Friday was my dead horse’s birthday. Her name was Junie because she was born June 1.
My father gave me Junie after I turned eight. She was technically a family horse, but I was the only child old enough to ride by myself back then, and she was too small for Dad to ride. Anyway, in my mind, I had paid for her. Dad told me she cost $23, which coincidentally was the amount of money I had saved, so I gave the money to him and considered her mine.
Junie was a horse but she was closer in size to a pony. Her stocky little body was painted in large swaths of brown and white, and she ate anything that even smelled a little like food. Once she ate crawfish out of the trunk of the car. She suffered from a chronic itchy spot on her stomach, and she loved to rub it on a bucket that covered an old water pipe. She didn’t like to gallop unless we were headed in the direction of the barn, where she hoped to be fed.
I had begun taking horseback riding lessons a few months earlier on a horse named Lady. Lady was a big black and white mare with an easy disposition who knew what she was doing. I did not, and I fell off a couple of times in the beginning. The stable where I was learning taught English-style riding – no horn on the smooth saddle, little stirrups hitched up high for posting – it was pretty to watch, but not very practical in my mind, and nothing like the way my hero, Roy Rogers, rode Trigger.
So Dad made a hybrid saddle for me. He cut the big stirrups off a Western saddle, and attached some English stirrups so I could learn to post while trotting. Posting refers to standing up and down in the stirrups while a horse is trotting.
After we acquired Junie, we boarded her at the stable so I could take lessons on her. When I was a proficient rider, we moved her to the country property where we spent most weekends. I loved to wake up early in the morning and ride the trails through the woods, singing Home on the Range. I actually did that. Sometimes I sang Happy Trails, the theme song from The Roy Rogers Show.
I was such a good rider. Old Mr. Core, a former rodeo star who switched careers after a horse fell on him, broke his back, and left him in a coma for six months, lived across the road, and he told me I was the best rider he had ever seen.
My horse obsession continued through adolescence. As I approached the tween years, I became infatuated with palominos – golden-colored horses with white manes. You know, like Trigger. And I was outgrowing old Junie. Eventually Dad found me a beige horse which looked kind of palomino-ish in the winter when his coat was darker. His name was O’Brien, and he was super-skinny and old. I have this clear memory of Dad making me crawl under O’Brien’s belly to prove to Mom how calm and tame he was, but Mom and Dad both have claimed that never happened, so who knows. Anyway, he was that calm. He knew how to walk backwards and rear up, and I could ride him for hours. I don’t think I ever fell off of him, even though I loved to ride bareback and pretend to be an Indian.
One year, Dad bought me a bareback blanket for Christmas. I rode bareback all the time, but this was a cool pad that strapped around the horse’s belly and provided a handle. To this day it remains one of my favorite gifts ever, along with the entire collection of The Black Stallion series. Yep, my childhood had a theme.
I think of that theme often these days. I was sure I’d grow up to train horses, or ride horses, or do something horsey. After I met my husband, every time we moved I dreamed of finding a little piece of property, like a gentleman’s farm, I guess, though I didn’t know that term. But every time, we ended up in some slice of suburban sprawl, with backyards just large enough for dogs and maybe a patch of azaleas.
I wouldn’t change the journey, of course not. The journey brought me this family – my Hot Firefighter Husband, my three amazeballs kids, even my three weird dogs. The writer Cheryl Strayed has a quote I can’t find about being, as an adult, the person your childhood self dreams of becoming. But then she also says this: Don’t surrender all your joy for an idea you used to have about yourself that isn’t true anymore.
So I forge through life carrying that glaring contradiction, living in a predictable neighborhood with matching mailboxes and rules about what colors a house can be painted – but I’m fostering dogs and tending a little garden and hanging the taxidermied mahi-mahi I caught when I was 14 on the front porch. I’m the real me, mostly, except I dream of buying an acre and building a barn we can live in, with an outdoor shower and a stable and a chicken coop. I guess I’m still sitting in a Western saddle, but I’m posting up and down like I’m supposed to with my toes pointed through those pretty English stirrups, even though all I really want to do is gallop.
It’s okay. Trotting can be a bumpy ride, but still, it’s pretty fun. And every so often, I run.
PS You know what’s weird? There’s another Tricia Booker on the interwebs who is a writer and photographer, and guess what she writes about? Horses.