Sunday, December 26, 2010

Painted Ponies

I had watched them for several years and didn’t think much of it; a boy riding a paint pony with his father walking besides the two holding the lead line of the halter. I just thought the Father was a little over protective since the child was nearly my age judging from his height. It wasn’t until the rider’s feet hung half way between the pony’s belly and the ground that I became concerned. At first I thought my parents were angry when I asked if the teenager was too big to be riding him. “You just don’t need to worry yourself about that pony. We should all be so well taken care of.” It was a double team. “They don’t go that far. It’s barely a mile to the lake from their place. Besides he barely weighs a hundred pounds!” It wasn’t anger though; it was more like fear, more like dread. There was something else, something they wouldn’t tell, or couldn’t tell me. It got quiet at the dinner table after that. They didn’t look at me. They didn't look at each other.
Now they had a element of mystery for me. I stationed myself in the boat at the north end of our lake where they passed by every Saturday and Sunday and I could observe. On Sunday they were like clockwork, one PM, after church. The Father and Son dressed alike -matching actually - khakis, work boots, flannel shirts and St. Louis Cardinals baseball caps. They had the same sandy brown hair. They wore matching eyeglasses.  But the Boy’s clothes fit differently. His shirt was untucked and oversized and his neck and wrists swam in their openings.  He was emaciated. His head wobbled as the pony walked and he leaned to one side. But they smiled, always, Father and Son the same smile. The paint was fat and slick and spotless, and if ponies could smile I am sure he would have too.

My half Arabian gelding, Banner, knew what was about to happen. The pavement dead ended into a long abandoned coal company road and the gravel that would harm his hooves had long ago washed away.  I shortened the stirrups on the old hunt seat English saddle to nearly Jockey length and gathered the reins in either hand short and tight as he strained in anticipation. My barely audible verbal click was the downbeat. He coiled into a half rear and leapt down the road. A hundred yards flashed by before I could catch my next breath and this was punctuated by the impact of landing as he jumped a mud puddle. Then we came to the stretch where he always turned on that extra gear he had. Standing in a tight crouch with my head beside Banners neck I was fixed in the space we shared except for my hands, now in front of me, moved forward and back as each stride lengthed. His mane whipped my face and the world was a swirl of light and early autumn’s first falling leaves. Four beats and silence. Four beats and silence. In the silence, when all four hooves were off the ground, we were flying.
Banner pranced in a hard trot for half the trip home. He was never one to bolt for the barn, but the weather was cool and it took him a while to relax after all the excitement. He finally slowed to a walk as we turned down Parklane which would take us home.  This is where I always saw the happy trio, as I had come to think of them and I realize I had not seen them in weeks. I had never spoken to them but we always waved . It was too cold to spray Banner with the hose , which he loved when it was warm, so I took extra time to walk him until all the sweat had dryed where the saddle pad had been. His winter coat was already coming in and brushing out the salt and the mud that had splashed all over him from our run worked up a sweat of my own. I turned him loose to rejoin his pasture mates and immediately he laid down and rolled in his usual spot in the middle of the pasture. All the brushing was erased in an instant but that's part of the bargain, brushing your horse after a ride is not optional. I kissed my Mom on the cheek and grabbed a fried chicken leg and a tall glass of milk from the refrigerator. We sat at the kitchen table as I talked about my ride, and school, and college the next fall. "you know mom I haven't seen those two and that little paint lately, have you?" She turned white, visibly shaken. She took my glass and plate and turned to rinse them in the sink. She looked out the window as she methodically wiped the plate dry. “He died two nights ago. I was working in the emergency room when they brought him in. He.." She couldn't finish the sentence. "You never get used to seeing the children go, especially like that. It's just not right."

Horses are spiritual beings. They are the substance of dreams. You can learn a lot about justice by spending time in their company as well. Foremost, don't expect too much from it, at least not all at once. The same type of noble beast would carry the boy and I down the same path for just a little while. These horses bound us to our families in joy and sorrow and gave us dreams of our own. He would leave his horse with the living and I would leave mine to go to college. I would get to drive cars. I would learn to make beautiful things. I would kiss girls.
It wasn’t until my own little girl was born that I learned my Mother had taken thalidomide during pregnancy. For her, to have healthy children was it’s own spiritual burden. When you are standing in the warmth and sunshine it is easy to see the grace of God to be as wide as an ocean. But when you see the pain of others you realize that grace has a border as hard and clear as the edge of a razor. You know what side of the line you are on today. You know the line will be drawn anew tomorrow. So In the morning I will kiss my perfect, healthy daughter awake. I will try to be a good father, and pay my debt to painted ponies.

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