Just about any clinical veterinarian has a story – maybe even more than one – about a special mentor. For many of us, those mentors had four legs and were considerably more hairy than our teachers or parents. Those stories, those furry influences, matter. They remind us why we chose our careers, and they help us understand the people and patients we serve.
The person I have become was created by a horse.
True horsemanship is determined not by money, time, equipment, style or supposed expertise, but by a mindset – a gritty practicality, a determination to finish the job, to solve the problem, to use all of the resources at one’s disposal. The first lesson is persistence.
Looking back through a mother’s eyes, I realize that my parents showed remarkable tolerance and courage in the face of their new adolescent’s foray into insanity. My mom grew up with horses. When we had gone with my riding instructor Suzie to check out my first prospective horse, Goldie had not interviewed well.
The irrigated pasture was the only square of green in the buff, oak-blotted landscape. One horse-shaped body grazed amid the rectangular forms of the cattle. The ranch owner looked at Suzie. “She’s pretty green. They’ve had a saddle on her a few times, but she’s mostly been a broodmare. You’d better try her before the kid.”
She was going to be my horse. I wanted to be the one to ride her, not Suzie. It mattered too much to bear. An electric jelly traveled up my legs and into my stomach. My glasses slid down my nose; I pushed them up with my right index finger and tried to be invisible. I had a theory that if I stood sideways, at the edge of a wall somewhere, and avoided eye contact, that no one would notice me. I was later to learn that this is a great technique if you want cattle to move past you. Everything rested on this moment. With all of the intensity of adolescence, I felt that this was the only chance: the only horse, my only opportunity to live something other than the stories in my beloved books.
Suzie swung her leg across the saddle. The 15-year-old horse shifted her weight and froze. As the faded denim of Suzie’s legs closed around her barrel, the horse shuddered: ears went back, head went down, hind legs kicked out in a buck. The out of shape broodmare with the still engorged udder was no match for Suzie. The mare’s last foal had just been weaned less than a week before. Suzie guided her around the sand arena using spur and direct rein. She pulled up. “Yellow horses,” she said in disgust. “They’re all ornery. She’s pretty green. You sure you want her, Chris?”
I nodded. My throat closed around a tangled knot of hope and fear.
Suzie looked at my mom. “Well, Jean. She’ll need a lot of work, and she’s not papered, but I think she’s,” this time she nodded at me, “up to it. But,” and now the glare hit me full force. “You’ll have to toughen up. No dreaming. If you don’t pay attention on this horse, she’ll hurt you. Bad.” Then she spoke the words dear to my mom’s Scottish DNA. “The price is sure right.”
I didn’t care about price, training, papers, or ornery attitude. Left to untack and brush the mare while the grownups babbled the meaningless polyglot of adulthood, I wrapped my arms around her neck, tangling my fingers in the white mane and breathing in horse sweat and valley dirt. “You’re going to be mine.” My breath was a whisper. “I’ll train you and take care of you. We’re going to be best friends.” As though touching a precious artifact, I reached my hand to the muzzle where the white blaze dropped into velvet pink. Nothing had ever seemed as soft or perfect. I was thirteen; I didn’t care about anything else. She was beautiful.
Palomino: coat the color of a newly minted coin or three shades lighter or darker.
The summer before I began eighth grade, Goldie’s coat hovered half a shade to the light of that mythic coin. Each leg glowed with a white stocking, a white blaze streaked from forehead to nose. Her mane and tail were white, peppered with a few black hairs. Slight broodmare belly and bad attitude were invisible to my eye. She was Trigger, Pegasus, and the unicorn. Every other girl would wilt from envy.
The night we went to finalize the purchase, school had just begun; dark fell during dinner, making the time seem later. I was terrified we would get to the seller’s house and find out that my dream was sold to someone else. I would wake up the next morning, in the same state as every morning, an eighth grader with a flat chest, thick glasses, and no horse. My foot floored an imaginary accelerator. Dad had to be missing every light on purpose.
In the house with the white carpets that made me check my Nikes twice for mud, Dad swooped the illegible, sprawling signature that mine now mimics across the bottom of a check for $800. Both grownups signed the deed, and that was it. I rode home in a shining chariot of glory, the owner of a horse. And nothing was ever the same again.
A college friend once told me he doubted I would ever marry. “You’re married to your horse,” he said. He was wrong, and he wasn’t. Like a marriage, a first horse is a complicated thing. And Goldie was a complicated horse.
After that night, Goldie and I reached an agreement. I would work on training her to neck rein, to lope, to circle, to back, and generally to be a civilized riding horse. She would buck me off at least once a week for the year it took for me to learn to hold my seat long enough to make the effort less worth her while. At one point the rodeo performances were dramatic enough that my friends began timing my “rides.” I learned to fall. I learned to get back on, to start again. And I learned to sit, to hold my position until we achieved the outcome I desired.
That yellow horse and I had a strange relationship. Flying through the air, hitting the sand with a roll and a grunt, I would look up to see a blaze face peering down at mine. ‘Oh crap! Did I kill her,’ the brown eyes would say. The ears would flicker as I hauled myself to my feet. ‘Oh crap! I didn’t kill her,” the hindquarters would say as she turned to run from my outrage.
Halters became irrelevant; Goldie and I were inseparable. “Come on,” I would say, and my big yellow dog would follow, lead rope or no. We played tag in the manner of The Black Stallion. I would lean against her legs, sitting in the shade of her neck as her copper coat dried in the summer sun. And she never let me forget to pay attention.
Goldie last bucked beneath a rider at age 34. The rider in question was my then three-year-old daughter, and the buck was just a crow hop, but as I snapped, “Whoa. Quit it!” the ears flicked forward and the yellow neck arched even as she subsided. ‘I’ve still got it,’ my horse told me.
Goldie was 36 years old, with severe arthritis and in liver failure, when she took her last bite of grass in our orchard. When, with a syringe of pentobarbital, I helped my best friend from this life, I ended a part of my own. I have children of my own, including a daughter somewhat older and far more self-assured than that skinny teenager with the thick glasses, but some part of me will always be that girl with the golden horse.