The summer of 1995 started at Christmas, 1993. That was when my grown daughter, Kirsten, announced she was going to learn to ride a horse, and that I was going to teach her. I learned a long time ago to do what women tell me, so I agreed to the project, thinking that it probably would never happen. But she persisted and changed my life.
I had not taught anyone how to ride since I was Riding Master at a boy’s camp during the summers I was in college. My brothers and I had been taught how to ride and how to train young horses by Jim Rooker, at that time a veterinary student at Michigan State College (East Lansing, Michigan). Jim went on to become one of the best-known Arabian breeders and trainers in the country. My Dad had, on the advice of Professor Byron Goode of Michigan State’s School of Veterinary Medicine, bought two Arabian yearlings and an older gelding named Don, who had been used to teach college students how to ride. He also set us up with Jim Rooker.
During high school, I had done some training, a little showing and a lot of pleasure riding, especially on my blood bay Arabian gelding, Fleet, a son of Amador, the most beautiful horse I had ever seen. My brother, Stan, was a more active horseman than I because he was at home during those years, while I was away at school in Detroit. Thus, I always considered Stan a more polished rider than I, although I had experience in running a stable and a string of horses, organizing riding instruction and instructors, rodeos, shows, etc.
Probably the hardest work I have ever done was that first summer at camp, when I was the only man in the whole place who could train a horse. I had 20 horses which had been picked by a local farmer without any thought as to their appropriateness for small boys just beginning to ride. I worked those horses from “can see to can’t see” every day for two weeks. None had been ridden since the previous summer. Some were green broke at best. Others were so hard-mouthed that they should have been completely re-trained. I couldn’t reject any of them, as I would have liked. I had to make do. I worried about the safety issue all summer, but accidents were minor and rare. (Who says worrying doesn’t help?)
At any rate, all this had happened many years ago. When my daughter called in March 1994 to say that she had found a place that rented horses by the hour, I had to go with her. One of my sons, John, also went with us. So, there we were, the three of us, on a beautiful Saturday morning in March at one of the few commercial riding stables in the Washington, D.C. area. I was able to teach them both the basics of horseback riding, as many things began to come back to me. We began to go riding about once or twice a month through that whole year. After a while, John dropped out (getting up early on Saturday morning for any reason is not compatible with bachelorhood; besides socializing with your sister and your father just does not pass any known bachelor test.) Kirsten, however, gained enthusiasm and confidence each time we went.
As for me, I went through some transforming experiences. For example, I re-discovered the woods. Somehow, I had forgotten about the woods and the outdoors. We saw the seasons and their changes, which had been a major source of enjoyment to me in my youth — the sounds and smells and sights of the earth and the trees and the flowers, the grasses, the leaves, the streams, and the sky.
I also rediscovered horses. My basic riding skills returned remarkably quickly, although my more complex skills, such as horse training, were much longer in coming. I was enjoying our rides immensely, but after a while I began to realize something was missing. As we were walking back to the car after a ride one day, I saw a man about my own age coming toward us down a long lane on a prancing chestnut gelding, with animation and fire reminiscent of my first horse, Fleet, in his prime. At that moment, I finally realized what was missing — it was the horse! In fact, I had found the rides at the stable increasingly confining. Limited time, limited trails, limited — very limited — horses. So, it came to pass that I decided to look for a horse to buy.
The only breed of horse that I knew anything about was Arabian. So, I began to look for two Arabians to buy. This was not easy. For one thing, there are not that many Arabians in the Washington area, as compared, for example, to Quarter horses and Thoroughbreds. But, as I later learned, scarcity was not exactly the problem. The problems lay in the lack of a good connection between the Arabian horse industry and the general public. This lack expressed itself in two highly significant ways: first, Arabians were initially hard to find, and secondly, Arabians for sale that were well-trained and suitable for beginners were almost non-existent. A number of breeders seem to agree with one old-timer who said, “A lot of us consider Arabians living art.” In other words, breed them, feed them, and look at them – but don’t train them or ride them.
