My maternal grandmother was born in the early 1900’s, a time when horses were everywhere and were used both to pull wagons and for transportation. When I was young Grandma Ada told me many stories about runaway horses trampling people. They are dangerous beasts, she would warn me. My mother therefore also learned to fear horses. To me, their admonitions were just stories about the old days.
One day my parents decided to take me to a pony ride held at a park in Miami, Florida. I was instantly smitten with the kind, gentle horse as a lady led me around and around in a circle. I loved the horse’s big eyes, its thick, untamed mane, and velvet coat. The aroma from a horse’s coat became a scent that over the years became my favorite perfume. There was no looking back after that first pony ride. Everything was horses, horses, horses, drawing them, watching them, and reading about them. I’m sure over the years my parents regretted that pony ride.
My dad served in the US Coast Guard which meant we were like nomads, living in trailer parks up and down the east coast. Each time we landed in a strange place my instant quest was to find horses to pat and watch. We were lucky to spend a whole four years in Scarborough, Maine, what turned out to be an idyllic state for a free ranging kid who loved to play outside all day. When I entered the Oak Hill Grammar School my passion for horses grew into a reality. The owner of an old schoolhouse-barn across the street from the Grammar School bought several horses and let anyone rent them for about a dollar or less. My favorite horse was a black pinto named RCA Victor. They also had a jet black, tall former race horse named High Pants and eventually a dark brown, retired Pacer.
We rode the horses after school and almost every weekend on long stretches of abandoned roads that followed alongside miles of marshy swamps. We must have ridden for about two hours at a stretch, riding all the way back to the trailer park, a good distance even now. Once at home I’d say hi to Mom, who did a good job pretending to be happy as she saw me on the tall horse. Then we’d ride the horses through the park, clip clopping by our friend’s trailers, the horses looking huge as they were reflected in the windows. We felt very special and made sure everyone saw us on our powerful steeds.
No one ever was bucked off, no horse ever tripped and fell, even though we would gallop for long stretches on the trail, the wind in our hair, laughing at each other and our beautiful horses. We had never heard of wearing helmets.
Those of us young schoolgirls who shared a passion for horses were unusually excited one day at school. We heard about a new riding stable opening up in West Scarborough called Tally Ho Stables. They gave group riding lessons on well trained school horses of all shapes and sizes. Occasionally my mom would give me two dollars for lessons but she cautioned me not to expect this amount of money every week. I suspect she didn’t tell my father that she had given me the money as it must have been a big sum for them. The occasional lessons gave me a chance to learn hunt seat equitation. At Tally Ho’s first horse show I came in dead last in the Novice division. Posting never came easy for me. For the first time I fell off a horse. Only my pride was broken.
Eventually Dad received orders to transfer to Boston, Massachusetts. We lived in Taunton, which I was to sadly discover was a faster paced world. I missed Maine where a kid could play make believe all day and grow up slowly. But of course I found horses, friends with horses and a 4H leader who let me ride his horse. The 4H horse was a retired show horse with a passion for bucking. He was mine to ride all over the countryside alone but the first twenty minutes of every ride he would try to dump me. I learned that a horse that cannot put its head down can’t buck. I held the reins high on his neck. All he could do was hop, which he did, down the road until the barn was out of sight. Then we had a great day together.
After college I was old enough to join the real world and go to work. In the back of my mind I always had the desire to own a horse I could call mine. When I became engaged my mom told me I should save my money to buy furniture. All I knew was that I had money in my pocket so of course I defied her. You guessed it. I bought a beautiful Palomino mare. I named my dream horse Charra. In hindsight I realize now that she was too much horse for me but horse love is blind. There is something special about a young girl being in control of a feisty animal. Charra made me again feel special, in control of at least one part of my life. Eventually she was boarded at a horse farm a short walk from my home. We spent the next year and a half riding through the seasons. I rode her bareback during the hot summer, jumping over downed trees in the woods, at night trail riding with friends through the nearby Hopkinton State Park, and eventually long rides to an apple orchard in the fall.
But Charra was a nag compared to the expensive show horses in the barn and their owners were well to do, snobby woman. Even though I took hunt seat equitation lessons, a few dressage lessons and even stadium jumping lessons I was still the beginner, the poor kid, the person everyone made fun of at the barn. Charra and I rode with the ladies on the trails occasionally, where they witnessed my horse embarrass me when she had temper tantrums because she wanted to go back to the barn. One time I left the hoity-toity woman while out trail riding with them. Charra and I took off alone. But horses are herd animals. When I turned her away from her barn mates, Charra pitched a classic hissy fit. I remember a horse owning neighbor yelled advise from his barn as he saw me with struggling to get my horse to walk straight, not sideways down the road, not backing up, straight. I never carried a whip, just used the reins, my legs and my voice. She’d calm down, walk quietly, then go back to having a fit. As a result of riding Charra I was in good shape. She kept me mentally and physically challenged.
One day Charra ate some bad hay and quickly came down with colic. Twenty-four hours later, barely able to stand after walking for hours during the night I gave the vet my devastating decision to put Charra out of her misery. I remember that night cost me about $128, a huge sum at the time (before credit cards). It was at this point that I also realized that the horse “set” weren’t my people. Although I loved horses there was no way I could buy another one, feed, vet, shoe or follow another dream which was to show a horse, requiring a big truck and trailer and huge entry fees. Owning a horse had taught me that I was not in the same financial league as other horse owners. I quit chasing horses and turned to dogs. But my love for horses has never diminished.
Today I’m surrounded by neighbors who used to have horses, who have empty barns, abandoned training arenas and white, pole jumps sitting forlornly in the fields. Now most people can’t afford horses. Free horses are available through online ads or word of mouth. There are news stories of unwanted horses simply not fed and owners cited for neglect or cruelty. The horse shows I occasionally attend have become even more elite and rich.
But I often think back on my youth spent chasing horses and feel lucky to have lived in an era when horses were in most everyone’s back yards. Now horses are almost gone. How lucky was I to have lived in a time where stables rented out big horses to little girls without a concern about getting sued. How lucky was I to have grown up chasing horses?