Good-bye to a Horse

My daughter’s first love was tall, dark, and handsome. He helped her grow from a girl into a woman. Then the day arrived when she had to say . . .

March 2004By Comments

WHEN MY ALARM WENT OFF AT 6:01 A.M., I found a paper plate covered with my daughter Vivian’s handwriting outside the bedroom door. “Please don’t wake me up in the morning,” it said. “It’s 3:00 a.m. I can’t go to sleep because I’m thinking about Mark. I’ve just laid in bed for two hours, but nothing works.”

Mark was her horse. That morning at ten, a man from Boysville, a residential center for abused or neglected children near San Antonio, was coming to pick him up. We had agreed to donate Mark to the home. Mark was lame, which meant he couldn’t be ridden in competitions and no one would buy him. At Boysville he would be looked after and he would not be ridden hard, so he might prove useful. But if not, they would sell him at auction to the highest bidder without questioning what purpose that bidder had in mind. His fate would be uncertain. That was why Vivian was so worried.

She had graduated from high school that spring, then dragged through the summer, working hard at her job but refusing to turn her attention to any of the crucial shopping, packing, and organizing that had to happen before she left for college. In fact, there was a slight shadow of sadness all around. At the first of the summer, her ancient cocker spaniel, who had been with her since she was four, had had to be put to sleep. And now Mark was going too.

I fixed myself a small breakfast, then showered. At eight-thirty I went to Vivian’s room, intending to awaken her so she could get ready to go to the stables. She slept so heavily that she often lay for hours with her clock radio blaring next to her ear. To my surprise, her bed was empty. I went back to our bedroom, where Tracy, my wife, was still asleep. I nudged her gently. “Vivian’s left already,” I said. “We should probably go on out to the stables.”

“All right,” she said, pushing herself up on one elbow. As she dressed, I sat alone in the front of the house and waited.

TRACY AND I WERE CITY PEOPLE who thought that having both a dog and a cat was the equivalent of running a zoo. But Vivian had been a little girl who, like so many little girls, was instinctively drawn to horses. She began taking riding lessons at various stables around Austin in the second grade. Eventually we found some stables we really liked in the north of town about thirty minutes from our house. Vivian began jumping fences and going to shows. She rode a succession of horses owned by the stables, most notably a stiff and obstreperous one named Sneakers. By this time she was thirteen. She had several friends from school her age or slightly older who were riding too. They already had their own horses and, in one case, a private trainer. They won too, and at a higher level of competition than Vivian rode in. The attention of the stable owners, the better trainers, and the older riders was naturally directed toward those girls. Oblivious at the time, I see now how difficult that was for her. She was jealous, although too proud to admit it. But it was more than simple jealousy. Those girls were living what she saw as her destiny, and it was clear that she could not progress much further without riding a better horse than Sneakers. The only way to get a better horse was to buy one. But even in our little corner of the show-jumping world, such a horse would cost more than $10,000, and that was out of the question. We couldn’t afford it. Vivian’s riding career stalled.

 

Meanwhile, the other girls her age began to drift away from riding and sold their horses. The cliché is that girls love their horses until they discover boys. There was some of that, I guess, but the girls who left weren’t necessarily boy-crazy, and the ones who kept riding often had boys on their minds as well as horses. The distinction was that the girls who’d left had found other things they would rather do—often other sports, sometimes student politics, sometimes simply studying. They were, in a way, rather sensible, entering the normal world at the normal time and beginning to make a place for themselves in it. The girls who kept riding were idealists, pagan idealists, who still believed that the horse was a god incarnate. They would sacrifice much of the teenage universe—popularity, conformity, school spirit, and yes, their share of dates—so they could continue to live in the world where the god ruled. They were believers.

Certainly Vivian was. Tracy and I waited for her apostasy, but it did not come. Instead, as if in some divine plan, Vivian came into a small inheritance from her great-grandmother. The prudent thing to do was to save it for college. On the other hand, too coincidental to be ignored, it was almost enough to buy a horse. We gave her all the appropriate warnings: You’ll have to take care of him; you’ll have to ride more often; you’ll miss out on a lot the other girls are doing, and so on. She was impatient through it all. She would, she would, she would. Didn’t we know her? Didn’t we understand her? We told the stable owners to begin looking for a horse.