Nevertheless, I persevered in seeking out suitable Arabians, I was joined by my blond daughter, and — to everybody’s surprise — by my wife, Theresa. First, we had to find a place to keep any horses we might acquire. There is an area near our home called Clifton, Virginia, a tiny, post-Civil War era town at the very southern tip of
Fairfax County, about twenty miles or so as the crow flies from Washington, D.C.
Surrounding the town in all directions are woods, hills, and pastures dotted with homes and occasional barns. Honeycombed through the land are bridle paths which go on for miles and miles. Sometimes the woods are so dense that the summer sun can hardly penetrate at high noon. Deer, foxes, squirrels, beavers, geese, ducks, and wild turkeys are among the abundant wildlife which inhabits the woods. It seems almost impossible to believe that such an area is so close to the national capital. Yet here it is.
Actually, we had yet to discover the wonders of Clifton as the New Year of 1995 arrived. What we had discovered, however, was that the Clifton Saddlery, an amazing little store in Clifton with all sorts of horse-related merchandise, keeps a “book” in which stable owners list their facilities for rent. We consulted the “book” one winter afternoon, and wrote down several names and telephone numbers. I then systematically called down the list until I decided to talk in person to Ron and Anita Keeler.
Using our map and Ron’s directions, we found our way to their place, which was a bit out of the way, a characteristic we came to appreciate. The couple had built their 5-stall barn themselves many years ago. They, themselves, had stopped riding ten years before, after having ridden with the Clifton Hunt for a number of years. (In a poignant show of love, we later learned, Ron gave up riding when Anita developed a severely arthritic hip — a fact Ron never mentioned.)
They did, however, maintain the horses on which they had had all their fun-filled, wonderful years of riding. The old mare and gelding were well into their twenties, very arthritic, and probably would have been put down by any less sentimental owners. They also boarded a younger Thoroughbred mare, about 12 or 13 years old, as I recall. Thus, they had room for two more horses. They had a clean barn in a picturesque setting, and they seemed like very responsible people. In late February, I leased the two stalls.
We looked at horses all over Northern and Central Virginia. One day our little band traveled to a large farm outside of Haymarket, Virginia, to see the Arabians of Rollingwood Farm. This is as beautiful a spot as there is in Virginia,
with the mountains in the distance, acres of green pasture as far as you can see, and in the foreground, two large ponds, populated by geese and ducks. The buildings have seen better days, but the eye is drawn to a herd of 50-60 Arabian horses spread over the landscape in one of the most beautiful and interesting tableaus I have ever seen.
We were met by John R. Aldred, D.V.M., a tiny man of advanced years, who has lived on this same farm since 1949. I had called ahead (many times before I made contact, as it happened), and Doc was waiting for us. We drove up to the barns, and he indicated he had set aside some horses for us to look at, based on what I had told him over the telephone. As we walked toward the corral, I mentioned that I had grown up with a son of Amador. He said. “I rode Amador.” I was astonished!
It turned out that Doc had grown up in Jackson, Michigan, and had received his veterinary degree at Michigan State in 1949. He had been a student at Michigan Agricultural College (MAC until 1948 or so) for about ten years, with time out for the War. He had studied under Byron Goode, been a couple of years
ahead of Jim Rooker in vet school and knew that program well.
I told him about Professor Goode selling my Dad the two yearlings and the old horse, Don, to teach us how to ride. “Did Don have a U.S. brand on his shoulder”, he asked. Again, I was astonished, because although I did remember the brand, I had not thought about it in thirty years! Doc said that his wife had been riding Don when he met her! She was a student in his riding class, which he had taught to help defray his own expenses as a student. This, of course, was an amazing coincidence.
But no sentimentality governed Doc’s desire to sell me the right horse. I had to make offers for three different horses before he would sell me one! But he finally sold me Rollingwood Maia, an eight-year-old grey mare with a white mane and tail, who was green broke to be ridden in the English style.
The second horse I bought was a fourteen-year-old grey gelding named Canrith, whom Kirsten promptly re-named Traveler – after General Robert E. Lee’s horse – rumored to be an Arabian. He was well-trained, having been ridden by a middle-aged woman novice and her daughter, who had now moved on to competing with a hunter- jumper. (I was trying to follow Professor Goode’s advice about an old horse for a new rider.)
My introduction to Traveler was not auspicious.
