8/3/23

And so this week’s moment of happiness despite the news.

My 63rd birthday was this past Saturday, and my family surprised me with a trip just over the Wisconsin border into Illinois to see a show and visit the stables at the Tempel Lipizzans. This is a very special breed of horse that I’ve loved since I was a kid, and I was thrilled.

As we waited for the show to start, sitting on the front row of bleachers outside the show ring, my daughter Olivia said, “I didn’t realize you were a horse girl.”

I was stunned. I’ve loved horses for as long as I can remember. I was never a “horse girl”, meaning that I had my own horse. I was more of a horse girl wanna-be, getting as close to horses as I could whenever I could.

I can’t say for sure where it started. When I was in elementary school, I perused my Scholastic Book Club flyer every month with a passion. I looked for books that were interesting, of course, but I also looked for illustrated books with great pictures that I could trace with carbon paper and then rewrite the storyline the way I thought it should be. One of the first of these books, and one of the last I was to purge from my library as an adult, was a book called Flip by Wesley Dennis. From there, on a trip to the public library when I was in second grade, the children’s librarian recognized my reading ability and brought me from the children’s room to the young adult section. She introduced me to Walter Farley and the Black Stallion series. I can clearly remember sitting there on the floor, pulling book after book from the shelf, and bringing them all home. I read tons of Marguerite Henry books, Misty of Chincoteague and Stormy, Misty’s Foal, and Sea Star, Orphan of Chincoteague. I still remember the grandfather in those books singing, “Oh, they’re wild and woolly and full of fleas, and never been curried below the knees!” And of course, there was Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, and Green Grass of Wyoming, My Friend Flicka, and Thunderhead by Mary O’Hara. And National Velvet, by Enid Bagnold. Like Velvet, the main character in that book, I began to cut out pictures of horses, creating my own stable that I cared for with great love and respect.

In the little town of Esko, Minnesota, where I lived from when I was six years old to twelve, they had a little tiny fair every summer. There was a concession stand and a small ferris wheel and high-flying (to me) swings. And a horse show. I sat on the edge of that show ring too, and barely breathed as those great horses trotted before me. I still remember one called Blue, who was actually white, and then, of course, years later, when I fell in love with the Waltons, there was a white mule called Blue.

There are connections everywhere.

But when I was twelve years old, I went head over heels for the writer Mary Stewart, and I read all of her books. But the one that I read repeatedly was Airs Above The Ground. Airs Above The Ground is the traditional dance performed by the classic Lipizzan stallions. And I was hooked. I wanted to see these horses up close, and watch them dance like big four-legged ballerinas. But I never had the chance until last weekend.

I began to buy Breyers model horses, until I had an amazing collection. I sold them when Olivia was a young girl, and now, of course, I wish I’d kept them. Horse-racing entered my life and Triple Crown winner Secretariat became my hero. I had entire scrapbooks dedicated to him. And of course, I met him when I was 23. For Mother’s Day this year, Michael gave me a huge book that shows all of Secretariat’s progeny. One of the new items in my bucket list is a trip to Pennsylvania to meet Trusted Company, a resident at Bright Futures Farm. She is the last living daughter of Secretariat.  I would like to see her before that generation is all gone.

As I grew, I went out of my way to make friends with girls who lived on farms that had horses. I’d go to their homes as often as I could, to ride. I joined Girl Scouts for the sole purpose of getting to go horseback riding. I never had a lesson, of course. I just went by what people told me to do. In the saddle, I was in heaven. I remember riding a friend’s horse up to the top of a hill. The sun was going down, and I sat there, one hand on my knee, the other resting on the reins, and that horse and I watched the sunset. In my imagination, I struck a regal silhouette, the horse’s mane and my hair gently lifting in the breeze, our faces aglow from the evening sun. In reality…I was a kid on a horse.

But I was so happy.

So then this past weekend. I sat again ringside, not on a horse, but a keen observer. And the horses danced. Afterwards, we were able to tour the barn, and I walked from stable to stable, talking to each horse. Two stood in open doorways, held by their riders, and we could pet them and talk to them.

I did. For the first time in decades, I smelled of horse.

I was so happy. The only thing that could have made me happier was if I was up in the saddle myself.

Maybe someday. Because yes, Olivia. I am a horse girl.

And yes, that helps. Despite. Anyway.

This is the book, Flip, by Wesley Dennis, that may have started it all.
Airs Above The Ground, by Mary Stewart, that introduced me to Lipizzan horses. I no longer have the book…but I might try to find it again.
The only photo I have of me as a child with a “horse”. This was a ride at a fair, where I sat in a carriage that was pulled by a carousel type horse. I look like I’m having a good time. Maybe this is where it started?
Secretariat, the day I met him. The groom who showed me around let me feed Secretariat an apple and touch him.
Me with a Lipizzan.

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