On the Other Side of the Fence

When I was a kid, my father converted a chicken coup into a makeshift stall for my sister. Well, it was for my sister’s horse, actually. Although at the time I thought it would be good place to keep the girl and suggested this. I couldn’t understand it. Why a horse? Why not just put chickens in there as nature intended? With six kids in the family and some of them heavy eaters, we certainly didn’t have money to feed a horse as well. And my Dad didn’t know the first thing about horses. That probably had a lot to do with why my sister was able to talk him into it. Mystery solved. Modifying the chicken house was just the start. He actually went out to the far reaches of our one-acre spread and built a barn. He did this bit-by-bit and paid cash as he went along. Our friendly next-door neighbors had forty acres and allowed him to put a fence on their property so that the horse had room to graze. A friend of Dad’s came out and helped build stalls. Everyone seemed to be in on this. Don’t get me wrong. I liked the barn. It was like having a huge, ground level tree fort in the back yard. It was a nice place to hide behind whenever there was some blame pending. It’s where I learned to appreciate the aroma of fresh sawdust and hay. That still gets to me. I learned other things as well. I learned of a club called “4-H”. This was a mysterious underground organization of girls who seemed like communists to me. They met in secret and always stopped talking whenever I entered the room. And they would never tell me what the four “H’s” stood for. For years, my best guess was “Hogs, Horses, Heifers and Hounds”. The Troublemaker The horse, Prince Thomas Littlebit or “Tommy”, was a Welch/Quarter horse and a bit of a rascal. He escaped on regular basis, usually to raid the Arabian farm just down the road. The farm’s stud, “Desert King” (this was the early 60’s prior to the more imaginative part of the decade) didn’t quite know what to make of this plucky little gelding hanging around the periphery of his kingdom. It was the closest thing to a rival His Highness had ever experienced and he, no doubt, looked upon this bizarre little half-horse with a mix of anxiety and curiosity. As long the Tommy Threat was present Desert King seemed unable to perform his primary function. The owner of the farm threatened to sue Dad. He did this at church during the coffee and cookie fellowship session. He made it clear to my father that “I could take you for everything you’ve got” – which consisted of a wife, six kids, a barn, a chicken coop (converted) and a little horse. So nothing came of it. I don’t know how much Dad paid for Tommy, but I know it wasn’t cheap to keep him. In addition to his lodging, his food and the attorney fees, Dad had to pay for a better fence. And there were the usual vet and farrier bills. Also, Tommy somehow learned to turn on the lights in the barn. He would do this at all hours of the night and our electric bill reflected that. At least Dad complained enough about it.

My Turn You would have thought I would have learned something from all of this. At least enough to not let it happen to me when I had kids. But, nope… As soon as Jamie and Hiliary got old enough to form intelligible words, they began talking about horses. The talk turned to ideas and the ideas to plans. And plans to demands. I had warned Jenny not to teach them how to talk. I held out for as long as possible, but in the end I surpassed my father’s horse-related efforts, by a wide, wide margin. I had two horse-crazed girls. This is why we went from just leasing and boarding a single horse to buying a second horse. Two girls, two horses. How could you not? Then came the truck and the trailer. What good is having two horses if you can’t provide them with transportation? I hear tale that there was a time when this arrangement went the other way around. We didn’t build a barn in the back like Dad did. By our time, local units of government had come up with laws that prohibited that kind of nonsense. Instead, we sold our house in town and bought a place in the sticks that had acreage. Then we built a barn. People often say that horses are great teachers. There was, in fact, a lot of learning going on in those days. I learned how to back a horse trailer. After I learned how not to back a horse trailer. I learned how to haul and stack hay. I learned all about manure: where it comes from, how to compost it, how to use a dilapidated spreader and how to fix a dilapidated spreader. I learned how to spend my weekends at horse shows. And I learned that “five stalls” means “five horses”. I never rode. Eventually all this horse related expansion went into a kind of counter spin. The girls got older. Jamie moved out and Hiliary developed other interests. We went from five to two horses. Then none. The barn went empty, we sold the place and moved back to town. For a few years, the embers of our horse-life burned dimly. Hiliary was busy with a husband and school. Jamie had a horse, but she lived eight hundred miles away. There was still a box of equestrian stuff in the attic: a derby, a riding crop, a few trophies and little jar of dried up hoof black. The box was moved from place to place, but went unopened for several years, out of fear of the Pandora Effect.

Then… For reasons that I’m still trying to figure out myself, I started taking riding lessons. At age 54. Maybe I’m like Tommy and just curious about what’s on the other side of the fence. For most of my life, I had lived with all the fuss but never bothered to see for myself what all the fuss was about. Let’s be clear here: I’m definitely a rookie rider and my progress is slow. So yes, I’m seasoned and I’m a rider, but I am not quite a “seasoned rider”. But, I’ve been having a blast. And maybe I can really learn something this time. I’ll let you know.