, , , , ,

It’s cliche for little girls to fall in love with horses. But many do. And if they are lucky enough to have a particular horse to call their own, little girls almost always fall in love with their first horse.

June 1962

I’ve written before about my first mentor, however, after my pony, came my horse. He lacked the steadfast wisdom of my mentor, Jessie. He was as gangly and adventurous as I was. He came, as did I, from questionable stock. Not much was expected of him, nor of me. But for some reason, he became my charge. I don’t remember if I’d been promised this foal when it arrived. I do know that when he arrived from a flighty and unpredictable dam I was besotted. Of course, at nine-years-old, I didn’t have the capital to purchase this foal from my mother. But by some arrangement, the details of which I’ve long ago forgotten, he was to be Linda’s horse.

I had been immersed in the Mary O’Hara trilogy of My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead, and The Green Grass of Wyoming, YA books that were set in the vicinity of my home in southeastern Wyoming. When this scrawny little albino emerged, I recognized him as the reincarnation of Ken McLaughlin’s beloved white stallion, Thunderhead.

I fawned over and fiddled with Thunder as he matured from wobbly-legged foal to kick-ass colt. Halter and leadrope lessons, grooming, gentling, I did it all. As I recall, my mother stood back and allowed me the latitude to make my own mistakes. I was supposed to wait until Thunder was two-years-old before mounting him. But oh, what an excruciating wait that was. By the time he was a yearling, he’d been introduced to a child’s lightweight saddle, complete with the cinching process. He didn’t bat an eyelash. By the time he was 18-months old, I had been weighting the saddle on both sides and he didn’t bat an eyelash over this either. One summer day with Thunderhead saddled and tied to the hitching rack, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I surrupticiously lifted my leg over his rump and the cantle. I only sat astride him for a minute or two, but it was long enough for my sister to arrive on scene and explode with indignation that I was by myself with this flighty colt and sitting on him too early for his developing frame. Of course we had words. Later mother let it be known that Thunderhead was my horse to make my mistakes with. I marked that day as victory #1.

Thunderhead and I grew up together. I made some major mistakes in his education. But we developed our own chemistry. I no more than thought a move and he was doing it—with the exception of stopping. We both loved to go fast so he learned to run before he learned to stop, which was a life-long hazard. His longer legs made him a better barrel racing horse than dear old Jessie, but even so, we were far from champions. I spent hours astride Thunderhead and never felt safer than when we were together, racing across the badger-holed scrublands around the ranch. The one drawback was that my poor training meant Thunder was essentially unridable for others.

When I was 21, I married a man who considered himself a horseman. He was a big man who dwarfed my Thunderhead. Everytime he mounted Thunder, I could see a look of hatred lodge in my horse’s eyes. I should have paid closer attention. Instead, to avoid nasty battles of will between them, I tried to divert Bob to my mare, whom I’d saddle trained more conventionally. About this time, my mother snuck a ride on Thunder while I was at school. Somehow he flung her off. She did not land gracefully and was stove up for a long time after that. I realized I needed to be responsible and remove the temptation for her to ride him. When I moved to Idaho, Thunder came with me.

At the age of 21, he developed cancer. I eventually had to make that awful decision. I was not yet 30; Thunder had been my best friend and cohort for two-thirds of my life. I had gone from childhood, to college, to marriage, to work, to divorce with Thunderhead as my one constant. There never has nor will be a horse who knows me better, who knows how to please me, anger me, and play with me as he did.