My daughter Dee Dee sent me pictures of my granddaughter Toni, now 7 years old, with her new horse, Jill. Toni’s grandfather thinks Jill is still his horse. From the evidence of the photograph, a girl and her horse, cheek to cheek, eyes closed in blissful rapture, this horse belongs to Toni, no question.
Back in October my daughter and her family moved “home” to Montana. Dee Dee had lived in Washington several years. Toni was born in Japan and the family ended up back in Washington, stationed for discharge. For my son-in-law Christopher, home had been Florida and aboard Navy ships, so Montana is a fresh new experience for him.
Grandpa figures he should buy Toni a pony. Dee Dee laughs. Six hours distance away, I laugh too. At 7, Toni is already too tall for a Shetland. Dee Dee and I both know that Grandpa is remembering Pony, a retired circus horse we bought when Dee Dee was two years old. Pony was one belligerent, ornery cuss of a Shetland. Before he’d let Dee Dee ride, Dad would climb on the saddled pony, his feet dragging on the ground, to “buck him out.” This became ritual for a while, especially in early spring, when after an idle winter, Pony had plenty of pent up snort and energy. Every time Dad straddled the saddle, Pony bucked his unwanted rider onto the hard rocky ground.
Then two-year-old Dee Dee, little girl that she was, would walk up to Pony, pick up the dangling reins, hand-over-hand herself up into the saddle and ride all around the barn yard. Dee Dee lived and breathed horse. She crawled over, under, around and between Pony’s legs, braided ribbons into his tail, fed him watermelon and bubblegum. We adults could not get close enough to throw a loop on that stunted black and white devil-horse.
When we needed to bring Pony in from the pasture, it turned into a most pitiful sight. We’d drive out into the field and stop at a distance. We could see Pony, already aware of us, squaring off, spraddled legs ready to spring away. We’d give Dee Dee, now about four, a bucket of oats and a halter and set her off to catch her horse while we hid out, crouched behind the pickup. Pretty soon, here she’d come, little boots crunching through the short grass, Pony following on the lead.
I’m delighted Toni gets to ride. I’m extra delighted Toni has her own horse. At seven, all I wanted was a horse. All I got was want.
I didn’t get to ride until I was married. Even then I never had a horse of my own. I learned to ride on my husband’s rope horse. I could not have had a better teacher. Sputnik was soft-mouthed and -gaited, traits I was too ignorant to appreciate until much later. Sputnik was smarter than I by a long shot. He loved to work cattle. All I had to do was hang on, hold a loose rein, pay attention and follow his movements with my legs. Even if we’d been working horseback all day, often in the evenings, my husband and I would saddle up again. We’d head out along Deer Creek, ride through the coulees and across the pastures. I loved every minute.
The thing I miss most about ranch life is having a horse. Sure, I suppose I could figure out a way to ride now and then. But it would not be riding with a purpose, working cattle. Not to mention, it’s been how many years since I was horseback, and I’m stove up to boot. I’d need a stepladder to mount. These years later, while maybe an old plug would be the smart thing for me, it would not do. Sputnik spoiled me.
I love to picture Toni racing Jill across the open fields. She’ll smell the mingled sagebrush and sweat of her horse, feel the warmth of bunched muscles beneath her seat. She already has the heart for the life. She and Jill share a bond, a trust that cannot be taught. In Grandpa, she has a trainer who will teach her most of what she needs to be a good rider. Jill will teach Toni the rest.
(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High School in 1963 and left for good. She finds, upon her return, that things are a little diffeent. Keep in touch with her at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com.)