When I was about three years old, my mom took me to visit her sister, then age twelve. Her sister had an originally named pony named Patches, an old pinto with large patches of brown and black covering her white body. My aunt took me riding and I was hooked for life. From the day of that first ride, I begged my mom for a horse. Finally after listening to my ceaseless cajoling, she promised I could get a horse when I was twelve, never imagining for a moment her tiny child would remember the promise. Ah, such simple logic.
From that moment I read, slept, breathed horses. I took riding lessons when I could, went on trail rides at farms that rented horses, attended horse camps. When my twelfth birthday came and went, I knew a horse was on the horizon, and not long after, the promise was fulfilled and Rosie came home to me. She was too small for my long legs, but I adored her and she quickly became a part of the family.
Riding was fun and my sister started saying she wanted a horse too. My parents relented and took a trip north of Salem to the horse auction. They came home with a larger, seven-year-old pony mare. She was a perfect bay, shiny and red, with black points and a rambunctiously thick mane and tail. She was dainty and pretty, quite ladylike, and so we named her Lady.
I had outgrown Rosie by the time I got her and a year and a half later, my feet touched the ground. It broke my heart, but I had to find a bigger horse. This story continued for the next several years. After I sold Rosie I bought a larger pony, sold her and bought a horse. As time progressed I became rather horsily proficient and started doing some training work. For one such job, I traded training work in exchange for stud service to Lady. Eleven months later, Lady had her first and only baby, Prize.
We had many horses live with us during those years. We experienced many different horse personalities, some pleasant, some obnoxious. Lady always lived up to her name. Where many of our other horses were difficult to catch, Lady would always come wait at the gate, eager for human contact. She was a smart girl. She seemed to know the capacity of the rider. If the person was skilled, she was right in front of the leg, willing and capable. If the rider was timid or really young, she responded in kind, taking gentle, gingerly steps and walking very slowly. My mom was terrified of riding. Her young sister had jokingly put her on a horse with much too much spunk for her abilities or willingness, scaring the daylights out her in the process. But she rode Lady a few times, the only horse who made her feel safe. My brother would ride Lady like a wild hellion up and down our mile-long driveway, his whoops filling the air as Lady’s feet clattered on the gravel.
Time progressed and I grew up and moved out. I kept riding in various capacities, but when I left, my sister’s desire to ride left as well. My brother only seemed to like riding because horses went fast. Once he moved on to cars and motorbikes, horses lost any appeal. My parent’s horse farm dwindled and eventually Lady and Prize were the only horses remaining. After a few more years they sold Prize to some horsey acquaintances of mine.
For a few years, Lady did not get much attention, but she enjoyed hanging out with my parent’s cows. They would band together to eat and block the wind. Then my sister started having babies, I had a baby, Derek had a baby. All these babies grew into small children who liked to ride the pony at Grandma’s house. When Milla was two, we rented an old farmhouse in West Linn, Oregon. It sat on two acres of land right in the suburbs with a grandfather clause allowing livestock. We decided to have Lady come and live with us. I was riding at a large hunter jumper barn and Milla had been begging to ride. I did not feel confident putting her on a tall Thoroughbred, but Lady was just right.
Milla would go out the back door to spend time with Lady. Lady would lower her head and allow Milla to put on her halter. She would then lead her around the yard or out into the fenced paddock. Milla used an old log to clamber onto Lady’s back so she could walk and trot the perimeter of the field. Friends would bring their children over for a ride. Our suburban neighbors were thrilled. They would stop by the fence and offer Lady bits of carrots and apple.
We eventually bought a house and moved on from there, so Lady headed back to my parent’s farm. My sister had four children and between them and Milla, Lady got pretty regular rides. My sister bought a farm and Lady came to live there for a while until the place got too muddy, then back she went to the farm.
Lady was long in tooth and pretty swaybacked, her eyes cloudy with cataracts, but she would always come to our whistle, eager to see if we had any special treats in our pocket for her. Last winter her weight dropped dramatically. The year was bitterly cold, far below the average, and we worried Lady might not make it through the season. My parents bought her a warmer blanket and started bringing her up to the house to eat her grain separately from the cows who were hoggy and pushed poor Lady to the back of the line. Her weight improved and it seemed she would get to see another summer.
The last time I was in Oregon, in late December, I went to visit my parent’s farm. Like an old fixture there stood Lady out in the pasture among the cows, grazing on the stubby grass. She was so familiar, such a part of the landscape. I pointed her out to Boyfriend, who had not been yet to my family’s farm. “That’s Lady. She’s got to be in her thirties by now.” Little did I realize or even think to consider it would be the last time I saw her graying face. My mom called this morning to let me know that Lady died on Martin Luther King’s birthday. I had been driving the death truck across country on the day of her death, and my mom had not wanted to add further stress to our blisteringly stressful trip. Apparently Lady was lying down in the pasture as if asleep. My dad saw her and realized she was gone. They buried her on the hill below the house in the place were as children we always rode.
Over the years, Lady patiently allowed little hands to braid her mane and tail, and stood untied while they brushed her, bathed her, and picked her feet. She would carefully nibble treats from outstretched palms, making certain to leave fingers behind. In her easy manner, she helped us learn how to care for horses. She was a part of my life for so long, carrying three generations of our family on her back. So many children rode, played with, and cared for Lady. In turn, she cared for us. I will miss her.