At 6, given a shiny penny to throw into the tinkling fountain at the mall we visited once a year in order to buy school clothes, I knew exactly what to wish for. I closed my eyes tight, imagined the elegant, stately horse I knew would be mine one day, and threw the penny into the water, feeling that odd mix of anticipation for something wonderful happening someday and regret for having thrown something valuable away.
At 7 in the car, we’d pass horses sometimes. Living in what was once a cowtown and now was an emerging bedroom community of physicists and engineers and their kids, we were surrounded by empty golden fields dotted with scrubby tiny-leafed live oak trees, fields that were lined with tumbling barbed wire fences and sometimes contained horses instead of cows. And if there was a white horse, that meant a wish. I saw no irony in wishing FOR a horse when wishing ON a horse — after all, wasn’t that natural? Didn’t everyone want a horse?
At 8, I started seeing my power. I was awarded the opportunity to spend two weeks with horses that summer, in an all-day camp. Horses in the morning, crafts in the afternoon. Disappointment was huge when I was assigned the camp’s only mule — not a horse — to learn to care for and ride. Sure, I was the youngest there but I couldn’t help but feel my horse had been taken from me. Sitting astride my mule’s short back, his sharp spine a deterrent to bouncier gaits like galloping, I looked upward at the girls dashing about on spirited mounts. Someday.
At 9, another magical thing happened. Once a week I’d leave right after school and be driven far in the wrong direction to a former chicken ranch that was now where a woman taught horse riding lessons. We’d ride around the ring learning to change gaits, make turns, and understood that if we kept this up long enough, we could learn to jump. After a few months I was taken to a western shop where I had to choose plain and simple (cheap) amid all the sparkly rhinestone western shirts, pants, and hats — I was getting duded up to be in a show. Showing Western Pleasure and Equitation, I received no colored ribbons, as I had imagined doing, and never understood what other riders did better than me. It was a blur of horse and rider and loudspeaker’d voice and people’s faces watching us go around and around.
At 10, the ultimate. Pepper was an ornery pony, at least that’s what the unpleasant beefy man, the friend of my mom’s alcoholic Austrian friend said. Everyone had an opinion. But I loved Pepper and wanted to ride him, even though he was just a pony. Pepper gave way to Copper after a few weeks. Copper was large, plodding, solid, but he had some get up and go. The first time I rode him off by myself, I fell. I took him to the large grassy field behind the nearby Church of the Latter Day Saints. Copper spied a small fence and ran toward it, convinced he wanted to jump over it. I couldn’t turn him away from the fence. He jumped, and immediately came back to see why I had fallen off. He looked contrite and I forgave him. We had Copper for 7 years.
At 11, Copper got a friend. Dusty was small and neat, an Appaloosa with no discernible spots, with a bushy stand-up mane like a zebra’s. Dusty had a mind of her own. I took to riding her, deciding to ride saddleless and bridleless. Saddles hurt my knees and bridles were yucky to put on the horse (it was the sticking a finger in the horse’s mouth to get him to open up for the bit), and I imagined Dusty’s pleasure at being ridden by me, a small light person who didn’t knee her in the belly in order to tighten a cinch. Dusty lived with Copper in a rented field that grew only dust, and ate alfalfa that we kept stacked in the old barn, a remnant of our town’s cattleman past. On weekends I’d ride my bike the two miles to get there, smelling barn smells of hay and dust and old wood, digging my hands deep into the molasses-scented oat and grain mixture the horse loved as a treat and picking out the flattened corn kernels to crunch as I sat on the fence, talking to the horses.
Horses gave way to play rehearsals and boys and a part-time job at the donut shop. I felt sad when Dusty was sold. Something had ended. Copper remained for a few more years, even though no one rode him. He finally got a new home with the aunt and uncle of a friend. He was close to 20 then, pretty old for a horse. I never went to visit him. That part of my life was over.
Serena, younger daughter and maker of small everyday magic like turning red stoplights green, crafted her own horse magic as we left Pennsylvania four years ago and drove four days west into the sunset of Colorado. In Colorado, she told us, she’d have a horse. His name was King. She knew what he looked like — he was white — and only needed to find him. She spotted him one day, his white color magically now coppery, but that was definitely King, standing tall among 15 or 20 horses left on their own in a large wild field with its own stream and plenty of scrubby trees and grass. All year we watched King and his band while the seasons turned and autumn turned to icy winter and then spring again. Serena’s belief in her magical powers never waned — one day she would own King, and we all saw in our minds the someday place we called our Horse House that had horses grazing in the back yard — but leaving him to drive east again just a year later meant we were leaving behind her dream. Well, and my dream, since my own horse dreams were reawakened that year, kindled by Serena’s certainty and passion.
Today, horses don’t populate my dreams. Like when I was 16 and looking ahead, that part of my life seems over now. It’s been a complicated maze, getting from there to here, but here I am.