I had had a hard time finding a mutually available appointment with the owner, so we ended up meeting at dusk. She had a young girl there to ride the horse (claiming recent back surgery as the reason she couldn’t ride herself). The girl proceeded to ride the horse at three gaits around a large ring with ease, as dark descended. After the demonstration, the girl and her mother indicated that they had to go to another appointment, and they left.
Some additional discussion followed — about pedigree, prior history and the reason she wanted to sell. By now it was dark, a condition I really didn’t notice since the lights had been on the whole time. I decided to ride the horse myself. He did just fine at the walk and the trot. Encouraged, I asked him to canter. As we came around the ring for the fourth or fifth time, but the first time cantering, he suddenly shied at a white jump stand. I was caught completely by surprise, and off I came. Undeterred, I mounted again, and cantered again, and he shied
again. And off I came again! It took another few weeks, a continuing lack of success in our search for an experienced horse, another test ride (it turned out that Canrith had minimal training in being neck-reined, as I was doing), and a lot of soul searching but Canrith finally became Traveler and Kirsten’s favorite mount.
In truth, this episode and some others during that period of looking for horses caused me to re- examine my attitude toward horseback riding. First of all, I took more spills during that three-month period than I remember taking in my whole life before, which is to say about three or four. Secondly, I began to realize
that I was approaching these strange horses with the confidence, not to say arrogance, of a twenty-year-old athlete who is in great physical condition and who has also been riding difficult and lively horses frequently. I had an under-20-year-old attitude in an over-50-year- old body. So it came to me that I should start acting my age, and being a lot more careful than I had been. In fact, I went to the other extreme. I lost my nerve.
Had this occurred earlier in the process, I might well have aborted it. However, I was by then too committed — two horses, saddles and tack, training and transport fees, a boarding contract, and high expectations. I persisted, therefore, with ever more caution. This had two effects: the first was that my daughter, who had taken a couple of spills of her own, virtually imbibed this new caution and becoming a confident rider was made all the more difficult for her.
The second was that I found myself faced with the need for more sheer physical courage than at any time in many years. Frankly, I have lived a life where violence and the danger of injury or death are neither frequent nor real. A thousand-pound horse has almost unbelievable strength and quickness. Accidents can happen in an instant, as witnessed by the Christopher Reeve incident which occurred about this time. Fear can become a companion, and one can begin to restrict one’s actions in response. Overcoming this fear takes what I call “physical courage”, the will to do something in spite of the fear, a refusal to let one’s life be governed by fear.
This was a private battle, both because I did not want my fears to be communicated to Kirsten, and because I grew up in a tradition which dictated that a man keeps his fears to himself. So, while I did not talk with Kirsten about
these matters very often, I hoped that my example of overcoming my fears might compensate for my having them in the first place. I don’t think my hopes were fulfilled. Fear is more easily seen and understood than courage.
Thus, the agenda for the coming months was evolving. First, I had both horses taken to Red Revelle, our local “horse whisperer”, who specializes in training problem horses, and in “de-spooking”. There is, of course, no such thing as truly “de-spooking” a horse, but Red does work on teaching both horse and rider constructive techniques for dealing with things the horse finds scary. Theresa, Kirsten and I all went down to Red’s out-of-the-way farm in central Virginia for our training sessions, one for each horse, a couple of weeks apart. That was a lot of fun, especially seeing the genteel and petite Theresa among Red’s friendly mules.
Then on March 29,1995, we brought Maia to her new home in Clifton. Maia had come from Red’s place, and she was uncharacteristically meek that first night. Kirsten and one of her friends were there to welcome her. We groomed her and petted her and marveled at what a calm mare we had. That was the first and the
last time she was ever like that. She must have been in shock or something.
The next day I put her on the lunge line, and she cantered merrily around and around for well over an hour — and did not even work up a sweat! That was more characteristic of her stamina. She is also a very sensitive and reactive horse, not unduly skittish, but just very aware of what is going on. And athletic!
One day, five of us were standing by the barn talking, looking at Maia in a nearby pen. She was running and prancing and carrying on, because she was away from the other horses — which she normally doesn’t mind if she is with people. And in fact she had just come in from a long ride, and I was unsaddling Traveler as we talked.
