It’s amazing how little it sometimes takes to trigger a series of way-back memories. As I was passing through the picturesque town of Canandiagua, NY, on a winter day recently, the snow-covered early-19th-century and Victorian-era homes all decked out for the Christmas holidays reminded me of a sleigh ride my wife Diane and I took at a historic site there for Valentine’s Day a couple of years ago. Remembering the beautiful black steed that pulled the sleigh through the snow summoned a host of other horse-related memories, including one or two that are probably best forgotten.
Unlike one of my daughters who is an excellent rider and has often breezed thoroughbreds flat out at a nearby track despite her distaste for the cruel aspects of horse racing, I’m not really a horse person. Some of the memories that arose on the day of my drive are strong testament to that. However, my family always kept a horse or two on our property at the edge of our small town when I was growing up in the South, and I’ve always been fond of them, even when the feeling was not mutual. Rightly or wrongly, I see them as acting a lot like overgrown puppy dogs when treated properly.
My father was a horse person, however, occasionally even to the point of doing his own shoeing, and I still have his nail box and a couple of his tools and grooming implements. With one or two exceptions, the horses he owned all had to perform the double duty of saddle horse and plow horse, which usually proved too much to expect. I recall in particular one magnificent-looking specimen we had for such a short time that his name escapes me. Daddy was a hard-working, solid-citizen sort of fellow, but in his younger years he didn’t mind showing off a bit every now and then. And he was really proud of this horse until one Sunday afternoon when he saddled him up to parade him before a house full of my aunts and uncles. Things started going wrong the minute Daddy led the animal from the barnyard into the house yard, which was fenced all around. Already aware that something unusual was afoot, the horse got scared when he saw a large bunch of cars in the driveway.
Although Daddy surely must have known better, he climbed on the increasingly terrified creature anyway, only to be sent immediately sailing solo over the front gate. While Daddy was picking himself up, the horse went flying around the house with the saddle slipping gradually under his belly. He jumped the fence into the barnyard, ripped off the saddle in the process, and afterward turned around and stood calmly looking back as if to say, “I could have told you this was going to end badly.”
Something similar happened to me with another horse, also on a Sunday afternoon, when I was about ten or twelve. I was seated casually on the animal outside our front fence and about to ride down an incline to the street, when a group of four riders came galloping around the corner a couple of blocks away. When my mount heard them, his ears went back, and when he turned and saw them, he bolted in the opposite direction, throwing me from the saddle. Well, almost. My foot caught in the left stirrup, and I thought I was about to meet Saint Peter. Luckily, the stirrup came loose, leaving me scraped and bruised but able to ride another day.
Neither of these horses could plow a straight line, so neither was around for very long after shucking their riders, even though neither animal was at fault for what happened.
After my scare, Daddy bought Old Ben, a twenty-two-year old Palomino who was a darker version of Roy Rogers’s Trigger and who we had seen pulling a truck-farmer’s sled of produce up and down our street for a number of years. He was a great plow horse, easy to catch and harness or saddle in the barnyard, and still energetic enough for my brother and me to enjoy riding. Eventually, we sold him to a family with small children, and he lived several more years.
Next came a younger horse with the simple name of Pony, who gave us two colts, one of whom, Sandy, was a spitting image of Marshal Matt Dillon’s most-often-used horse on Gunsmoke, right down to her yellowish coat and black mane and tail. This tells you our fondness for the westerns that dominated television and movies in those days. Pony could plow and also pull a buggy that Daddy restored (pictured here with my grandmother and a friend aboard). With Pony, it was the fondness for westerns that proved the undoing of me and my brother (who, if he reads this, will probably tell me I’m confusing my recollection of Pony with some other horse we once had, but no matter). One day, we took her on a trail ride on an abandoned and over-grown country road and ran into a hoard of mosquitos, which spooked her and sent her running wildly back the way we had come.
Well, that’s more or less what happened. Emphasis on the “less” part. We had stopped to rest and were not mounted at the time, and Pony ran all the way home while we walked back, wondering with each step if we would ever recover her and what punishment our father would mete out. Unfortunately, Pony somehow jettisoned the saddle along the way, and it didn’t fare as well as she did. Nor did we. When Daddy asked us why the horse got spooked, we admitted that we had been spraying around her with some mosquito repellent we had taken with us. For the life of me now, I can’t remember what prompted us to take the stuff along, or confess to using it around the horse, but I do recall the tongue-lashing we got. I can’t repeat much of it here, other than the part about, “What the hell were you thinking?” I can tell you, though, that the rest was definitely not complementary. I don’t think he used the word “stupid,” but he left no doubt that’s what was in his mind. And deservedly so.
Years later, after our father had passed, I was going through some old photographs and came across many that I had not seen in a long while. Several showed me at what was probably age two sitting on what Daddy always said was the best horse he ever owned (pictured here in its winter coat), with him nowhere in sight. I’m sure he was only an arms-length away and felt like he had the situation under control. But looking back now, it’s a bit scary to wonder what might have happened if a hoard of mosquitos had suddenly showed up or a group of riders had suddenly come galloping down the street. I have to confess that the point of the tongue-lashing my brother and I received after the mosquito spray incident comes to mind. But that’s a bit unfair, as that photo is from a time before people assessed risk in play with all the caution that moms and dads exercise these days, often to excess one might argue, in the this age of helicopter parenting.
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