How much is that horse? - #33
Too much and not enough.
The clouds were caving in on a muggy day in rural Ohio, and I sat on my hands in the front seat of the station wagon to get a better view of the road.
“Why doesn’t she want her?”I asked my mom.
You could smell the rain coming, Genesis on the radio.
“She can’t ride her anymore. She broke her back.”
“Will she be sad?”
“Not if you’re happy.”
We drove a distance I don’t remember to a property that looked a lot like ours, rolling grass, a couple of outbuildings, a front porch, and horses in the back. We’d just lost Image, a mischievous chestnut, leaving his gal Millie behind. Millie needed a pal, and according to my mom, I needed a horse.
We went to see Sugar, a bay trail horse for sale. I wasn’t sure about getting a horse. I didn’t care for Millie all that much, and Image was hard to replace. He was an American Saddlebred retired from mounted police, and he knew it. That horse rode like he’d solved the crimes himself. My mom and the owner (not even a shape of her in my memory) were talking near the house while I approached the fence. Sugar saw me coming and did the same from the other side. If a horse could be a tomboy, this one was. She nudged the top railing of the fence out of place, knocking it to the ground, and then promptly jumped over the remaining two rails straight into my heart.
Standing next to the escapee as she chomped the fresh grass, I yelled to my mom.
“Look!” I said beaming. The owner scrambled over, trying to get a hold of the mare while Sugar threw her head in the air. I was delighted. I turned to my mom and said, “I think that’s my horse.”
On the way home, we agreed: if that was going to be my horse, her name couldn’t be Sugar. Too sweet, too plain. We renamed her Snicker, sealing the deal that she’d be coming to her new home in our paddock. I couldn’t believe I’d won the lottery. A horse! It was like buying an airplane! My parents were willing to spend $500 on something for me. Were we millionaires? Because we were that day.
But, you know, all good things to dust in time. I would meet another Sugar at the barn I rode at a couple years later, owned by a girl named Morgan. Morgan had ice blue eyes and perfect chocolate hair. Her riding clothes were never dirty and she never groomed her horse. Someone else would do it for her. Her Sugar was her “practice horse” because her real horse was a $50,000 hunter jumper that she kept at her own barn. But Sugar was cute. Only 14 hands with a black coat dappled with gray, Sugar was a kind and easy horse. When Morgan was away with her family somewhere, our trainer (the owner of the barn) Susan, would have me ride Sugar — my own sweet Snicker at home in her paddock because we didn’t have a horse trailer.
I took weekly lessons at that barn, and one day we were relationship building with our horses. The test was to ride over a jump blind-folded with your arms crossed on your chest, to trust the horse and let them trust you. I was on Red, a massive Belgian quarter horse. I’d ridden him a few times and respected him more than I liked him. But I knew him — he wasn’t afraid of anything, so I shouldn’t be either. I put the blindfold on, crossed my arms, and gripped my little thighs against the saddle with all their might, pressed my heels gently into his sides, counted his gait, and then moved with him over the jump. I trotted him to the side of the ring, pleased as spiked punch.
Morgan was next, and Morgan could not get Sugar to take the jump. Sugar would halt-stop, rearing in front of it, and with every approach, Morgan got angrier. She yelled at Susan, frustrated. This was a dumb task, and this was a dumb horse. She dismounted and huffed out of the ring, leaving Sugar standing in front of the jump.
Susan was, and still is to me, the most terrifying woman I’ve ever met. She was a drill sergeant for tiny helmeted girls, but tiny girls with money never seemed to be afraid of anything like I was. Susan ignored Morgan and turned to me.
“Bring Red over. You’re gonna jump Sugar.”
I slid off Red into the soft dirt, walked him to Susan, and headed into the middle of the ring with my blindfold in my hand, feeling the ice of Morgan’s chilled glare on my slight 12-year-old frame. Sugar lowered her head. I wrapped a hand around her muzzle and held her, her cheek to my cheek, whispering, “I hate her, too.” Then I clambered onto the saddle, trotted into position, put on the blindfold, and did the jump.
Neither Susan nor horses have time for bullshit.
It’s been a long time since horses have been a part of my life. Snicker died in my late teens. So did Millie. My parents sold that home with all the outbuildings my dad had built himself and moved back to Idaho where he was from, where they’d met and where my brother was born. I went away to college and all that remained of my dusty days in the ring and the pasture was a stuffed animal — a gift my friend Mary got me when Snicker passed, something to remember her by. When I look at it now, I think more of Mary than I do Snicker.
Horses were my mom’s thing. I wanted to be a multi-hyphenate Hollywood star, maybe an actress, but definitely a singer and a writer. I loved horses, but I had other things to accomplish first. That love, though, faded. For almost two decades after losing Snick, the only time I came across horses was when I came across wealth. Girls in college going to the Derby to see horses they knew race. Billionaires who shipped their thoroughbreds to the British Virgin Islands so their daughters could train while on holiday. Horses went from these big goofy dogs I would flop against after a shitty day at school to a symbol of elite breeding — not just in the horse but in the people. I let them go, eventually buying a bike off Craigslist to recapture that wind in your face faraway feeling.
