When I was 8 years old, my parents gave me a pony but they let me think I bought her myself. I had saved for a long time, and had $26.
“That’s exactly how much she costs,” my dad told me, and I believed him for years.
I’m not sure how I turned into a horsey girl, but I was one. I hung posters of horses in my room, and I read books about them – Misty of Chincoteague, The Black Stallion series, Black Beauty – if it had a horse on the cover, I dove into it.
And of course, I really wanted a horse. My dad had just purchased the cabin in the country where we would begin spending weekends and summers, and so we had a place to keep them. In fact, Dad had found his own horse – an enormous, muscled gelding named Big Red. He was the most beautiful creature, with a shiny auburn coat and a wild tangled mane. When he galloped, it was poetry to watch. He was also about a thousand pounds of crazy. Catching him from the pasture was like trying to trap a rabid raccoon. No one except Dad was allowed to ride him because he was emphatically untrustworthy – he would buck and run with abandon.
My pony was the opposite. Her name was Junie because she was born June 1, and she wasn’t really a pony – more the size of a small horse. She was a brown and white pinto with a stocky build who was always ready to muzzle my hand in search of food. In fact, her entire existence was pretty much a journey in search of food. She would do anything for it, and she stuck her nose into all kinds of places looking for something to sink her teeth into. She once ate several pounds of hot boiled crawfish out of the trunk of a car. When I rode her, she reluctantly plodded away from the stable. But as soon as she thought we were headed back toward the stable and food, she turned into a thoroughbred.
Once I had acquired Junie with my $26, I needed to learn how to ride. We temporarily boarded her at a stable about an hour from our house, and weekly my mother took me for riding lessons. I first began lessons on a larger, more trained horse named Lady, and only fell off her once, thereby only once almost giving my mother a heart attack.
The stable only taught English-style riding. That’s how fancy equestrians ride, with tiny saddles and stirrups and the reins held in two hands. Dad wanted me to ride Western, like a cowboy. So when I started riding Junie, I used a Frankenstein saddle he had created – a Western saddle with a horn and pommel and a higher rise seat onto which he had attached the simpler English stirrups. The result was that I learned how to be a dainty Western rider, posting up and down when Junie trotted but leaning down close to her mane when she ran.
I loved riding. It meant everything to me. If anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be a cowgirl. My sisters and I were very different. I wanted to be a cowgirl, Sister 1 wanted to be a maid, and Sister 2 wanted to be a go-go dancer. Sister 3 was a toddler, but she was already prepping to be the reincarnation of Marie Antoinette. We were amazing.
In the country, our neighbor was an old cowboy named Harold Core who had once been on the rodeo circuit. I loved Mr. Core, and I especially loved him for recognizing that I had a natural knack for riding. He always called me Patricia, which he pronounced pa-TREESH-y-uh, and he’d say, “Oh, that pa-TREESH-y-uh, she can ride like the wind!” I felt like I could ride like the wind, so it was thrilling to hear an old cowboy confirm it for me.
I think about those days a lot because of the surety I felt at age 8. I just knew I would be around horses for the rest of my damn life. Expectations shooed me off that path, for better or worse, and now I can’t remember the last time I rode a horse.
I’m the age at which lots of women try to find themselves, meaning their kids have left home and they’re feeling kind of aimless. A quick way to find yourself is to have life as you know it shatter into a million pieces. My true self came bursting out of her tiny hiding place and took charge of my uncertainty.
I didn’t order up this life change, just like I didn’t really buy my Junie. But I’m steadily holding the reins of the astonishing, breathtaking beast of a life I now have. When I fall, I climb back up. I still feel Junie’s coarse mane lashing my cheek, and smell her pungent sweat.