I guess Maia didn’t think we were giving her enough attention. Anyway, she was running around the pen and suddenly she leapt up in the air, did a 180-degree turn and extended her front and rear legs out and back before she landed — all at the same time, looking for all the world like a Lipizzaner. All five people stopped talking and looked at each other, saying, “Did you see that?” None of us could believe what we had just seen!
This is a truly gifted horse.
Then Traveler came to his new home — also from Red’s. Traveler had really been around, and he did not approach the superb physical condition of Maia. Nor was he as adaptable to his new surroundings. He needed a lot of tender, loving care, a lot of reassurance, and some reminding of how to neck-rein. He got all of this and more,
especially from Kirsten who grew to love that horse. He never again threw anybody, and was always the perfect gentleman. Like all Arabians, he truly loved people, especially Kirsten. We built up his muscle mass with frequent exercise and a good diet. Unlike Maia, who can (and does) get fat on hay in the winter, Traveler was not an easy
In general, though, Traveler was loving life. He got stronger and became good buddies with bossy Maia. One time he was waiting to be saddled in the same pen where Maia had put on her exhibition. He started running around with his head straight up, blowing and looking like a goose. Back and forth. The only other time I had ever seen a horse do this was when I saw an Arabian stallion do it once when I was a kid. I thought it was stallion behavior, until I was told that it is the ultimate expression of joy that a horse ever makes. And, in fact, Maia did a similar version of the same behavior at another time. I was very pleased that we had such happy horses.
We spent a lot of time with those horses in the summer of 1995. Kirsten and I also spent a lot of time together, more than ever before in our lives, even when she was a youngster. I was pleased to get this “second chance” to enjoy her company, since we had always been part of the larger group of the whole family when she was a child, and I had been too busy to spend long summer afternoons with the children individually. I discovered a wonderful woman, full of wit and good cheer, very reactive– that is, very alert and with definite opinions on whatever was happening, but flexible also — in general, a very pleasant companion. She had risen to the top of her chosen field, political publicist, a predominantly male arena, by virtue of talent, hard work, and dedication. Luckily for me, she was between campaigns that summer and had the time and inclination to pursue our new hobby.
That summer remains in my memory as a succession of “firsts”, the first time each of
the horses came into our responsibility, the first experiences with getting to know them, and especially the first time Theresa was surrounded by loving mules! And the next first: actually getting up on Maia for a ride. By this time, my fears had become completely irrational, and part of it was a “mythologizing” of Maia, exaggerating in my imagination her lack of training, docility, and general cooperativeness. In retrospect, little of this was based in fact.
Nevertheless, the first time I got on Maia’s back took a lot of determination. And, of course, nothing happened. We were in the small pen where the chances of mishap were lessened, and we proceeded to practice neck-reining at the walk. I did this three times a week, when I was in town, for the rest of April and into May. I then decided we
had to move out into Ron’s pasture, an area of about 2 acres with a number of trees. The first time we went out there was really tense. Again, Maia treated me kindly like the wimp I was and did nothing exciting as we walked around and practiced our neck-reining with trees and ponds. I remember the first time I asked her to cross the
little creek in the back of the field. She did not like the idea at all. By this time, her idea of what was supposed to happen in that field was a sedate walk around various trees. Crossing creeks was just not part of the program. I persisted, however, and eventually I won.
Then there was the first time I asked Maia to trot. After the neck-reining seemed thoroughly reliable, I decided that walking around a small pasture on a magnificent Arabian was just not worth all the investment I had made. So, I decided I had at least to trot the horse. After all, I was an experienced rider who knew the mechanics of riding. What about a little trot? For some reason, I was thoroughly intimidated by the prospect. I kept imagining all kinds of pains, injuries, and mishaps. Then, late one night, I caught the first part of a John Wayne movie, made when the actor was about seventy years old. He trotted comfortably and confidently down the street on a horse that looked at least as spirited as Maia. I said to myself. “If that old guy could do it, why can’t I?” So, I did. The next time I went riding, I started Maia into a trot, and discovered her little jog. It is so smooth and comfortable that it was soon hard to remember how scared I had been.
