Winged Gods and Goddesses

Little girls and horses. I think part of why girls fall in love with horses is to have someone big on their side, someone on whom they can fly. I fell in love with horses before I had a logical brain, then they just lodged there, between the myelin bulges. Later when I actually acquired a horse, they were my escape from a reality that was less than. Horses were my winged gods and goddesses, flying on four legs. I was naive, silly, and fearful, but with a horse I could forget all that and imagine anything. And I did.

Before a real horse actually came to live with me, I would ride my imaginary horse along next to the school bus in the morning and again in the afternoon. Galloping freely, jumping driveways, mailboxes, shrubbery, and drainage ditches; along we would glide. As the flattened shadow of the bus crawled in among the deep spaces, lengthening and shortening according to the landscape, I would fly over them, stopped by nothing.

When I was fifteen, my dad the auction-hound bought a thoroughbred off the track. He was handsome in the way of thoroughbreds, so we named him Prince. He was a nearly black bay, a Sam Savitt thoroughbred, with perky ears and an unruly mane. He watched the world sideways, as if to ask, You talkin’ to me? I love thoroughbreds; love their minds, their impossibly long legs, the way they are fretful because they can be, but give them an opportunity and they will prove what they are capable of.

As is often the case with thoroughbreds who have been racehorses, Prince was damaged goods. Something had happened to one of his legs–I can’t recall which one now–so he was not able to jump. However, he could still be ridden, and he could certainly run. I would ride him bareback, my skinny legs clinging to his slippery back, and canter around the field below our house.

One afternoon when Prince had only lived with us for about a month, I decided to take him for a ride down the driveway. Ours was a legendary driveway. We actually had to walk a mile, one way, to the school bus, regardless of the weather. Rain, shine, snow, sleet, you name it, no matter what, we did not get down that driveway by any means other than our legs. Down the long hill into the curve over the creek, up the steep curve, down the long, rocky stretch under oaks to the west and a pasture to the east, then through the gate at another bend in the creek, around the corner, and down the last flat stretch for another half a mile. This portion ran under a cove of cottonwoods. Once while walking to the bus a bird pooped in my sister’s hair. I imagined the birds up in the trees, taking careful aim and firing. We would see poop land nearby as we trudged toward the bus. I laughed hysterically when one finally hit.  Melanie did not laugh. She was mad and she hit me in the arm for my glee. It was worth it because it wasn’t me.

The day I rode Prince down the driveway, it was severely overcast, but not yet the sort of gray where the clouds seem almost to meet the earth in their desperation to drain. The light was nearly fluorescent, and cold. I threw a small snaffle bridle on Prince, hopped on using an old tractor as a mounting block, and headed down the hill. We walked carefully along the rocks on the first part of the road. Prince was not wearing shoes and the rocks along the beginning of the driveway until it met the long flat place were large chunks, uncomfortable to bare horse hooves. Where I could, I guided him into the grass along the edges to protect the soles of his feet.

As we headed down the long stretch downhill, I felt the itch to run him, but I was also afraid. We hadn’t had him long and I wasn’t riding with a saddle. I did not know if I could get him to stop if he started to run. Yet I was an overconfident rider. I believed myself capable of so much when it came to horses and my family did nothing to disabuse me of this notion.  Ignorance is bliss, obviously. If I had only any clue then what I know now. But I didn’t.

As we met the straight, flat place, I squeezed him into a real gallop. He was only too happy to oblige. I felt his energy surge forward, the strength of him move under my narrow thighs. Too late I realized just how fast he would run and what little I meant, perched there on his back like an organ grinder’s monkey. Wrapping my fingers into his black mane, I held on for dear life and screamed.

Rock. Cold. Fear.

The wind rushing at my face ate the scream right out of my mouth. It didn’t make a dent. I lowered my head and wrapped my arms around his neck. Wind lashed my bare arms icy. I had read of landscapes passing in a blur. Now I could see what this meant–the landscape really was blurry.

In spite of the speed, in my brain it was as if time stopped, like a narrator hovering above, watching a train veer off its tracks. First the engine, then the cars, and finally the caboose, whipping like a snake’s tail where it didn’t belong. There she goes, I thought. See the horse galloping? See the skinny girl holding on? I cannot fall from here. I will not live if I fall from here. I must stay here until this horse stops running. But how can I make that happen?

Yet the road at the end of our driveway was coming, and across the road there was a fence, then there was a field, and Prince could not jump, so at some point the train’s tail would whiplash and there would be a problem. On and on we thundered and I actually settled in. I was not falling off and had joined the rhythm. But there was an end. What if someone was driving on the road as I came to meet it? I controlled nothing. If a car was coming at the same time we were coming then there would be severe damage.

No car, just the road, hooves sliding on cement, then mud, grass, fence, and crash. I hit the ground with magnificent speed, I rolled over onto my shoulder, Prince rolled across me and up and continued to run, reins flinging wildly around his neck. I sat up and screamed and screamed and screamed. Prince slowed. I screamed and screamed and screamed. Only there was something about the cold light and the wide space that made the screams seem small and insignificant.

