I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
It’s always been the horse. If I search my earliest memories, the horse is there; his sounds, his movements, the rich earth smell of him, the lush fall of tail. The horse inhabits memory in specific ways, such as the first ride–and in generic ways. Anyone who grew up loving horses knows Bucephalus, Alexander the Great’s horse, or Traveler, Robert E. Lee’s horse, or the unnamed horses on the cave walls in France or on the petroglyphs in the American Southwest. There were movie horses, TV horses, racehorses. For those of us in the right time and place, there were working horses: the Amish horses in the field or trotting along the road; the gypsy-decorated horses in the streets of Baltimore, the carriage horses in the downtown of any city with tourists.
My first clear memory of horses came when I must have been about three years old, going with my aunt to the stable where she had been taking riding lessons. And here’s the strange thing about memory. This memory has stayed with me for a number of reasons, but mostly because I went back to it later and wrote it down as the core of a story, which has, of course contaminated it forever. But there are other reasons why it stayed with me. There was a photo of my aunt that I found later, dressed as I remember her that day–the tweed hunt coat and beige jodhpurs, posed on a bay horse with the white board fence of a riding ring cutting across the background. There was the third degree I got from my grandmother the following day about the man we rode with–a boyfriend of my aunt’s. There was the fact, reflecting back in mid-life and doing the math from the dates, that my troubled parents, trapped into marriage by my insistence on life, were rushing toward divorce.
So my aunt took me riding with her. I remember my eagerness–it pervades the memory, polishes it with an intense light. I remember her hunt coat–she ever fashionable, an exotic figure, the artsy sister–the scratchy wool, the stiff twill jodhpurs. I remember driving in her car with her. It would have been 1953; the cars were big and boxy with no seatbelts so I could have been standing in front of the seat, leaning on the metal dashboard as we turned up the lane to the stables. I remember a long bumpy drive, the road white with crushed oyster shells, the fields tall with grain, and the pointed spars of pines lining the horizon. I remember the warm oat-sour smell of horse manure, the buzzing of flies, the white-painted fence, the low-lying shed stables, the heads and necks of horses stretching over the stall doors, all light and shadow.
Perhaps we rode in that white riding ring, me in front of my aunt on the bay, straddling the pommel of the English saddle, feeling a bit precarious so far above the ground, but reassured by my aunt’s arm around my waist and the warmth of her strong body in all that tweed and twill. I’m sure we only walked around the ring a few times, enough for me to get the feel of the horse’s motion. I had spent much of my earliest years–my babyhood–in boats my parents were refurbishing; the rock and slap of water on a keel has always lulled me; perhaps the sway and bob of the horse’s back lulled me in the same way.
But that’s not all. The boyfriend rode a palomino–the color of Roy Rogers’ Trigger; I knew that much–all outfitted with a western saddle, he in jeans and western shirt with a bandanna tied around his neck. Perhaps I’m inventing that last bit about the bandanna, but I’m certain of the western saddle. He wanted to ride out along the fields, but my aunt held back. She was protective of me; maybe she didn’t trust herself with the horse. In my childhood memory, she was always a brilliant rider, but later, when I was 12 (a lifetime for me but a mere nine years later for her), I put her up on my mare, Skyrocket, and she seemed scared and claimed to have forgotten how to ride. So, maybe she never rode well or well enough to be confident riding out of the ring that day. Maybe it was really about the outfit and about the guy, Roy, on Trigger–or whatever his name was.
In any case, he persuaded her to go by putting me up in front of him on the palomino where I could hold on to the horn. We rode out on the dirt road that bordered the field. It was hot and sunny, slightly humid with cooler pockets of air under the trees. It must have been mid morning, not yet too hot to bear, but the fields were bright with sunlight. Insects flashed and floated above the grain– wheat or oats–pale yellow, waving slightly and rustling as we rode past. I heard the clop of hooves at the walk for the first time, a hollow syncopated sound. The horse had a rich gold coat and pale mane. I could touch his neck and mane from where I sat. I could smell the saddle leather, faintly beefy, oily, earthy, and I could smell the sweat of the horse, warm and salty and a little like fresh bread. The saddle creaked; the dust rose around us as we walked; the grain waved gently.
I was a curious child. I must have pestered Roy with questions: What’s that sound? What’s this? What’s that? Perhaps he had younger siblings; perhaps he loved horses and wanted to share what he knew; perhaps he was trying to impress my aunt. Still, all my memories of horse, of what makes riding joyful, of the mysteries of the horse’s movement, the arcane elements of tack seem to trace back to that day. I learned about the saddle horn, about how to sit so my legs held me on the horse, about the mane and tail, about the way the gaits sound, about how to hold the reins and neck rein after that day. I was delirious with happiness, and it got better.
