The little barn was finally built. Samuel had found time after working to dig countless holes and implant posts, sometimes during rainstorms, working past dusk into darkness. Then he lined the posts with two courses of wire, connecting them to the electric box in the barn, a term used loosely. It was really a shed with one large walk-in stall that could be closed by a door that rolled to the side. He managed to fit in a small area for storing hay with a loft above, and one more smaller stall with a Dutch door, the type where just the bottom half can be closed so the animal can look out. We painted it white with country blue trim to match our house. Large tuna cans tacked sideways onto the wall accommodated the bridles and a two- by-four apparatus held both saddles nicely, one for my horse, Misty, the other for Shane’s pony, Tony.
Once the hay was loaded and the stall filled with wood shavings, I leaned in through the sliding window from the tack room. I gazed at the area, immensely satisfied now that they could come home, breathing in the scent of sweet hay, dreaming of our first ride in the fields. Both animals were being boarded out till everything was ready and it was time to bring them home.
We thought they would be happy together going in and out of the large stall at will without a door. The pony immediately changed that, bossing out the horse in the first few minutes by a nasty bite to her rump that the vet had to dress and treat with antibiotics. We needed a new plan. Samuel wired up a smaller pasture for Tony outside the little stall. Now they were side by side but not together. It worked beautifully—that little bugger pony.
Though Tony demanded dominance with his horse-mate, he didn’t bite humans or have other bad habits that ponies often do. And my horse was fairly docile though jittery when first starting out, trotting rather than walking. With no place on our property to ride, I scouted out a place one road over, through the gravel pit, past the housing development, and across the next road into the farmer’s fields and forests. Ruby was retired and oddly had the same first name as my beloved Grandmother Ruby, and eventually he became a good friend and grandparent replacement. Grandma had died many years before.
His land went on and on, all cleared of rocks and cut down for hay every spring as if welcoming us, “Come and run, I’m ready!” And we did, happily loping along, the biggest threat, woodchuck holes. We found one, tripping the pony onto his knees with Shane flying over the top of his head because of the sudden stop, but neither Shane nor Tony suffered any damage.
Walking together, the saddles creaked, foamy sweat seeped out from the leather, the pungent odor radiating soothingly as the hot sun warmed our bodies and souls. We talked and laughed, then ran. Up the hill, then the next and into the woods, to where the path ended at a cliff-like point where we could look out and see for miles. We called it “The Top of the World.”
We rode those paths in every season but winter, and each season brought new sights, sounds, and smells. After moving steadily through the lower woods, we discovered another path that opened up to light and found a second gravel pit beyond. Turning back into the woods, the cool shade of trees blocked sunshine with a roof of vegetation; hooves clomped on soft wet earth, crunching leaves and twigs, making satisfying sounds. Sunbeams escaped leafy hands, and little pools of brightness appeared on the earthy floor where circular patterns of greenery and forest bits glowed.
Since we rode as a pair, the animals were less tense, comforted by the other’s presence. They rarely became spooked, though occasionally a squirrel or other creature would make a snapping sound in the distance, and one of the animals would startle and hop sideways. But both were mainly calm, and enjoyed the fresh air and exercise as much as we did. Little did I know that I needed to grab onto those few years as snapshots and memories to hold dear, because they didn’t last; but luckily the pleasures were so great they stuck to me. Once Shane turned thirteen, only things with motors interested him: a go-cart, motorcycle, even the riding lawnmower became more attractive than little Tony. The pony was left to chew grass, roll in dirt, and lay in the sun, contented.
I continued the pursuit as a solitary rider. On hot summer days, Misty nickered as I approached the barn. Her sorrel coat received a good brush down, the russet hair glossy, lighting up red and shiny in the sun, almost aglow. She loved it, stretching her neck in ecstasy as I curried, bumping her bony, hard head and soft nose against me with such strength that she pushed me off balance. Once tacked up, we headed out, but Misty screamed out for her trail-mate, sending shivers of shock through me with her shrill neigh. Tony neighed back with little effort, seemingly more interested in eating the sweet grass beneath him.
Once we were far enough away, in the fields loping circles, she quieted, but she became much harder to manage without a traveling partner, especially in spring after a long winter without being ridden. “Whoa, whoa,” I would plead repeatedly in a firm voice, trying to temper her tendency to trot instead of walking calmly.
On cool days her friskiness included bucking while running up hills. One time her joyful buck tossed me over her head where I hit the hill with such force, I wondered if anything had broken. She watched me get up slowly, and stood still as I sorely climbed back on. But I wouldn’t reprimand her joyful abandon, her emanation of pure happiness. I flew with her as she galloped, her muscles coursing as she thundered up to the top of the hill, her tail flying. Both out of breath, we turned and continued upwards as I reined her in to a soft lope.
On the hilltop, stillness. Only the rustling of leaves could be heard in the breeze. A dog barked, the echo drifting upwards. Misty seemed to know and tolerate my need to sit quietly, absorbing the view and beauty surrounding us. She nibbled on grass while I drank in the rolling hills stretching all the way to the city.
We trotted gaily along with adventures to come, past the thicket of berries and a meadow tall with swaying grass. We investigated a gangly tree stuck right in the middle of the meadow, then walked on and down a hill into a denser, darker wood. The scent of decaying matter centered my being; the rich potpourri of mossy wetness, rotting logs, leaves, nuts, and berries tingled my senses and made me feel at home in my body—a rare occurrence. I sucked it up as if I had never breathed before.
Misty picked her way along carefully, without much guidance. Wildflowers hid in patches. The woodsy coolness enveloped us. Finally we came to a clearing opening to sunshine, so we explored some more before turning back.
Heading home, we were pleasantly spent, the sweat around her saddle drying into white crust. She received a hose down after the tack had been removed. Her neck extended to the fullest, arching as the water streamed down, washing the sweaty foam off like whipped cream, the strong jet of water soothing and cooling her warm muscles. I walked her till almost dry, and then let her loose to eat, roll, or drink. She nickered to Tony who nickered back. They were happily together again.