But by now she wasn’t the only one with her mind on horses. About six months earlier, a strange thing happened: I began riding myself. I had gone out to the stables one evening to pick Vivian up, and amid the by-now familiar sights and sounds and smells, I realized that I wished I knew how to ride. I still wasn’t sure what I thought about horse shows and all that went with them, but I watched Vivian sitting in control of a horse as it cantered along, and I wanted to know that I could do that too.

My respect for Vivian grew as I began riding. During the first lesson, the instructor said, “It takes at least two years to become a rider, not a passenger.” I didn’t believe her, but I soon reconsidered. I found I couldn’t do something as simple as go from a trot to a walk without losing my stirrups. But by the time we began to look for a horse for Vivian, I had progressed to jumping small fences. Still, the notion that I might ride the horse too became part of the justification for buying one at all. Vivian responded to this idea very cleverly. She never disputed my riding the horse while we were looking. But as soon as we had bought one, she took him over so completely that there was no question of my riding him except on rare occasions.

One spring day Glenn and Phoebe Johnson, the owners of the stables, called for us to come to a horse show in Boerne, northwest of San Antonio, to see a quarter horse they had their eyes on. Boerne has become a major center for all kinds of riding in Central Texas. There is a large pavilion on the edge of town with stables and several show rings. We arrived late on a Friday afternoon, before the competition began. We walked among the bewildering maze of horse stalls before finding Glenn and Phoebe, who were staying in one of the many trailers surrounding the pavilion grounds. They led us through the stalls to a young gelding, who raised his head apprehensively as we approached. Glenn put a halter on him and led him out to a paddock, a change the horse accepted easily enough. Halfway between a roan and a chestnut, with high white socks and a lot of white specks on his ribs and belly, he was tall, with a quarter horse’s short back and long tail. Too thin at the moment and a bit restless, he shifted his weight back and forth as Vivian put a saddle and bridle on him and led him toward the largest of the three rings.

Vivian, precarious and nervous atop this unfamiliar horse, entered the ring. Glenn watched silently as she walked the horse along the fence clear around the ring. Then he asked her to trot. Vivian had to stop occasionally as riders who had just come over a jump suddenly loomed in her path. Then, warily, she would continue. Glenn told her to canter. The horse responded willingly, perhaps too willingly. Tracy and I had a few terrifying moments as the horse increased his pace, apparently unconcerned with Vivian’s attempts to turn him right or left or slow him down. At the same time, he had beautiful movement, and when Glenn asked her to begin taking the lower fences along the long, straight sides of the ring, the horse went over them with great confidence and eagerness and a quite pretty curve from his neck to his hindquarters. At seven years old, he was an adolescent filled with raw energy and sheer joy in his own physicality. We told Glenn and Phoebe that we wanted to buy the horse.

We drove back to Austin in silence. Vivian was too excited and we were too stunned at what we’d done to talk much. Suddenly, we were horse people. Except for our house, and a disastrous real estate deal ten years earlier that was supposed to make us rich for life, the horse was the biggest investment we had ever made.

SHE NAMED HIM MARK. I realize now that I don’t know why. He was still somewhat thin when he arrived at the stables, but everyone told us not to worry about that. We showed him around and had him trucked to a vet for examination. When the reports came back positive, we put down our check, most of it Vivian’s inheritance. I went out late one afternoon to watch Vivian ride him for the first time at the stables, but as she led him out of the stall, it was clear something was amiss. Suddenly he was favoring his left front hoof. Vivian never got on him. After much discussion and examination over the next several days, the conclusion was that he had been shod improperly and that his front hooves had been filed down too low in the back in the process. All we needed was the right type of shoe and enough time for his hoof to grow back into its proper shape. The days dragged by.

There is a definite hierarchy among the riders at a stable. Beginning riders, regardless of age, are on the lowest rung, and from then on, in a surprisingly pure way, skill is the crucial defining factor in the hierarchy. The only other factor that separates riders is owning a horse. Owners pay a monthly boarding fee, but they can ride as often as they want under the eye of the best trainers the stables can offer, with no charge for lessons. At our stables, the horse owners rode each evening starting about six. Now, with Mark, Vivian was eligible to ride with the other owners. Some were young girls, but most were older women, often in their thirties and forties, who had bought and sold many horses, who rode in every show they could, and who were helpful and friendly but who, for all that, were not an easy audience when you were thirteen, walking into the ring with your own horse.

