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Gift Horses

I have always loved horses. Before we had them, I remember trying to talk my father into letting me ride a cow. I don’t think he did, but when I was seven, he drove up and unloaded a pony during my birthday party. Tommy was a black and white Shetland so gentle you could lie down on the ground under his belly although I’m not sure why anyone would want to. I also jumped up on his back from behind, rode him backwards and taught him to jump low walls and climb stairs. Although Tommy didn’t know it, he was going to be a circus pony, at least in my mind. He never made it to the big top, but his tender and patient spirit helped build my confidence and taught me trust.

After a few years of hearing me talk about palominos, Daddy traded Tommy for a feisty little golden pony with flaxen mane and tail. I couldn’t believe I finally owned such a lovely creature. The first time I walked behind her, she kicked me in the stomach and I fell to the ground in a breathless heap. For the next year I tried to train her but she was ornery and just plain mean. I got what I deserved, trading in the familiar and reliable for the flashy. “Beware of what you wish for” now made sense.

Soon our herd expanded as Daddy bought more ponies and horses to populate our pastures. Our prissy Welsh pony Flicka looked delicate and refined but she seemed to be on a suicide mission when someone climbed aboard. She would take the bit in her mouth and run for the nearest barbed wire fence. Although one of the most beautiful of our herd, she was unpredictable. From her I learned that beauty can be dangerous.

A small, part quarter horse filly, Peanut took me through my adolescence. With her scooped nose, her face almost looked Arabian although most folks who looked at her simply called her plump. Since I had no formal training, and planning to show her in the pleasure class one summer, I asked Dad for riding lessons. He promptly answered, “No, Ma’am. There’s nothing they can teach you. You already know how to ride.” That summer, Mama took me to every horse show within driving distance so I could observe the horses and riders in the ring. I spent long hot days training Peanut in the big field in front of Grandma’s house. By summer’s end, we were ready, or so I thought. We entered a pleasure class at a local horse show. I took her through her paces and in the end we lined up to receive our award. We were the last to receive a ribbon, maroon. Although eighth place was not what I had hoped for, I had learned another lesson, self-reliance.

A few years later I fell for a spirited (wild, actually) part-Arabian stallion. Like many bad boys, Sunny came with a reputation. No one had yet tamed him, and that was my challenge.I spent hours working with Sunny trying to stop him from rearing up. Once he got his front legs up in the air, he just kept going up and sometimes over, till he fell back on top of his rider, which is what happened to me once. Shaken up, but not seriously injured, I vowed to always either use a martingale or to never let him get his head up too high when I was aboard. One summer, my uncle arranged for Sunny and I to be the flag bearers during the opening of a nearby horse show. Carrying the American flag in one hand and keeping Sunny in check with another was an awkward exercise, especially when Sunny got a whiff of nearby mares. I managed to keep him under control until the invocation when he reared straight up. Thankfully, since everyone was supposed to have their eyes closed in prayer, not too many witnessed this stunt. He came back down just as the prayer was done and we galloped out of the ring, displaying the fluttering flag to loud applause. That day, Sunny taught me about grace under pressure.

Over the years, when I was growing up, we had more than 40 horses come and go in our herd. Each had a unique personality, and many I could call friends. I can’t recall all of their names, but I like to remember them as my “gift horses” for all the valuable lessons they shared.

If you are lucky enough to have a “gift horse” in your life, throw your arms around his neck and give him a big hug. And if you must, go ahead and look him in the mouth. Just be careful not to get nipped!