by Liane Ehrich, Guest Contributor from VAILAZ.COM
Anyone who has horses knows that somewhere out there is That Horse, the one that will run the fastest pattern, or love them unconditionally, or take home all the blue ribbons; the horse by which all other horses will suffer in comparison.
I’ve owned some fantastic horses in my life, dressage horses with movement that was akin to a flame: ravenous, elegant, light; young precocious colts with their eyes glinting with trouble, athletic and bold, and mares tempestuous and afire whose movement took my breath away.
I knew someday I would find That Horse. I had the picture in my head – a thoroughbred perhaps, or an Andalusian – something that floated above the ground, for whom gravity was but a passing nuisance.
Then one day I had no more horses, and I realized I’d already had That Horse, and though he’s won some ribbons, they certainly weren’t on the national stage – he never performed a level 2 dressage test, never jumped an oxer, never cared one whit if I lived or died as long as someone, anyone, brought him his food. This is about That Horse and how he was there all along.
I was ten years old when I saw him. It was winter, he was in a field of mangled creosote and chewed up palo verde, he had been advertised as buckskin, but looked crud grey; he was short, unattractive and fat. His name was Bandit, and he was to be our second horse.
His mane was roached, which meant it stood up like a hedgehog, making his fat neck look like it belonged on a draft horse. It took the sellers almost an hour to catch him, the halter craftily hidden behind their backs, a cold drizzle falling from the slate sky. It took another hour of wrangling to get him into the trailer.
To sweeten the deal the horse, named Bandit, came with his own blanket, a saddle, a bridle, the halter he was so annoyingly evading, and the two-horse trailer he found so horrifying; all this for $500.
Bandit was the same age I was, actually, he was 52 days younger. He was a registered Standard Quarter Horse, a registry largely composed of horses that cowboys agreed ‘kinda looked like a quarter horse’. His papers, which told me his registered name was Sue’s Little Varmint, went back all of one generation.
I, of course, had expected more. I was a child after all, and horses should have flowing manes, and long elegant legs, they should stand taller than I did, and they should not be a color called mouse. But, even to a 10 year old hoping for the black stallion and receiving a horse with a stubby chewed off tail; he was far better than no horse.
He was a horse, and until I got the horse of my dreams, he would do. He was nothing special. He was just a horse.
He became my horse because unlike our first horse, he had definite opinions about things. He could rear, and he taught me how to fall off, and get back on. He taught me that sometimes even the Black Stallion probably needed a swift swat to the rump with a crop.
He taught me to be a rider. And when I deserved it, he taught me that maybe he was more than just a horse.
Slowly, in my mind, he became everything he should have been. When my best friend and I charged our horses hell bent for leather through the Pantano, bags of stolen money in our saddlebags, and a posse hot on our heels, he became the perfect horse for an outlaw on the lam.
His color blended perfectly with the desert, making him hard for pursuers to spot, and he was nimble, he could scramble up anything and never balked. He was courageous in the face of speeding trains and cross-country desert gun battles.
And later, when the neighbors and I set up our cross-country jump course to practice for the Olympics, he proved to be just as good an Olympian as an outlaw steed. He jumped anything he couldn’t crash through; He jumped high and round and never clipped a rail.
And unlike people dreaming of the Olympics, I was riding them. As I approached the fence, I could feel him coil below me like a predator, his muscles bunching, his reflexes alert, and when we hit the sweet spot in front of the fence, he would uncoil like a tiger and fly over, and take me with him, a hand full of black mane in my fist.
When we ran barrels, he flew like a bolt and took the corners with his whole heart. He always beat for the finish line like his tail was on fire.
Even in his retirement, he held surprises, finally learning his left lead at the age of 26, and doing a fair approximation of a piaffe if the rider was willing to work for it. He taught new comers how to ride, though always with a sour look of disgust. In his heart of hearts, he knew his true speed was the gallop, and was never happy unless he was indulging it.
He retired to a cattle ranch, and one spring day he woke up and could not stand, and that was the end of him. He deserved better than to have to struggle to his feet. He was 32 years old. And he was far more horse than anyone could have ever imagined.
Through all those years, the one thing he never was, was just a horse.