This piece was actually inspired by an article on Fugly Horse of the Day. It is a serious and important subject. As many doubts as I may have had about posting this true and very personal account from my childhood, if it helps even one person ever who reads it then its worth it to me...
Have you ever stood in a barn full of horses at dinner time and just listened? There is a rhythm in the sounds that has always comforted me. Sometimes I stand in our boarding barn where I work in the twilight with my eyes closed and just let it wash over me. The sounds of hay being shaken and chewed, the stomping of hooves, the quiet snorts of content animals are all sounds I feel like I have known in my heart long before I met my first flesh and blood horse. As a child I dreamed of them, read every book I could get my hands on, and made entire fantasy worlds full of horses to play in. I was always a dreamy child, and uneasy around people. I was a little insecure and found more happiness in books or with animals. Other kids were often mean to me because I rarely stood up for myself. A bully once told me that he had harassed me for no other reason than that I was an easy victim.
There was never a time that I remember that I didn’t want a horse. I have no idea where it came from. I grew up in a suburban neighborhood with parents who never had pets other than an occasional cat. I was lucky that my mother, not a horse person at all, recognized I was a child that was vulnerable to the world without a horse in my life to focus me. Or maybe she was just trying to make up for her own mistakes. Regardless, the result was on my 12th Christmas, the one following my parents divorce, I finally got a pony named Applejack. My mom’s new boyfriend had horse property and it also gave her an excuse to move us in with him.
This night in particular, about a year after we got him, I had snuck out to Applejack’s paddock late to lay full length along his back. I didn’t worry about tack or a helmet. I didn’t even know any better at the time. That night I just wanted to be close to him. I was 13 and I’d been grounded again from riding. Apple was only 13.2, the perfect size for me to hop up on without a saddle. He was a bay leopard POA with a thick arched neck, a stout body and respectable length mane and tail. I thought he had a handsome face that was mostly chestnut with a big white star and large brown eyes. His neck was red roan but the rest of his body was stark white with large chestnut spots. His legs were a wild blue roan pattern with a mix of black stripes and spots. His mane and tail were striped with black and white.
As I lay there in the cool night air I could feel the warmth of his body radiating up and taking off the chill. My legs dangled down his sides and I’d scooted back to rest my skinny arms on his withers and laid my head on my arms. My long wavy hair curtained my face. There wasn’t anywhere in the world I would have rather been at that moment. My golden retriever, Misty, lay on the ground outside the paddock fence cuddled up with our rooster, Red. They were an odd pair but she was the best dog I’ve ever known and tolerated his pretend affection. He only used her so he could occasionally pull out tufts of her beautiful deep gold-red coat. He would go running back to the barn proudly and use the fur to pad his nest. For almost a half an hour that night I enjoyed my own small piece of heaven. Listening to the occasional clucks from Red and feeling Applejack breathing beneath me as he happily munched his hay I started to get drowsy.
I was half asleep and totally content when the warning came. I heard the deep baritone growl rise from Misty’s chest before I saw him coming. There was only one reason my dog ever growled. She hated my mom’s boyfriend. Golden’s are happy dogs. They love almost unconditionally and can forgive most of mankind’s stupidity. The fact that she hated anyone should tell you as much about the man as anything else I can tell you. He was not a good man. I slipped quietly from my pony’s back, landing softly, and waited for him to come. Misty slunk to my side, keeping low to the ground but silent now that I was alert.
“What are you doing out here?” he asked.
“I just came out to check on Apple. I heard a weird noise and though he might have gotten out.”
“I don’t want you near that pony until you learn to listen to me.”
“Fine,” was my tense reply. “I’ll go back to my room then.” I knew it was hopeless to try to reason with him, and I needed to get myself out of the dark yard and back near the rest of my family immediately.
“Haven’t learned yet then that I’m going to win this one, huh?” The moonlight glinted off his teeth as he smiled cruelly in the dark. I had been grounded not because I hadn’t done my homework, or for fighting with my siblings like other kids sometimes do. He’d grounded me for being upset when he tried to force me to hug him tightly enough to feel my growing breasts pressed against him through my shirt. He hadn’t broken me enough to let him do what he wanted. Now he was using Applejack to try to make me vulnerable; taking from me the thing in my life I loved most and knew I could trust. I shrugged dismissively in the dark and managed to slip through the fence boards and run back to my room in our converted garage which I shared with his two daughters. My dog chased after and planted her body in front of my bedroom door to stand guard. Sliding under the blankets I shivered but it had nothing to do with the cool night air.
Every day I would get home from school a couple of hours before my mom and her boyfriend would be off work. I rode Applejack down a busy road to a lake near our house. Every day Misty would follow us. Once we hit the levy trail I’d kick Applejack into a canter. By the time we reached the top we’d be at a dead run, his short legs flying. I’m not sure I’ve ever trusted another horse to go full out like that, and my god but he was fast. We’d run miles down the trails around the edge of the lake back to another busy road which I rode home. Fast, faster…fast enough to run away from my life for a little while. Oak trees flew past in a blur as we covered the gently rolling hills. We were caught in our own rhythm with nothing between us but my red fleece bareback pad. His feet hitting the trail kept the tempo. I pretended to be an Indian girl and he was my spirit guide. Misty would run too dragging behind sometimes so far I could barely see her but she’d catch up by the time we hit the road again. She was always loyal about staying with me.
I knew it was dangerous. No one knew I was riding so far from my home and I always went alone. I couldn’t help myself. Those rides gave me time to think and enough freedom to keep my sanity. I had a good dog, an even better pony and I was armed with the knowledge even at a young age that there was evil in the world, but you could try to protect yourself from it. It was the beginning of learning how to stop being a victim.
What my mom’s boyfriend never figured out, because he could never understand anything about love, was how much strength having Applejack lent me even when he was trying to use it against me. I don’t know if I could have fended off his advances alone for the years that I did without having horses in my life. Learning to ride taught me how to take control of a situation, when to have patience and when to be firm. It taught me to be strong for something else when I wasn’t strong enough for myself. There were times it was difficult not to let anger overwhelm me. Other times I was so numb from trying to block out the pain that anger felt like the only thing left that even made me human. When I was angry enough that it could have destroyed me, could have made me hard as stone forever, that love gave me enough heart to find my way back again.
I was finally able to plead my case to my mom that being grounded from riding wasn’t a good punishment because taking care of my horse was a responsibility and not just a privilege. It actually worked and built the foundation I needed to move Applejack to a show barn so we weren’t tied to her boyfriend when it was time to get out. When that time finally came, as ugly as it was, we were ready.