Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Sunny Days

Seasonable weather has arrived for hitting the trails again – on horseback, that is. In my intrepid youth, without the excuse of a postal route, “neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night” deterred me from riding throughout the year, but nowadays I like to be dry, warm, and able to see where I’m going.

I’ve been a rider since I was 11, which was rather a late start, if most of my riding companions are to be believed. I’ve kept up with riding ever since, yet in all those years I’ve owned only one horse of my own, and him only briefly. It is and always has been much easier and vastly cheaper to rent by the hour. Few people outside of NJ think of the state as horse country, yet it is. The US Equestrian Team is HQ’d here. There are lots of stables, facilities, and trails, so finding a place to ride is not a problem. While I was (also briefly) married, “we” owned as many as six horses at one point, it is true, but five of those most emphatically were hers. It has been a decade since I last saw the one who was mine, but I owe him a mention beyond the thinly disguised depiction in one of my short stories – especially since my current re-edit of that story has snipped him out of it. (That’s his fictional alter ego in the old cover pic below.)

I first laid eyes on Sunny in 1999. At the time, my wife Sandy already owned two pleasure horses, but she believed she could make money by buying unschooled horses, training them for the show circuit, and then selling them at a profit. (She later liked to wear a T-shirt that read, “I made a small fortune in horses. I started with a large fortune.” The initial fortune was not, in fact, large, but as an expression of a trend, the shirt was accurate.) She had childhood connections with horse farmers in Virginia and North Carolina, so that’s where she made up her mind to search. Not being a terribly patient sort, she then made one of her incomparable decisions: she insisted on driving directly into Hurricane Floyd, which at that moment was battering Virginia Beach. No exhortations to wait a week availed. She would go on her own, she said, if I didn’t accompany her, so we went.

Sandy found the 6-year-old 16 hand palomino Sunny in a barn with only half a roof. The hurricane had removed the other half. She acquired one more horse on that trip and two more horses afterward, but Sandy soon suggested I keep Sunny, instead of putting him up for resale. In part this was because she felt I should have a horse of my own, but mostly it was because I was the only one who could handle him on the ground. Sunny liked me. That meant he didn’t actually try to kill me. He still would bite, cow kick, and shoulder me up against the wall of a stall, but at least he would allow me to get tack and blankets on and off him. He wasn’t so polite to anyone else.

Though his ground manners were bad, he was competent in the ring. More importantly from my perspective, since my last entry in a horse show was in 1967 and I planned no future one, he was a superb trail horse. He always went where he was pointed, which not all horses do. Some are afraid of water, some don’t like the woods, some won’t cross bridges, some won’t walk past a dog, and so on. Sunny didn’t care, and he never spooked. Sometimes he got angry, but he never spooked. Once on a park trail, for example, a bicycle rider silently approached from behind and whizzed past us at high speed. Sunny wasn’t afraid, but it was all I could do to keep his business end turned away from the trail, because by then he had his eyes on the cyclist’s companion following some 20 yards behind.  With his ears laid back, Sunny plainly intended to take him out. I managed to prevent it, though after the second cyclist passed, Sunny let out a kick at nothing in particular, just to express a point, I suppose.

Sunny’s ground habits improved slowly over time, though they never became good. It eventually became possible for someone other than myself to tack him. One of Sandy’s advanced adult riding students took a liking to him and she didn’t fear him on the ground. Keeping multiple horses was crushingly expensive for us, so I agreed to sell him. The new owner, for financial reasons, also decided to sell him about a year later, and I lost track of him at that point. (More attention-consuming events intervened, including divorce and deaths in the family.) I don’t know where he is today, but, if he is still alive, I’m sure he is cow-kicking, shoving, and bullying his owner, who puts up with it for the trouble-free rides.

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