My aunt rode up beside us. She may have asked if I wanted to ride with her, but I already knew I was better off with Roy. There was teasing banter between them.
“Let’s gallop,” he said. He was, after all, a young guy on a fast palomino. He had an arm around my waist; I was snug against him and we started to trot. I must have called out, scared, because he reassured me. It would smooth out when we galloped, he told me, and it did. We were flying along the road, me hanging on to the saddle horn, he hanging on to me. The wheat, the milkweed, the pine trees that fringed the fields blurred past. I could hear the beats of the gallop on the road, quick triplets, going quicker, as Trigger flattened out into a run. I may have laughed or squealed with glee, the way a child does when adults swing them around, so nearly out of control that only trust keeps fear at bay.
We stopped and waited for my aunt to catch up. I was grinning. I wanted her to marry this guy so we could go galloping like this every weekend. She was not pleased. There were words; I was transferred back to the bay and we headed back to the barn. It was the last I saw of Roy and Trigger in real life, though they linger in my memory, bright with buzzing light. I doubt that my aunt remembers the day at all–certainly she wouldn’t recall the same details as her then three-year-old niece.
This memory strikes me now in a number of ways. First, it’s clear that I wasn’t horse crazy, exactly, before that day but that I crossed a line then that I would never cross back. The fact that I remember it now is only partly a result of my generally early recall. It’s more that the affinity for horse was something archetypal in my young mind and that day brought it into full focus.
Secondly, this memory has disturbing elements to me now, especially when men I know ask me, “What is it about women and horses?” As if men didn’t also love horses in the same obsessive ways; no actual horseman has ever asked me this. But when men who don’t love horses ask that question, they suggest something darker, hinting that the passion for horses is something particularly female and, thus, they seem to hint, sexual. The memory of Roy and Trigger and my aunt and the flashing grain fields is troubling on that account, for there was sexuality in that day–it just didn’t revolve around me. On reflection, it seems that there was a heavy flirtation between Roy and my aunt–perhaps they were already sexual in some form. It was the early fifties, and, though we remember it as a sanitized, ultra conformist era, my mother and aunt were be-boppers: rebellious, fashionable, red-lipsticked, hard-drinking girls. I was proof of my mother’s wildness. My aunt kept up her sophisticate’s attitude for years. They were rural small-town girls on a train line that led straight to Philadelphia and New York. Roy would have known all this.
And then there was my grandmother. The day after the ride, I was sore from hanging on to the saddle and bouncing against the pommel and the horn as we galloped. I may have complained. I was three, after all, not complicated enough to think about what not to tell my grandmother. She sat me down on the toilet and examined me–looking for ticks, she said, though even a three-year-old knew she was looking in a pretty strange place. So, I have asked myself over the years, did that make my first experience with horses sexual? I think not. There was the joy of motion, sure, and the all-body tiredness and soreness a good ride brings, but the sexuality of the ride was in the eyes of others–my aunt and Roy or my grandmother and, well, all the men who’ve ever asked the question.
But horses are touchstones of another sort in my life, marking other moments and turning points by their own powerful resonance in my psyche. Real moments with horses happened with my grandfather, whose own father, I learned later, raised trotters that he drag-raced on the flat country roads of Eastern Shore Maryland. He took me to visit friends who put me on an iron-gray pony. He took me to Pony Penning in Chincoteague twice, where I shook hooves with Misty of Chincoteague and met the grown Maureen Beebe. He took me to harness races at the fairgrounds and at Ocean Downs in Ocean City. He took me to the stables behind the track where I met Adios Butler, then the fastest pacer in the country, and got to ride behind a race horse in a training sulky.
And then there are the real horses in my young life, when finally I was able to have a horse of my own: Sugarfoot, Skyrocket, Bambi, Shady. Sugarfoot was a two-year old inbred palomino, not as glorious as Trigger–she had pink albino skin and green eyes, a roman nose, and cow hocks. She had already been ridden too hard and fast for her young age and would later succumb to kidney failure, but for a few years, she was my best friend–sweet, trusting, reliable and beautiful in my bedazzled eyes.
Then came Skyrocket, my first show horse, a wild-eyed five-gaited mare with a mysterious past, who I first saw galloping across a pasture toward us, chased by teenaged boys who assured us that, once you caught her, she could go pretty fast along the road. She was glorious and troubled and dominated Sugarfoot, pushing her through the electric fence or chasing her away from the best grass. She could rack–a smooth four-beat gait in which only one foot has contact with the ground at a time–like anything. She became my Pony Club horse, racking wildly up to the two-foot D-level jumps then leaping twice as high above them. Where Sugar had been my pre-teen peer, Skyrocket was mature, temperamental, gorgeous in a slightly faded way–a woman’s horse.
