And they were about love—the love of horses combined with the love of family and life itself.
Eventually, though, my dad became so weakened that he couldn’t sit on a horse. One fall day he helped me move all of the horses from his farm to mine so that I could care for them through the winter. We kept saying that it was temporary—that we’d move them back to his place when spring came, and the grass was green again. But I think we both knew better. And spring didn’t come again for my dad, and he didn’t get to see the horses buck and run in the fields, heady on sweet, spring grass. During one of his last lucid moments in the hospital, he proudly regaled visitors with horse stories.
Three months later, Jack succumbed to a heart attack in Florida.
But I’ve come to realize that their stories really aren’t over. Unlike the western novels that I read as a young girl, these kinds of stories don’t end when the last page is read and the last sunset ridden through; rather they continue in the lives of those who heard them.
And as I tell this particular story—one that’s now both theirs and mine—I’m grateful for the opportunity to have known both of these fine horseman and long-time friends. I’m appreciative of all of the life lessons that these men have taught me--not only about horses, but also about friendship, loyalty, and perseverance. Every time I look out and see the horses grazing in the field or watch Ponto carry my ten year-old daughter gently around the cones in our arena, I’m reminded of these two special friends who shared their friendship and their love of horses with me. And I too will carry their story in my own pocketbook of memories.