When, after more than a month, Mark was finally sound enough to ride, that was what Vivian had to do. I took her to the stables for her riding lesson. It was a heavy, humid evening. As she walked with Mark from the stables to the ring, I could hear her gasping for breath, and her hands were shaking.

“Relax,” I told her.

“Okay, okay,” she said. “I hope this works.”

“It will if you just relax.”

She took him into the ring and led him to the mounting block, where he stood quietly while she got on. She walked him slowly around to the right and then to the left and then began to trot. She was tense and apprehensive at first, but then so was Mark. After a while, though, he began to settle down and at the end of the lesson ran a nice course over a series of fences. The other riders complimented Vivian on her new horse and sighed and said how pretty he was. Vivian had been accepted as one of the women—not girls—in the world of horses.

Soon enough, Vivian wanted to take Mark to a show. After forcing ourselves out of bed at five on a Saturday morning, Tracy, Vivian, and I drove along deserted streets and freeways to the stables. There, with dawn just breaking, we found a swirl of activity. A long trailer with room for ten horses stood open in the parking lot. Grooms spouted curses and warnings in Spanish as they led each horse to the loading ramp. Invariably, the horses backed away. Several reared, their wild eyes flashing white in the darkness. It was humid and windless, sticky hot even in the gloom. A groom led Mark out, wrapped his lower legs to protect them during the trailer ride, and led him, protesting, to the ramp and then up into the trailer.

At the show, Vivian entered classes (levels of the competition) involving lower fences than she was accustomed to jumping at the stables; as it turned out, she dominated her classes, and Mark never made a false step. After watching her for several years, and learning to ride myself, I had begun to see what a good ride was supposed to look like. The horse should take each fence in his natural stride, neither jumping too close to nor too far from the fence. He should keep his body straight along the line between fences and, around curves, bend it in the same arc as the curve. Also, the horse must canter with the left leg leading when moving left and the right leg leading when moving right and change leads mid-stride when changing directions. The rider, meanwhile, should show little or no effort while controlling the horse with tiny adjustments to the reins or subtle pressure from the legs. The ideal is the “invisible ride,” where the horse follows the course perfectly and changes leads at just the right moment with no apparent cues from the rider. Now I could recognize such a ride on the rare occasions when there was one, and I could also begin to see the faults in the frequent less-than-perfect rides. As Vivian rode in her classes, I knew, really for the first time, whether she had had a good ride or not. We left late that afternoon with Vivian in the back seat of the car. She had a fistful of ribbons and a crystal vase, which was the grand prize for her division. She was so tired she fell asleep and only awoke fifty minutes later, when I came to a stop in our driveway.

Soon there was another show at the same place. Vivian’s victories forced her to move up to classes with higher jumps and much tougher competition. Before each show begins, there is an hour set aside for “schooling.” Riders can go into the ring where they will be competing and warm up over the jumps they will encounter in their classes, although not necessarily at the same heights. Since everyone must school during the same short period, the ring is always too crowded. The horses, having just arrived in new surroundings with unfamiliar horses and people all around them, are excited, tense, and difficult to control. The riders and their trainers are determined to pack as much instruction as they can into the few minutes available to them, so they work with unusual intensity and abandon.

Vivian entered the chaos of the schooling pulling hard on Mark’s reins. He was holding his head high, trying to avoid the bit, prancing and shaking his head. She trotted him around the ring several times in each direction to try to settle him down. Then she asked for a canter. Tracy and I were standing at one end of the ring. As Vivian cantered around the curve, I could see another girl coming over a jump in the middle of the ring looking to her left rather than where she was headed. In a single instant, I could see, without believing it, that the girl and Vivian were on an unavoidable collision course. The horses ran right into each other. The other girl stayed on, but Vivian was tossed out of the saddle, spinning horizontally in midair and landing facedown in the dirt. She didn’t move. Tracy and I ducked under the top rail of the fence and ran to her amid the confusion of horses. I was certain she had been crippled for life. What had we been thinking when we let her get involved with horses?

