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 . . .

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

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