Just about the time I was starting to trust the horse (and myself), however, Maia threw me – and Kirsten thought I was dying. This is how it happened. At my request, Ron had put up a white rope around some trees to make an
improvised training ring. One Sunday morning, we took both horses out to the new ring, and Kirsten said she wanted to start Maia in the ring, as she sometimes did, before I took Maia out into the pasture. I shortened the stirrups (a critically important move, as it turned out), and she got into the saddle. She went only a few steps, and said that something wasn’t right, and she dismounted. I looked at the tack and said I would start Maia out for Kirsten. I mounted and proceeded around the ring without stirrups.
As I took Maia into some tall grass on the other side of the ring, she started bucking like a rodeo bronc. Taken completely by surprise and even without stirrups, I still stuck for a few seconds. Maia paused, and I was still aboard, but before I could get off, she started again, and this time I did come off. Practicing what Jim Rooker had taught me long ago, I tried to put my arms around the horse’s neck – on the theory that a broken leg is better than a broken head or neck – and to get my feet off the saddle and onto the ground, if possible. I was partly successful but I did not get my feet under me. Instead of landing on my head or my neck, I landed on my back. The result was that I had the wind knocked out of me.
Having had this experience before, I knew I was all right and would get my wind back momentarily. Kirsten, however, had no such experience. When I was laying there unable to speak, she was convinced that I was seriously injured. I made an “OK” sign to her, but it didn’t do much good. Finally, the great whooshing gusts of breath started to come and eventually I could breathe and, from Kirsten’s point of view more importantly, I could speak.
I got up and walked around the ground trying to see what it was that had spooked that horse. It had seemed to be something on the ground. I never did figure it out, but after walking Maia around the ring a few times and lengthening the stirrups, I re-mounted and walked her around some more. I had some irritating
aches and pains for a while after that, but at least I discovered that my worst fear had come true and it wasn’t so bad!
Then there was the first time Kirsten on Traveler joined me outside the ring. We walked around the little pasture as though it were a mine field. By this time, I was pretty comfortable on Maia, even going so far as to canter her back to the gate. (I know it is not a good idea to let a horse run back toward the barn, but I wanted to be sure she would stop!) I discovered that Maia didn’t really do a canter; she went directly from a trot to a full gallop, a problem I would have to deal with later. At any rate, Kirsten, who had previously ridden the rental horses on trails and at the trot and canter, was very reluctant to give up the security of the ring. To her credit, however, she did it.
Soon after, I was ready to try a trail. I didn’t really want to go alone, because I wasn’t sure enough of either the horse or the trail. Kirsten interpreted this desire for her company as “pressure” on her to accelerate her progress and she resisted for a while. I didn’t want to tell her I was afraid to go alone, though perhaps I should
About this time, one of Kirsten’s brothers and his girlfriend came out to ride with us. Eric wanted to get on Traveler and RIDE, although a trot was the best he could manage. Traveler’s trot was pretty choppy, if you weren’t used to it, and Eric took such a pounding that he didn’t come back for a long time. His girlfriend, Ritika,
(now his wife) however, took to the whole scene immediately. She liked to ride and later picked up riding the trot Western style faster than anyone I have ever seen. Kirsten’s competitive nature may have nudged us along, but for whatever reason, we did find ourselves one fine Saturday in May walking down a nearby trail through the woods. It was spectacular! The late spring woods in full bloom, the well-marked trails, the beautiful Arabian horses, the crystal-clear air full of sunshine – it was all I had hoped for and more.
After that, my daughter and I and our two horses had many adventures on those trails. As summer progressed, we discovered that the air temperature dropped about 10-15 degrees as soon as we entered the woods. We therefore tried to get into the deep shade of the woods as often as we could. We had adopted the practice of lunging the horses before each ride. Kirsten enjoyed this exercise immensely, and still does. Since I wasn’t as keen on lunging as she, I saddled Traveler first (I was still doing all the saddling at that point), so she could have some extra time
with Traveler on the lunge line while I saddled Maia.
I think this was a great learning experience for both of them, as Kirsten used
lunging as a way to find out about Traveler’s skills, weaknesses, moods, and
fitness. And things happened. For example, one time he just stopped and looked at
her. She could not figure out why until she walked around to the side and saw his
saddle hanging by the breast collar. She thanked him for not panicking,
which he might have done earlier, before she had calmed him down.