Vivian was moaning. “Ohhhh,” she said, then lay quietly, hardly breathing. Tracy took off her helmet. A doctor arrived and checked her pulse, her eyes, and moved her gently to see if anything was broken. I stood up and took Mark’s reins. He had stopped the moment Vivian came off and stood by, looking at her. Soon the doctor had her sitting up, still dazed but apparently with nothing broken. After a while, Tracy and I helped her to her feet and led her out of the ring and to a chair in the shade. Then I tied Mark up and went back to Vivian.

By now the show had started. One of the classes Vivian had entered was under way, but we scratched her. I got Mark’s bridle and put on a more severe bit. Gradually, Vivian improved. She drank a Coke and ate a handful of grapes. Although she still looked pale and her walk was stiff and slow, she wanted to ride in the show. She put on Mark’s bridle with the new bit, cooing to him and stroking his neck. I gave her a leg up, and she rode him at a slow walk to an empty pasture where a few practice jumps stood beneath the strong summer sun. Soon the announcer was calling her number for a class she had entered. She walked Mark toward the ring.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

“I’m fine,” she said. “I can do this.”

“All right,” I said and let her go on.

I found Tracy standing next to the rail about ten yards away from the entrance. She looked at me, aghast. “She’s fine,” I said without much conviction.

The hardest thing I had had to learn about horse shows was to keep quiet and do little more than what Vivian asked of me. Every time she entered the show ring, I wanted to give her words of advice, caution, and inspiration. Instead, I had to leave all that to Glenn or Phoebe. They knew more than I ever would, and for that matter, Vivian knew more than I did. She liked my being there, but she was independent of me too. This was her territory. If she wanted to go into the ring after her collision, I couldn’t stop her nor would I, even if it meant facing Tracy about it.

I stood next to Tracy along the rail and watched Vivian come up to the ring. She looked quickly at the order of the jumps posted near the entrance.

“Have you got it?” Glenn asked her about the course.

“Yes,” she said and pointed at the jumps in sequence.

“Then keep him at a nice, steady pace and you’ll be fine,” Glenn said.

She entered at a walk, then nudged Mark with her heel. He began to canter immediately. She made a nice circle and headed for the first jump. Mark was moving quickly but not frantically. He took the first jump, then the second. Now she was at the opposite end of the ring. She turned him to the right and got the proper lead change to the right leg without any trouble. She took the next two jumps with Mark accelerating just a bit too much between them. Still, he arrived at the proper spot for the second jump and took it naturally in stride. As she turned left, I could hear her saying, “Whoa, whoa.” Again she got the lead change, to the left leg. Mark took the next two jumps in perfect stride and finished the course at his rapid but even pace. After the last jump, Vivian reined him to a trot, then to a walk without much trouble, and they exited the ring calmly.

Tracy and I moved quickly over to meet her. “Excellent, Vivian,” Glenn was saying. “That was excellent.” Her color had returned in force. In fact, she was radiant. “Good boy,” she said patting Mark’s neck. “Good boy, good boy.” She wrapped both her arms around his neck and hugged him. There were some 35 riders in that class. Vivian got the red ribbon.

VIVIAN COULD NOT ENTER EVERY show on the Central Texas circuit, but she entered when she could. She and Mark turned out to be a formidable team. Alert yet calm, responsive but not impulsive, eager and willing but not uncontrollable, Mark looked and acted like the noble animal he was. He moved with real grace both on the flat and over fences. He knew what he was there for, and he went out and did it.

 

Vivian was remote and sometimes a little testy as we drove to shows early in the morning, but that was all right. I had learned to let her do things her way, and the truth was that she could do things her way. She had always groomed Mark carefully and cleaned her tack and polished her boots so they’d look sharp entering the ring. She was always warmed up and ready when her number was called. She had studied the course and knew her own personal strategy for riding it. Occasionally, she had a perfect ride. More often, she had a very good ride. But she never beat herself. She entered the ring ready to win and expecting to win, even though her competition now consisted of many seasoned and imposing veterans of the Central Texas horse-show wars.

The bulletin board in her room was covered with ribbons she’d won on Mark, but as she got older, she had less and less time to ride. There was school. There were boys and parties. There was a job at an ice cream parlor and volunteer work at an animal shelter. During her junior and senior years, there was getting into college and all the preparation and tests and applications that requires. She rode as much as she could, but it wasn’t nearly enough, according to the world of horses. It did happen that in June, after her junior year, we both entered a show. We spent a long summer day together. I fulfilled my subordinate role with her, but when it was my time to ride, she helped me too. We were precisely in tune with each other. We won our share of ribbons, hers in considerably more advanced classes than mine, and we drove home, smelly and exhausted and happy. I had a daughter who was independent of me, but we were also still connected.