It was my parents’ ambition that brought Bambi, for I had had some success in the 4-H show ring with Skyrocket, and Bambi’s rider was moving out of the junior competition into the adult level. Bambi was the gentleman. I remember him as polite, obedient, patient, and clever. He taught me as much as the riding teacher I went to see once a week–or rather, they worked as a team to teach me, since Bambi had been trained by my teacher, Mr. Boxwell. It’s usually Bambi I remember when I remember horses or, for most of my life, when I dreamed of them. Once Sugar was gone, he was the one being I could turn to when the demands of a teenage world had me in tears. I’d go out to his stall, climb up on his chestnut back, throw my arms around his neck and sob. He’d stand there, still, warm, oat-smelling, and wait me out. He might turn his head to look at me, or touch my knee with his nose, but he didn’t shift weight or pace around the stall. When I’d cried it out, I’d slide down to the straw, pat him on the neck and thank him, and head back to face the cruelties of my young world.
So this is how horses wove themselves into my memory. Now that I have horses again, I find that people who grew up loving horses (and not just women) want to talk about the horses they knew and what they meant to them. Perhaps this is what divides horse people from non-horse people–these early memories that bracket our lives. Like well-used punctuation in a sentence, these memories shape something fundamental in who we are, direct the trajectory of our lives and interests, but do so without our really paying attention to them until something causes us to focus on them. Having horses again after more than thirty years has brought a kind of order and sanity into my days that’s grounded in all those memories of horses: the conventions of handling a horse (from the left), the “horse-first” rule, the subtleties of communication between horse and rider, horse and handler, horse and horse. When I talk to horseless horse lovers, now, I sense the great lack in their lives, one that they live day-to-day unaware of until I mention Mattie or Sam and invite them to ride. Then, as with this piece of writing, their memories of horses come spilling out and they get that dreamy, longing look in their eye.
But memory is not just the province of humans. Horses have long memories and pretty precise ones at that. When Bambi was in his thirties, I would go home and see him at leisure in the pasture. He would hear my voice, raise his head, and walk over to me. Though I had been mostly a continent away for the past ten years, he never failed to recognize me. Sometimes I would swing up onto his back and ride him around bareback with only a halter and a rope. He was arthritic by then and twenty years too soon for any real breakthroughs in treatment. It hurt me to leave him each time, though my parents had committed to keeping him as long as he could walk and eat.
A horse shows recognition in a number of ways–perked ears, an intent soft look, a deep snuffling of scent, a soft whinny or a nicker. I’ve seen Mattie sniff at a graduate student who thought he might have worked with her on a trail/pack team four years earlier. He seemed uncertain whether she was the horse he remembered, but she still greeted him each time by sniffing his scent deeply, with her ears up, eyes soft. He had been kind to the horse he knew; Mattie acts like he had been kind to her and she hasn’t forgotten, despite the fickle human memory.
And horses remember bad things even better. I once spent a college summer working with a Saddlebred mare, Shady Lady, who had developed some distressing habits after a year at a training stable. Shady had been sweet as a filly, the pet of the family who owned her and their hope for breaking into the gaited show world. But the woman they had taken her to had difficulties with alcohol and men, the combination of which had earned her some enemies in the, at the time, male-dominated show world. When she first took Shady into the show ring, a green, newly trained filly, one of her rivals on a more experienced horse rammed his horse into her from behind. Shady panicked and reared and from then on, that was her response to stress under saddle. My job was to undo the damage–which I optimistically thought I could do in a summer. But her memory was stronger than my will or my skill. Once a day she reared, sometimes throwing herself over backwards. Finally, I found that she would go quite calmly if I took all pressure off the reins or took her on a trail ride. We went to several shows that summer, but it was a scary and, in retrospect, foolish experience. Only when she could go around the ring with no other horses passing her from behind did she show the beautiful form that was her potential. She never got over this memory, and was eventually retired to pasture as a brood mare where young kids rode her along the farm roads and she never had to see the inside of a show ring again.
William Carlos Williams wrote, “the blackbird is involved in what I now.” For me and for other horse lovers, the horse is involved in what we know. In art, the horse is a symbol of war or strength, as in the Greek bas-reliefs or the statues of heroes from the renaissance and beyond. Yet the horse in art is also a symbol of freedom, of the joy of motion, of the inexpressible beauty of living in this world. They touch our memories in a different way than, say, dogs or cows do. They are full of contradictions, as we, ourselves are: wild but compliant, fierce but gentle, strong but yielding. In remembering the horse, we remember the best of ourselves, the bright potential that exists in us at some point in our lives. In touching a horse, we touch all the sleek raw beauty that exists in the world around us and which we have become separated from. In riding, we seek unity with all those things, and, if we’re lucky, the chance to reconnect with all the memory of horse–patience, strength, discipline, compassion, movement, love.