Horses I’ve Known…

Ages ago, my friend Alex said she’d like to see me write on the horses I’ve been involved with.

To say I grew up on horseback is only a slight exaggeration.  I was born in Redwood City, California, but when I was five years old, my adopted family moved me to Napa, California, a tiny town of (at that time) some 30,000 people  (I recognize that’s not “tiny” compared to some, but Napa always felt like a much smaller town than it actually is).  We lived in the slightly more affluent east side of town, in a house that is modest by Napa standards, but it had a pasture, and we were allowed by our neighbors, who had a larger pasture, to use theirs as well.

Our first horse was a tiny Shetland pony, which was named Patches.  Patches was a very patient, and very slow, pony, which was good as I was only 7, and I did not like galloping at all.  She was a lovely bay, with a black main and tail.  I loved brushing her, but I hated getting her ready for rides–she knew when we were coming after her, and she made every single ride an exercise in first cornering her and then bridling and saddling her.

We also at that time had a black stallion named Midnight (I don’t know what breed he was, but my dad claimed he was a thoroughbred), a dark bay quarterhorse named Easy Rider, and a palomino quarterhorse (I think) named Amigo.

Midnight was hell on legs, and we didn’t keep him long.  My father couldn’t seem to get him acclimated to us, and ended up selling him to a friend who had more time to spend training the beauty.  I was sad, because that horse was amazing to me, and I longed to get up in the saddle.

Amigo was my mother’s horse, but when she lost her sight a few years later, she sold him; I never really got to know him.

Easy was the most idiotically-named horse I have ever known.  He was fairly young when my dad bought him, and he was a fiercely partisan animal.  Only my father could ride him.  He wouldn’t let anyone under ten even get on him, and I never saw anyone but my father stay on him for more than a few minutes–either he’d scare the crap out of them and they’d quit, or he’d throw them.  He caused a few injuries, but my dad loved that horse, so we kept him.  He was my dad’s primary mount while he was in the local Sheriff’s Posse, and performed in many parades and searches over the years.

When I was twelve, my parents divorced.  My dad took Easy with him, and we had only Patches.  My mom sold her pretty quickly, and it was traumatic watching the new owners pull her unwillingly into the horse trailer.  I wept as she drove off, because even though I was getting almost too big for her, I loved that pony.

My mother, my siblings, and I left Napa not long after, and thus began my first period without a horse.  It was the shorter; I lived “in exile” from my hometown for only a year before I moved back to live with my dad.  After I arrived, my father and my stepmother made an announcement one morning:  They had bought a new horse, an Arabian papered horse called Baja’s Magic Star (we called him Baja, or if we were feeling stupid, Baja-ha-ha), for my father.

Then they informed me that the horse they had already bought, which I’d met briefly, was to be mine.  This was not expected, and I was floored.  The horse was a Mustang Stallion who had been captured by the Bureau of Land Management and whom we’d adopted.  He was untrained, so I would be learning to train a horse, and my teacher would be my stepmother.  His name was Sage, and he and I became pretty close, but I never got to ride him due to my stepmom’s personal issues, which necessitated my leaving their household before he was ready for riding.  He got to where he liked me, and would let me saddle him, but he wouldn’t let me mount.

In the meantime, since I didn’t have a horse that was ready for riding, my dad informed me that Easy would also become my horse.  He was having a harder time getting up on Easy, and he felt the horse was better suited to me.

I was terrified.  Remember, Easy had never even let me on him, and he’d thrown everyone but my dad I’d ever seen ride him, except for the few who’d taken the hint and gotten off quickly.  But I wanted to impress my dad, and so I steeled myself and mounted.

And he didn’t even try to get rid of me.

We rode for a few hours, and as I’d long since learned to love speed, we galloped and loped all over the place.  He was brilliant and awesome.  When I got off, I was sore and slightly unhappy with myself–I hadn’t ridden a horse in over a year–but I was sold on this horse being mine, and I curried and rubbed him down happily, and gave him a treat for being so welcoming.

The next day, my dad asked me if I minded if he rode Easy one last time. Of course, I didn’t.  So we saddled him up–and he wouldn’t let my dad even get his foot in the stirrup.  He stood perfectly still for me, but any time my dad or my stepmom tried to mount, he’d shy away from them.  When we cornered him so my dad could mount up, Easy just sat there.  He didn’t buck, but he wouldn’t move, either.  My dad laughed, gave Easy’s nose a rub, and said “Ok, I get it.”  After that nobody else rode Easy.  He was mine, and I was his.

Sadly, it was only a few months later, just before school resumed, when my dad had a stroke and my stepmom convinced him I should be sent to live with my aunt.  It was sold as a temporary thing, and I chose my classes in my new school accordingly, taking a class in animal management that focused on ranch animals so I would be better prepared when I returned to Napa.  Alas, I had been deceived, and I never returned to Napa except to visit.

That was 1986.  I’ve ridden a few times since then, but not often, and I’m pretty certain my skills have atrophied.  I have barely seen a horse since then except when I’m driving by one, but I always stop and feel western saddles when I see them in antique stores when I’m traveling the central valley, and I still love cowboy boots and actually miss wearing them even though I have no need of them anymore.  I love the smell of leather horse tack.  When I attend the county or state fair, I always go to the animal exhibits and endure my wife’s ridicule while I breathe deeply.  She hates it, but I love that smell.

It smells like home.

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About Michael Johnston

Father of a third grader, high school English teacher, writer. Forty-three years old and feeling almost every bit of it on some days, and not a bit of it on others. Based in Sacramento, California, USA
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