As it happened, that was the last show she would ride in. Mark was lame again. Even basically sound horses have problems from time to time, so at first we weren’t overly concerned. But his condition persisted. There were visits to the vet, each one beginning with increasingly desperate hope. None of the treatments worked. Vivian loved Mark, but she had always planned to sell him before she left for college, hoping to get more than we had paid for him because of the training he’d received and the ribbons he had won. She saw him leaving her for a life with a loving new owner who would win her share of ribbons too. That dream might have come true if he had been sound. But he was not sound.

Friends said he could stay for free on land they had, but Vivian adamantly rejected that idea. Mark would be out there alone, basically uncared for, and the thought of that desolate, lonely existence would haunt her. Someone at the stables knew about Boysville. I called the home and they agreed to take him with the understanding that if it turned out they couldn’t use him, they would sell him at an auction for whatever they could get. I told Vivian. The thought that he might help children appealed to her and was something to hold onto against the thought that he might be sold. She looked at me. She seemed distant, distracted. Then she looked down, seemed to shrink a little, and said, “Okay.”

WITH SOME OF HER MONEY from the ice cream shop, Vivian bought Mark a new halter and lead rope for the trip to Boysville. When Tracy and I arrived at the stables later that morning, Vivian had led Mark in his new halter to a patch of grass beside the parking lot, where he was eating ravenously. I had brought some carrots. I gave him one or two, which he ate with equal urgency and then went back to the grass. He was getting a little fat from not having been ridden.

 

The man from the ranch showed up right on time in a light-brown pickup pulling a matching horse trailer. He was a thin, elderly cowboy in Wrangler jeans, a big, square belt buckle, and a pearl-button shirt. We greeted each other, and I filled out the proper forms. Then, gently and with extreme politeness, he said it seemed like it was time to load up the horse. Vivian led Mark out of the grass toward the trailer. Mark took a look at the trailer and stopped. Vivian lured him forward with a carrot. He followed her up into the trailer, then backed out again. She still had half a carrot left and this time got him to go in all the way.

As soon as she left the trailer and the man shut the door behind her, Mark knew something was up and began to kick. “Easy, boy,” she said.

“He has plenty of room in there,” the man said. “We’ll get back too late tonight, but by tomorrow morning we’ll be riding him.” We shook hands all around. He got into the pickup and began to pull the trailer slowly out of the parking lot. That seemed to take forever. The trailer had solid sides that ended in bars that attached to the roof. All we could see of Mark was his eye between the bars. He was looking at us. His eye was wide open, and we could see white all around the large, round, brown iris. He looked alarmed, indignant, accusing.

As the trailer began to roll, Vivian was crying. I hugged her but she accepted only reluctantly, then stood apart from me. The truck and trailer moved on, going very slowly over the speed bumps in the parking lot and very slowly down the driveway until it disappeared at last around a curve. That was the last we would ever see or hear of Mark.

I went over to Vivian again, and this time she accepted my embrace. I could see rivers of tears flowing down her cheeks. But she pulled herself together. “Okay,” she said with finality. “I’m going to clean out my locker and then I’ll be home.” She walked off to do her last bit of work at the stables and be with her emotions and get ready to face what her new life would be.

Tracy and I got into our car. I couldn’t talk. She put her hand on my leg. “It’s the end of something,” I was able to say at last. I couldn’t say it was the end of childhood; I couldn’t have gotten it out. We rode on in silence for a block or so.

“Well, at least we got him for her,” Tracy said. “At least she was able to have him.”

“Yes,” I said. “She might ride again. She might have another horse someday. But it won’t be the same.”

“No,” Tracy said, “it won’t.”

It was so clear that even if Vivian bought a horse as a grown woman and even if she pursued riding with more dedication than she had already shown, it wouldn’t be the same. It would not be bad, but it would be wiser and less awed and it wouldn’t be for the first time. It would be one responsibility among many, something to make time for, an escape from life itself. But it would never again be life itself. Mark must have known it too. That was why we saw him kicking in the trailer, his eye wild and accusing, seeing only betrayal when the woman he had helped create had to turn and let him go.

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