I woke up this morning feeling fortunate.
I began my day by thanking God for all of his open-handed generosity to me. I’ve always felt materially poor, and I realized this morning that it just wasn’t true (and not just because I had been born American). I had been watching some YouTube videos the night before of endurance trail riding. I didn’t feel envious so much as regretful (which is amazing because in the past I have coveted other people’s fine horseflesh). I never lusted after the cowboy—I wanted his horse! I’d have happily ridden off into the sunset on his fine muscular quarter horse, leaving him afoot in a cloud of my dust!
In the past, I’ve wished that I had had a finer horse. I am ashamed of feeling that way now. My dad bought April for me when I was 12 years old and she was 15 months old for $150 from a dairy farmer named Victor. Victor loved and feared horses. He liked to watch them graze, pet them, and occasionally raise a foal. He was afraid to ride or really work with them. That is where I came in. A mutual friend introduced us, and I began to ride his horses for him.
Victor had a very brightly marked appaloosa mare whose name I can’t recall. I never rode her because she was pregnant and more than a little crazy. She was what the old-timers call a “star gazer.” She was always throwing her head in the air and carrying her nose high to escape being controlled by the bit. She was a real pain to handle and ride. April was her foal.
April was an uncommonly smart, stubborn, and curious horse. It took twice the normal time to train her to saddle, and nothing could be left in the pasture with her that she could dismantle. I had to use a bull snap to secure her stall door because she could Houdini her way out of any area closed with a normal latch or tie. When she did get out, I might find her anywhere. One day I came into the barn to behold her standing on top of the stack of hay bales I had stored there. She stood calmly looking down at me. She had clambered up seven feet using the square bales as a staircase.
I had no money for formal riding lessons, except those taught me free of charge by the ruined horses I had ridden before April. I learned to be flexible and centered from a Welsh pony named Smoky who regularly tried to scrape me off on barbed wire-wrapped posts, low-hanging tree limbs, and clothes lines. Sal taught me to let go of the saddle horn and hold onto the reins at high and totally uncontrolled speeds. She schooled me in a few other useful tricks like how to get into the saddle unaided while she engaged the booster rockets, and that a horse can still run away with you, full speed, and uphill even when you have hooked a finger in the bit ring and pulled its head back to your knee. It is amazing how the urge to survive can improve your seat!
April had a few tricks up her saddle pad for me as well. She was more sinned against than sinner. I learned some of my bitterest lessons at her expense. She was more horse than I deserved. I feel regret that I ever apologized for her lack of color, confirmation, or coordination to anyone or even to myself.
She was all I had, so I did everything with her. I joined the 4-H horse project and after a year or two was fortunate enough to have a wonderful woman named Judy K. take me under her wing and teach me everything she knew about Western and English equitation. I rode April in parades; competed in the yearly 4-H horse show; carried the American flag; led pleasure trail rides; learned to jump; made speeches to horse-crazy girl scout troupes; became a junior horse leader and taught beginners how to saddle, ride, and care for their new horses; helped organize and run the first 4-H competitive horse ride in Wisconsin; and completed a 25-mile competitive trail ride and a 50-mile endurance ride. My horse could ford rivers; walk narrow planks over ditches; jump low obstacles; ignore gunfire, four-wheelers, and snowmobiles; tolerate pigs, barking dogs, and other fearful beasts; side pass straight and around corners, counter canter, take off from a dead stop into the correct lead, doing flying changes of lead in perfect figure eights; back without refusing in any direction; and I didn’t have to use the reins to guide her, just my legs and shifts of weight. I could slow her with my voice.
I rode in every season. I was given favor with all the local landowners and farmers. They trusted me with their crops and gates. I recently heard about a huge, luxurious stable in the Middle East—I had been gawping at videos of royal people’s beautiful Arab horses. They boasted about having 50-acres of space for these people and their guests to trail ride on! When I was training or trail riding for pleasure in my teens and twenties, I could ride for three or more hours at a good fast walk/trot and never travel the same ground twice.
This morning as the sun rose, I was thinking back over all of this before I got out of bed. I no longer have a horse (but I still have my English saddle, tack, and brushes). No one looking at me would ever think I had spent long hours in the saddle. When I was a kid, people made fun of my tack, clothing, and the big, pumpkin-colored, clumsy, rawboned, knot headed Appaloosa I rode. I never did fit in with “horse people.” All the same, I am grateful for every opportunity and hardship.
What a wonderful ride it has been—and it isn’t over yet! Begonia