Kirsten was always interested in the horses’ “personalities”. I come from a
“horse as livestock” background, and she sees a “horse as pet”. I learned from
her to enjoy the idiosyncrasies and distinctiveness of each horse to a greater
degree than I ever had before. My interest, however, is still geared primarily
toward learning about an individual horse as a means of achieving better
performance, rather than just for the pleasure of it, as she does. But I do think
that getting to know Traveler well before testing him gave her greater confidence
and allowed her to progress in her riding and handling skills.
I mention this because this is a strategy I would never have thought of. To me, a
horse is supposed to do what you want it to do, and if it doesn’t, you have some
training on your hands. It is a pretty straight forward proposition. Getting to know
the horse’s “personality” was never part of the equation. Kirsten’s approach,
however, has made me more appreciative of the distinctiveness of each animal,
and how this might affect his/her performance. Also, it is another way to enjoy
Traveler was not in nearly the superb physical condition when he came to us that
Maia was. We worked continually on his muscle mass, wind, and overall fitness.
His early lack of stamina led to a harrowing experience. We were riding deep in
the shady woods, one very hot afternoon, when Traveler suddenly collapsed
under Kirsten! I got the saddle unfastened and somewhat out of the way so he
wouldn’t roll over on it. Kirsten was kneeling beside him pleading, “Traveler,
don’t die! Don’t die!” He broke into a heavy sweat but made no sound at all. I
was aware that if we had to remove him from that place, it might prove very
nearly impossible, since there was no way in for a truck. Luckily, he got to his feet
after a few minutes, cooled off, and we led him out of the woods. Our
veterinarian later said he had apparently had heat exhaustion. (Since then we
have always given extra electrolytes during hot weather.) He recovered enough to
be ridden part of the way home, but after that we always worried about him. With good reason, as it turned out.
I remember the first time I went riding in the woods alone. I had been alone many
times in April and May, riding first in the pen, then in the pasture. Whenever we
went trail riding, however, we went together. I had then – and still do have – some
safety concerns about riding in the woods alone. But Kirsten was not always available, and she was not as keen on trail riding as I even when she was at the barn. I decided that it was not fair to Kirsten to expect that she go trail riding every time she went out on the horse, especially since that was not her first preference. My desire to go trail riding, while I tried to disguise it and underplay it, was putting pressure on her that she was resisting, although she did seem to enjoy the trail when she did go.
So, I broke the rule that said we were both supposed to be doing the same thing
all the time. One Saturday morning in late June, I casually indicated that I was
going out on the trail and invited her to go with me. She wanted to lunge Traveler
a little longer and to ride in the ring after that. So, I said I would try to be back in a
half hour or so and left – much to the amazement of both of us, I think. But I do
believe she was somewhat relieved, and after that may have been more ready to
go out, and more relaxed when she was there.
Still it is one thing to go off by yourself when someone knows when you left,
where you are going, and when you are likely to return. It is quite another thing
to go off on a young Arabian “war-mare” into the deep woods, when no one knows
where you are or when you are likely to return. But one weekday in early summer,
I unexpectedly had an afternoon off. I decided to head for the barn, as had become my custom. Once I got there I decided to lunge the horses but got taken up in Maia’s energetic invitation to ride. She sometimes acted like a ride in the woods was just the thing to break up a boring summer day. The weather was perfect. The trail was dry. The temptation was too great.
So, I saddled up and off we went. In contrast to her restlessness in the ring, Maia
loves the trail. She always wants to see what is around the next bend. Her
enthusiasm is her most endearing quality. She just cheers me up and makes me
feel good with her energy and overall happiness. Like any mare, she has her periods of being a little cranky, but for the most part, she is very willing and always full of life.
That day, with no daughter to worry about, I was more aware of my mount. We
tried new paths and even cantered a little. I felt a tremendous sense of exhilaration, like shaking off shackles of age and life and physical weaknesses. I was emancipated, freed from all the toils and tears and fears and wars and wounds and weariness and wrinkles and wobbles that separate me now from that 20-year-old youth who had loved horses and then forgotten them. With Maia’s speed and strength and stamina I could feel again like that long-forgotten youth. It is an extraordinary feeling.
