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For want of a horse

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By Steve Doyle

 When I was a boy, for as long as I could recall, I wanted a horse.

I was a child of the 1960s, raised on the TV cowboy culture of the day, and I just felt my life would not be complete or my mission fulfilled until I had a horse of my own. Roy Rogers was my hero. Bonanza was one of my favorite shows. I was on T Bar V Ranch at age 4, and no Christmas until I was about 10 was complete without a Fanner 50 or a Shootin’ Shell rifle or something like them. I had the hat, the boots, the vest and the weapons, but my transportation was lacking. My horses were made of sticks or, even more metaphorically, a cut down reed of horseweed from the field by my house. So across our dairy-and-tobacco farm I rode, chasing the bad guys as fast as my short little legs could move. And I longed for a sweaty steed to make the ride a little quicker and more authentic. The irony is that my open range was actually a great piece of land along Todds Point Road, where horses now outnumber all other living creatures by an exponential margin. Though in my day that area was more populated by cows, corn and a few pigs, there were horses around.  Until I discovered her dead one day in the barn, we had an old plow horse named Dolly who I would ride as she pulled the plow through the garden. And my neighbors and relatives had ponies they graciously shared, but it just wasn’t the same as saddling up and going riding on my own trail. So badly did I wish for a horse that I once entered a Roy Rogers-sponsored contest that appeared in The Courier-Journal to win a real Palomino pony, some relative of Trigger’s, I think. I had to write a short statement about what I would name the horse and why and send it in for the drawing. I clearly remember my note:”I’d name my horse Pal, because he’d be the best friend I ever had.” If you ever have watched The Christmas Story, you probably can understand my zeal, and I thought this entry to be golden.  No way could a contest judge turn down such a wonderfully personal statement from an 8-year-old, no matter what other rules may have been in place. I was convinced that pony would show up any day! That disappointing effort seemed my last, best chance ever to have my own ride, until one Saturday afternoon when I was about 11 or 12 and a big cattle truck pulled up in front of my grandparents’ house. My Granddaddy had been to a farm sale, and as sometimes happened, he had brought home livestock. But on this day, right there among the bulls and calves, was a wonderful surprise: a beautiful Pinto pony just like the one Little Joe Cartwright used to ride across the Ponderosa. He was a gift for all of us grandchildren. Being the oldest and pushiest, I immediately christened that pony Pal, because the idea of my futile contest entry still was burned deep into my psyche. Yes, this was my horse, and he would be the best friend I ever had. Or so I thought. The back story on my Granddaddy’s purchase was that a girl who had owned the pony all its life was going away to college, and she had to sell it. I was sure that must have been a sorrowful day for her, but what did I care? I soon cared quite a bit. That horse did not like me. He was no pal of mine. For whatever reason, he would run away when I went to the lot where we kept him, and if I did manage to corner him and get a bridle on him, he didn’t react very well. When I was on his back, it got worse. Let me be clear: I was no great rider, more of a hold-on-and-see-how-it-goes type of saddle tramp. But Pal was known to trot in a way he knew might bounce me off – I rode bareback mostly – and sometimes he even bucked. I was dislodged more than once, though only my pride was bruised. But at least I knew it wasn’t personal. If my Granddaddy or Dad tried to ride him, he’d buck even harder at the added weight. And when I was able to stay on Pal, I found out he was terrible at helping drive the cows across my pasture. How could I be Rowdy Yates, Clint Eastwood’s breakthrough character on Rawhide if my horse wouldn’t cooperate?The real kicker – and I don’t mean that literally – was what happened when my neighbor Robin Garr would come over. She had a way with horses (translation: she knew how to ride for real), and that pony was as kind as nice to her as if she too walked on four legs. It became apparent that he had an affinity for females, probably because they reminded him of the owner he really did miss. As I grew into adolescence and started to pay more and more attention to ball games and transportation that didn’t buck, Pal and I went our separate ways.  He stood in that lot where my Granddaddy kept him, plenty of grass to eat and water to drink and even a bull or two to keep him company. Though my Dad and Granddaddy tried, I never rode him again. And Pal’s value on the farm diminished with his inability to cope with the men who wanted to ride him. My Dad tells about the time that Pal went and lay down in the creek, and he had to stand and watch until he rose again to be ridden. Some years later, perhaps after I had departed for college, my Granddaddy sold him, all of us beaten and no longer smitten. No other horse resided on that land until it was sold and converted into an elegant salon for Saddlebreds. But still I think sometimes of Pal and wonder what relationship we might have had if he had arrived when we both were younger and the romance of the range still was part of both our lives.