Once, in Topanga, I thought about getting back into it. There were a handful people in our neighborhood who rode their horses on the streets and trails, and when I’d pass them running or hiking or just ambling out in the woods, the smell would throttle me with nostalgia. I would be thrown into the memory bank of riding Snick bareback in the pasture, galloping to the barn. The smell of oats and tack and manure, a tiny witch finding her place in nature.
But a trail ride in Topanga was $200 for an hour, almost half of what my own horse had once cost. And a year later, the car was packed for Colorado — the stuffed animal who looked just like Snick included. Horses could wait.
As we unpacked our new life though, someone else was unpacking down the road. A makeshift paddock went up in a winter avalanche path, safe in the summer sun. At first there was one horse, and then another. I started to route my rides and runs just to pass them, stopping to say hi every time, to linger and share treats and secrets. Horses don’t just remind me of my childhood, they remind me of who I wanted to be when I was taking them for granted.
My mom has a horse again now, her heart full and busy with reports of visiting him at the barn she boards him at. She named him Zen, which I think tells you more about her than it does about him. When she visited last, she asked if I was going to the upcoming Western Colorado equine auction a couple hours away. She’d been reading about it on Facebook. I wasn’t, but I put the date on my calendar anyway.
As the snow melted and the days passed, the date became formalized, settling from an ethereal maybe to a time-stamped commitment. I was going to see some horses.
I put on my jeans and my boots and my favorite necklace for comfort. I listened to Brandi Carlile, Kelsea Ballerini, and Maren Morris the whole way there. I put the windows down as the elevation dropped and the temperature rose. I sang at the top of my lungs and thought about talent shows and lyrics scribbled in notebooks twenty years ago that my friends laughed at. I thought of sitting on the hay bales singing Snicker songs as she nibbled the straw around me.
I pulled into the dirt lot of a country convention center, some 4,000 feet lower than where I lived. Each truck was bigger than the last. Women in rhinestones walked in and out of the wide open doors, followed by troupes of mini-me cowgirls, braids to their butts. Over the loudspeaker, you could hear the rapid-fire chatter of the auctioneers, prices peppered with compliments. “53, do I have 55, Susie made this mare herself, you’re not gonna find a better cowgirl or a better breeder, 55, 55, do I have 57, 57, 57, do I see 59, this is your once-in-a-lifetime chance at this bloodline, 60, we’ve got 60.”
The stands were filled. Cowboys, ranchers, mennonite families, enough denim to tarp the whole building. The crowd seemed frustrated. And maybe they were. Hands were flying up for a beautiful gelding, before the auctioneer interjected, “we’ve got 21 from the world wide web, come on folks, let’s top that, we’re competing with those folks on the internet.”
The next three horses all sold to online bidders. The big cheers saved for when someone in the building won the bid. Every kind of horse trotted into that ring. Ponies, donkeys, geldings, mares, work horses, cow horses, pack horses, trail horses, and so on. To show a horse’s docility, tiny cowboys and cowgirls no more than ten years old would slide off the rear of the horse, stand on the saddle, and crawl between the legs — the horses looking bored out of their ever loving minds, and each one I saw going for thousands of dollars.
But I only had eyes for one: Apache. Apache stood at 16.1 HH, and was still growing according to his listing. That’s 5’6” at his withers, which is two inches taller than I am. His crimped tail hanging just a hand above the ground, a prettier mane than I’d ever have. He loped into center stage, paired perfectly with a rider reflective in height and size, and the auctioneer started the bidding at 60,000 dollars.
The number dropped quickly. 50, 30, 20,000 before bidders started biting. The rider, established quickly as the owner, kept trotting over to the auctioneer, his unmiked voice lost in the noise. But he knew what I knew — that horse was worth more than that. That horse was worth more than my truck. And when he glided out of the ring, declining the low bids to take Apache home, I followed. I wanted to see him in the sun before slumming back through the dirt to my truck and my tenth of an acre lot.
I’m in horse country now, and not all of it is wealth with a capital W. It’s utility, work, joy, leisure, passion, ag, and cowboys spinning round their big dogs, riding them around in that soft, soft dirt hoping they’ll go to a good home. But more importantly, it’s little girls hanging on corral gates, eyes wide and smiles big, watching animals ten times their size, turning to their moms and saying, “I think that’s my horse.”
I don’t know if horses will ever be a part of my life again, but what sweet reverie to be covered in dirt, broke in admiration, and smelling like freshly shoveled manure if just for an afternoon, if just to remember Snick one more time.
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And if you’re like MOR HORSES, read this.