Then there was the first time we went across the county road to the “big” trails.
This “first” turned out to be two smaller steps. First, we went across the highway
and up the side road. This road was paved in asphalt and had black stripes of
patching in various spots.
Maia, who had spent her previous life on 450 acres of Virginia Piedmont farmland,
had never seen anything like that. She did not relish the idea of walking over what might just be the biggest, blackest snakes she had ever seen. Traveler, who had undoubtedly seen such things before, figured that as usual Maia probably knew something he didn’t know. So, we had some balky horses as we walked down that harmless little road. We used Red Revelle’s training to let the horses smell and approach the obstacles. But Maia figured that sniffing snakes was not really a very smart way to approach them. So, we did a combination of walking around, jumping over, and hurrying by. Anyone watching must have thought we either had crazy horses who were tiptoeing down their road, or that we were crazy riders telling them to do it! But eventually we made it to the trail.
I could almost hear Maia’s sigh of relief when she found herself in the woods. But
then we came to a large stream which was overflowing with spring run-off, the
bottom of which could not really be seen. I was pretty sure that there would not be
a stream on a well-used trail which was more than a foot deep. But I could not be
sure that the bank had not dropped off from erosion, or that some other mishap
might not be awaiting an unwary traveler. I did not have water-proof boots on,
and in any event the water looked higher than a boot-top.
Now Maia is nothing if not decisive. It took her about a breath to decide she was
not at all interested in diving into what might be a bottomless pond. She had no
trouble convincing Traveler, and frankly not much trouble convincing the humans either. So, we left that adventure to another time.
That time came a couple of weeks later, as a drenching May moved into a June
drought. We went back across the county road, with less dancing this time, and
proceeded down toward the stream. The waterline had receded considerably,
and we found a less used crossing a few yards upstream. It was still not a piece of
cake. Maia, of course, remembered that the last time we had ventured this direction had ended in a triumph of caution. However, this was a different crossing and looked a lot less threatening. She was a little confused, but she decided on general principles to resist a little. Then while she was dancing around and snorting, much to everyone’s surprise, Kirsten and Traveler walked around us and crossed the stream! Maia nearly fainted from surprise, but quickly realized that she had lost the lead position and that something had to be done immediately! She almost dove into the water to catch up
That was one of Traveler’s finest moments – and Kirsten’s action reminded me of
an incident when she was a little tyke. We were swimming in Higgins Lake in
Michigan, and she and her mother and a couple of other kids were riding a surf
board. It began to drift toward a nearby dock, and they all started to panic. I was
too far away to do anything but watch as little Kirsten suddenly dropped off the
board into chest deep water and pulled the board to a stop. She has always
been good in emergencies. The stream crossing was not an emergency, but she
exhibited the same initiative and cool-headedness.
Well, there we were on the “big” trail. It followed the stream around hills, through
deep woods, past dramatic ravines shaped by gigantic rocks and trees, in and out
of sunlit patches, till we finally came out an hour later, on a road we didn’t
recognize. We had discovered the real Clifton! It was an incredible ride which
went on for over two hours, and which we repeated with many variations many
times over the summer.
We really got to know the horses as well as the land and the trails. As we calmed
down so, of course, did the horses. Maia’s enthusiasm never wavered. She grew
more and more confident and became a marvelous trail horse. I still had not
completely solved the trot-to-gallop problem, and it took another round of
getting up my courage to do it, but that’s another story. In general, I overcame my
crisis of confidence and came to trust both myself and my horse more and more
as time went on. Kirsten too became more confident, though she never lost her preference for the ring over the trail, the trot over the canter. She did accompany me on many trail rides that summer, and we enjoyed the outdoors, the horses, and the companionship.
The end of the summer of ’95 was very tragic. Ron Keeler sent us a note saying
he was going to re-seed his entire pasture in the Fall and would not want any
horses on it through the Winter and Spring of 1995-6. He intended to confine all
five horses to the barnyard with its mud flooring for the next six months. The
other boarder and I decided that we did not want to keep our horses there
under these circumstances. So, I went back to the Clifton Saddlery’s “book” and
located another farm, which appeared to have many advantages, including 100
acres of pasture (in fact, the last 200+ acre farm in the Clifton area), a round
pen, and a large, lighted arena.
