When I was a young girl, I had a horse named Old Red. Red was my reward for riding my bike three miles every day to Mr. R’s house, where Bonita and I learned to ride. Bonita was the horse lover; I loved Bonita. Bonita learned to ride on Peaches, and I learned to ride on Big Joe. Bonita’s reward was Pokey, mine was Big Red. I loved Big Red, but to tell the truth, that horse could be a pain in the neck: he was lazy and willful and often disobedient. In spite of all my perseverance and persistence, sometimes my will failed to triumph over a half-ton horse.
After all that riding back and forth to Mr. R’s house, Bonita proved she had gumption and really, really, really wanted a horse. More important, she proved she could stick though the tough stuff, so she was a pretty good bet on taking care of her horse. Still, Mom played it safe by getting a gelding with a name that suited his temperament. ‘Cause Pokey, was, well, Pokey. Bonita rode Pokey every single day. Pokey knew all the same signals as Peaches and Big Joe. Old Red came to us a bit later, so Bonita and I could ride together. That was way more fun than Bonita riding all by herself. Old Red had a name that fit him, too.
Sometimes, especially on a hot day, or a day when the grass was new and and the air was full of the green smell, or on a day when the oat fields bent their heads down heavy and golden, those two horses thought they could get the better of two little girls. Pokey and Red had good training, so they always came when they called, but sometimes they pretended not to hear until we got about 5 feet away from them. That never worked for me, and it never worked for them either. Sometimes, just as Bonita threw the reins up over Pokey’s neck, he would snort and flip his neck around like a big horse fly just got the better of him. Those two horses must have hatched up some plans while they were resting under the hickory nut tree, ’cause one would try something, then the next thing we knew, the other was doing the same darned stunt. Of course, they never got it straight in their heads who they were up against and the good training Bonita and I had. Mom taught us we could do anything we set our mind to, and to never give up. She also showed us how to laugh at ourselves, which came in pretty handy concerning Big Red.
To train our horses, we rode them around and around a big circle in the training ring: first one way, then the other, giving the signal to walk or to cantor, or to trot. We learned all about that from Mr. R, and again from our 4-H leader, Mrs. T, a different Mrs. T than the one who taught me how to cook 4-H style; that Mrs. T was my friend Annette’s mom. Mrs. T for Horses 4-H was my friend Ann’s mom. Well, Ann only got to be my friend after me and Bonita started Horses 4-H, which was even before we had a horse, back when Bonita was proving how responsible she was, and could take care of a horse, and I was helping Bonita. Ann went to Catholic school at St. Mary’s. Her mom was super-strict, like Annette’s mom only in a different way. One forbid short skirts, the other forbid gum chewing. My mom was okay with both as long as my skirt wasn’t shorter than my fingertips and as long as I kept the gum out of my hair. My mom was against Catholic schools, ‘cause of all the scary stories she heard from the nuns, when she went there. We had nuns for catechism on Saturday. I guessed Mom was okay with a scary story once on a weekend, just not every school day. Anyways, I only remember one scary story about a boy who raised his hand to his mother and God stuck it right up there for the rest of his life. The boy grew up to be a man with his hand perpetually raised, so he went around telling people that they better respect their parents or look what can happen. I saw something like that on the Three Stooges, only the man was in a neck brace that bent his head up toward the sky, and everybody looked up to see what he was looking at.
Riding around and around in a ring, with obedient, gentle horses got boring. We liked to ride out in the fields or best of all, down the road. We rode single file about half a mile on the shoulder of the busy paved road my house was on, until we came to a dirt road. That was the best, riding side by side, no longer afraid of those same dogs that chased us on our bikes, ’cause we were sitting high and out of reach, and besides, all Pokey or Old Red had to do was throw their head back with a snort and those dogs tucked tail, and just barked from the yard. That’s when I really knew what ‘all bark and no bite’ was all about. Sometimes we rode all the way to Ann’s house, and trained in her ring. That was the berries, because Ann was a terrific rider and trained her horses to do obstacles and jump over fences.
Old Red liked to jump. I loved the way he felt under me as he approached a fence and then gathered his old bones around his muscles to clear the fence by a mile and a half. I believed Old Red was a jumper in his young years. Being around Ann’s young thoroughbreds and her obstacle courses, reminded him of who he used to be. I thought of Roy Rogers and The Lone Ranger and Tonto all riding their horses in the wild west. I never told anyone but Bonita, ’cause I was getting older and most girls my age stopped all that pretending stuff. Still, pretending was the best part of my day.
Old Red liked to pretend, too. He liked to pretend every barn we passed by was his. He bee-lined straight up the drive of any barn we passed. His mouth was tougher than nails, so not matter how hard I pulled back on the reins and said “whoa”, a command he knew full well, Old Red’s determination got the best of me. Most of the time, farmers kept the barn door closed, then Red hung his head a little, and allowed me to turn him back, plodding down the drive like it was the saddest day of his life. Once he high-tailed it right up my friend Gary’s driveway and straight into the open barn door. Gary’s family and a bunch of their friends sat around in the backyard having a picnic and relaxing, when Old Red charged straight up the drive and straight into the barn. I laid flat against Red’s back, to keep from being scraped off, on account of Red having to duck through the door.
That was the most embarrassing thing in my whole entire life up until that point. Of course, Bonita laughed her guts out, sitting there on top of Pokey at the end of the drive, just like she was riding Roy Roger’s horse and never had a lick of trouble with her horse; which she never did, ’cause Pokey was the best horse anyone could ever learn to ride on. I laughed, too, ’cause Old Red was a redhead and I knew a lot about how a redhead’s mind can work, even if it is inside a red-headed horse.