By Robin Mayes, Farm Educator
Two of the best things in my childhood happened when I was 9. My little sister was born, and I received another fantastic gift in the form of a horse. While my little sister would eventually grow up and become one of my best friends, my horse became my daily companion in my younger years.
I will always remember the day Dad came home and announced, “(Mr. So-and-So) owes me $300, but he wants to trade a mare instead.” My big sister Joanne’s eyes lit up! “Now the mare is going to foal next spring,” he continued.
Knowing that my older sister, Joanne, had spent most of her 14 years in LOVE with horses, he gave her the choice. “You can have either the mother or the baby,” he told Joanne. She looked thoughtful for a moment, while I was thinking, “Oh! I want the baby. I want the baby!”
After a brief contemplation, Joanne asked, “Can I ride the mother now?” Joanne was always thinking practically. Dad said, “Yes. You can ride her for several months.” Without hesitation, Joanne exclaimed, “Then I will take the mom!” I was silently overjoyed! I did not mind waiting to have a foal of my very own! I began reading everything I could find regarding the care and training of colts and fillies!
When Dad came home with the promised mare, Sweet Sue, we were ecstatic! She was a stocky little bay mare. She was not a whole lot bigger than our former pony Brown Sugar -which was a bit disappointing for Joanne who was always guessing how many “hands” tall the horses were on the numerous TV westerns. I thought Sue was beautiful, though. And every bit as gentle as Brown Sugar.
Joanne was also a little disappointed in that, as well. As, I think, a charter member of the ‘No Fear’ movement, she thought she was ready for a more challenging and exciting ride. She managed to enjoy her new horse though, and even condescended to give me a ride on the back occasionally in the months before the mare would foal.
During one memorable ride together, we were cantering through the yard when Joanne neglected to tell me that we were going under the clothesline. She ducked. I didn’t. (Now that we are older adults, Joanne often apologizes to me for our childhood together.)
On a June morning in 1967, I awoke to a sunny day full of ‘school’s out’ potential. I walked out onto the porch that faced the horse pasture and whistled for Sue. I saw her out in the field. Beside her was a smaller, light-colored animal. “Mom! There is a big dog in the field with Sue!” Before Mom came outside, Sue had come up the hill and closer.
I then realized what I was seeing. A spindly-legged buckskin foal! I could not believe my eyes OR my fortune! I could not wait to share the news with Joanne. Of course, she was astounded at the sight of the buff-colored baby AND also pretty jealous. She began that very day to try to trade horses with me, a tradition that persisted until the day she sold Sue and purchased a much taller, and a bit wilder, sorrel mare named Princess.
At the suggestion by my grandmother, I named my little filly Merrylegs from Black Beauty fame. I began that very day to put into practice all the tips I had read about training foals. I spent part of each day brushing and talking to her. Leading her around the pasture. Leaning across her back. We had Brown Sugar’s little pony saddle so when Merrylegs was a couple of months old, I began cinching the saddle on her.
Normally, horses are not ridden or “broken to ride” until they are at least a year old, often 18 months. But because I was only 9 and pretty light-weight (AND pretty low on patience) when she was about 9 months old, I put the saddle on and just made a spur-of-the-moment decision to slip my foot into the stirrup and slowly climb up onto her back.
To my surprise, there was none of that jumping straight into the air, bucking bronco behavior I had been led to expect. She just stood there until I pulled the reins across her neck and she turned the direction I was indicating and walked across the field. I could not believe how easy it was! And what a thrill! My OWN horse!
I rode around the pasture for a few minutes until I spotted Joanne walking to the house from the barn. I rode to the fence and called out to her, “Joanne! Look! I’m riding!” Rather than coming out and congratulating me as I expected, she made an irritated face and continued into the house. I shrugged and continued my slow ride around the perimeter of the field.
When I got back near the house and the row of evergreens that provided a windbreak for the house, Joanne jumped from behind the trees, yelling and shaking a tin can in which she had put stones. Alarmed, Merrylegs did NOW jump straight into the air AND sideways at the same time. Needless to say, I ended up on the ground. As was her usual way to diffuse such a situation and dissuade me from “telling,” I am pretty sure Joanne pointed out the pile of manure into which I had landed. I always fell for whatever humorous tactic she used and laughed with her!
Merrylegs and I grew up together. As a youngster, I really enjoyed her company more than about anyone else’s. We spent parts of every day together. Oh, the adventures we had! We were often running full speed, just ahead of an imagined approaching tornado or marauding bandits! We swam across our small pond imagining we were fording the Rio Grande! Sometimes I just slipped from the top of the fence onto Merrylegs’ bare back. I was happy to just lounge, recliner-like, on her back watching the clouds roll by as she grazed around the pasture.
She was the perfect childhood friend. No peer pressure. No judging. Always happy to see me. Never told others the secrets I shared with her. And only occasionally did she take the bit between her teeth and refuse to do what I wanted.
We don’t have horses at Gallant Farm but we do have chickens and sheep that you can visit and make a connection with. Stop out and bring the kids for some fall fun on the farm.