So, on a windy, partly cloudy Friday afternoon in late September, we brought
another trailer into Ron’s yard. Traveler loaded admirably, and Maia needed a
little coaxing, but they soon headed off about five miles to their new home. The
owner of the boarding business was Ed Quinn, an accomplished horseman
who had been trained by the United States Army to care for their
ceremonial horses and equipment in Washington, D.C.
Ed was helped at that time by Bill Holmes, his half-brother. Bill carefully led each
horse around the entire fence line of their forty-acre pasture, and over the next
couple of days they kept the newcomers separate from the other horses. Kirsten
and I were there that first weekend, and I rode Maia out on a big trail ride with
about seven or eight other horses. She was a little nervous as was I, but we
everything worked out well. Kirsten stayed in the arena, working with Traveler.
Five days later, at about 11 a.m. on Friday, September 30, 1995, I got a call
from Ed Quinn that something was wrong with Traveler, and that I had better
get my veterinarian over to his farm as soon as possible. I immediately called
Dr. Julie Hedge, who had been looking after Traveler since before we bought him,
and was lucky enough to have her call back within minutes. She said she was on
her way, and I tried to call Ed back to give and receive news. I could not get any
Then Ed called and said that Bill had noticed that Traveler was off his feed at 6
a.m. and that he had been checked again at 9 a.m., but that Ed had not been told
until about 10 a.m., when he awoke after working a late shift. Ed tried
unsuccessfully to get some response and decided to call for a veterinarian, but
did not know whom to call. He also had trouble finding my number. At that
moment, he was using a cell phone out at the barn, and he gave me that number.
About a half hour or so later, Julie called and said I had better get right over
there. I jumped into the car and tried repeatedly to raise Ed on his cell phone (I
later found its battery had run down).
Thoroughly alarmed, I called Kirsten from the car with the bad news. I told her I
did not know exactly what the problem was but that the people on the scene were
very concerned. She said she was on her way. From her office in downtown
Washington D.C., the trip to the farm was about 35 minutes or so.
In the meantime, I pulled up to the barn. Julie’s assessment was that the horse
had colic (the most dreaded word in the horse world). He was standing up
drenched in sweat when I arrived. But he wouldn’t walk. Then he slowly lay down
on his side, much as he had in the woods that time. Julie gave him a pain killer,
and he may have started dreaming, for he began moving his legs as though he
were running free, running through the woods with Kirsten on his back, all cares
and pains left behind, loving life, loping through the crystal air of the Clifton
Then his legs stopped moving. His great heart stilled. His breathing stopped. And
Kirsten’s Mustang convertible came to a gravel-spraying stop. She flew from the
car to Traveler’s head as it lay on the ground. She sobbed his name over and over.
I remembered the day she had cried in the woods, “Traveler, don’t die! Traveler,
don’t die!” This time he could not hear her.
It is strange how emotions connect events that have no rational bonds. A few
months before I had lost my mother, after a death by inches that took almost ten
years. Her actual passing away, when it finally happened, was a blessing. But the
injustice of it all had mixed my grief with anger. She had never done anything to
deserve this kind of death. And the vision of Kirsten’s grief for the horse
re-ignited in me all the sorrow of that other day. l too had tears in my eyes, for
Traveler, for my mother, for the sorrow of my daughter, for all the sadness life
Although the summer of 1995 ended in sadness, it was still the most wonderful
summer I ever remember. I had scored personal victories over fear and anger, and
tested for the first time in a long time my own physical courage. I believe that God
gave me that summer as a way of concentrating on the simple things of life – the
weather, the horses, the tests of courage, and eventually the cycle of life and death
– so that I could put my mother’s experience into the broader context of life’s
mysteries. Even though I had lost my mother, I had come to know my
wonderful daughter on a different level. We had experienced together a summer
of sun-filled and glorious adventures on two beautiful white horses. And these
pictures are forever etched in the recesses of my memory.