I could see far up the road, see a car, see it drive along, slow, then continue. It did not stop so I screamed again. Prince had trotted back over towards the fence, away from me, but not far. Another car moved along the highway. It slowed beside Prince, then sped along, then slowed as it saw me. I screamed and screamed and screamed. These sounds were so tiny, escaping me. I felt like I was putting all my lungs into the screams, but they were silent in the wind. The clouds moved closer.  A drop of rain landed in my hair and then another. I realized my left shoulder was screaming too, in a different way.

The car cruised by, long and slow. Then it stopped and backed up. The people disgorged from all the doors. A gold sedan. I was rescued.

I severely bruised my shoulder that day, but other than that, I was okay. Prince was none the worse for wear. The only real difference was that for the first time in my life when it came to horses, I had fear. The next time I climbed on a horse, I remembered. I stayed on and kept going, but I could not ride bareback for a month. I would not go on the driveway.  Over time, the fear faded. Horses came back to me as gods and goddesses, my protectors, my escape from a dismal reality.

For some reason, Prince came to me recently. I remembered the merciless run down the long road, the sharp, icy air, the cold, gray light. I remembered all of it except being afraid. In spite of everything, the fear was forgotten. In its place instead was this lightning god on four legs, flashing down the road at magnificent speeds.

No wonder girls love horses. They give us power and help us fly and they do so without brutality. Winged gods and goddesses, indeed.

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Happy Birthday, Star Bright

Anyone who knows me well knows I am basically horse crazy.  I didn’t come out horse crazy, but certainly acquired the insanity not long after birth.  I was three years old when my mom took me to visit her little sister and the sister’s pony, Patches.  I fell in love.   From that moment on, I was hooked.

When I first told my mom I wanted a horse, because her little sister was twelve when she first acquired a horse, she promised me I could have one at twelve as well.  She made the promise less with the intention of actually getting me this equine nearly a decade hence, but more to shut up my incessant requests for my own four-legged friend.  She never believed her three-year-old would remember this promise.  Ah, the naivete of parents.  Of course I remembered and at age twelve years, three months, I did indeed receive a pony of my own.

The story of that pony is for another post.  Suffice to say I absolutely adored her, but she was only 10 hands tall, which is basically forty inches.  Considering I hit 5’7″ by age 10, this pony was much too small for me.  In spite of my adoration, I eventually had to sell her and purchased a larger pony.   I continued to grow and outgrew her as well.  At age 14 I was 5’9″ tall and it was time to move on from ponies.  I simply needed a horse to accommodate my ever-lengthening legs.

I had started doing some work for local farmers, helping out with horse training and stable cleaning.  Through this I met a couple who had purchased a two-year-old gelding they did not have the time or experience to train.  They offered him to me to buy for $200.  Having just sold my pony to a good friend for $350, I had enough to buy him.  They called him Volcano because he was born on the day Mount St. Helens erupted, May 18, 1980.

I remember the day I went and picked up my very own horse.  I was so proud as I walked him up the road along the railroad tracks from their farm to ours.  Though I would never have admitted it to anyone, and although I was terribly excited, I was also a bit frightened.  He was big!  I changed his name to Star Bright because of the bright star on his chestnut face, plus Volcano seemed a name that did not bode well.  I took him home and settled him in.  He was my horsey companion for the next twelve years.  Life in my extremely dysfunctional family was difficult; Star made those years as a teenager bearable and even brought me happiness.

Star was an amazing horse.  He could perform circus tricks and would give me a hug with his foreleg in exchange for a treat.  I rode him hunt seat and also in gymkhana.  At one horse show, I rode him in an equitation semi-finals class in the morning, which we won, placing us in the finals that evening.  That day, I rode him in a bunch of gymkhana classes because he seemed to really enjoy the speed and agility required for these gaming events.  He won the hi-point championship for the gymkhana.  Then that evening, still energetic, I rode him in the hunt-seat equitation finals and we won reserve champion.  He was amazing like that.  The horse was as happy in a show ring as he was trekking up the side of a hill or at the beach playing in the water.

Keeping a horse after I grew up and moved away from my parents’ farm was a bit difficult to say the least.  I moved him around and even leased him for a year while I traveled.  I was modeling at the time and spent a good deal of time out of the country.  At some point, it became clear that keeping him was not in his best interest.  He needed someone who could focus on him and I wasn’t doing it. My parents didn’t keep horses anymore, so he could not go back to their place, and he would have been ignored there anyway.

The day I sold him was heartbreaking.  He would not go into his new owner’s trailer.  It was as if he knew what I was doing and did not want to go.  I felt horribly guilty and sad.  I visited him at his new home and he always remembered me.  The new owners eventually sold him to someone else, a woman in a small town in the northwestern part of Oregon.  The last time I went to visit him, he was 19 years old, and seemed genuinely happy to see me.   He rubbed his head on my chest.  I rode him and visited, then said goodbye, not realizing I would never see him again.  The farm was over two hours from my home in Portland.  The next time I tried to contact the owners to arrange a visit, their number had been disconnected.  I was not able to locate them and do not know how Star’s life turned out.

Every year on May 18, the rest of the world remembers the day Mount St. Helens blew its ash all over Oregon and Washington, flattening trees and decimating a forest.  I, however, remember May 18 as the day my Star was born.  Not a year goes by I don’t remember this day and think about the big chestnut horse who made me happy.   Happy Birthday, Star Bright.  Thank you for being my friend.