It started with a little bay mare. She was 30 years old, blind in one eye, a tired school horse in a riding school barn somewhere west of Chicago. She was the first horse to steal my heart, and the first creature of any kind to break it.
It’s an old story and doesn’t bear repeating, but for her sake and to exorcise the demons of memory, I will. When not working, Babe stood all her days and nights in a straight stall. There was no turn out. No place to graze with head down. No time to socialise with other horses, to cavort or to roll. The workers at the riding school were told to enter and exit the stalls on the horse’s left—or near—side, and that is what the horses came to expect. But the left eye was her blind one, and Babe was literally blind-sided by every groom and grunt that slapped her rump to move her over so they could enter and do whatever it was they were charged to do. She would jump and tremble, the bad eye rolling back or pinching shut. And be growled at for it. Every time.
Babe was the lesson horse I was assigned. My parents paid for one lesson a fortnight and I scrimped and saved my pocket money for the weekends in between. After a couple of months, I was offered a position as a junior groom, more commonly known as a “barn rat”, doing odd jobs and leading horses out to the kids whose parents could afford more regular lessons. I wouldn’t be paid, of course, but I would learn and, at the end of the weekend, I might be allowed to ride one of the dead-tired school horses on the trails through the Forest Preserve out behind the stables. This was the one thin slice of freedom these horses had—to go walking and trotting through the woods once a week, weather permitting—and we barn rats were the lucky ones chosen to ride them out. I felt like I’d won the lottery: the position gave me access to the barn, more chances to ride and I was able to steal moments to lavish attention on Babe.
Our barn held little shows in which we rode in various classes and competed for small rosettes. In the one show I attended, Babe and I went round and round and didn’t get a look in with the judge. I didn’t care, I was riding. Riding without an instructor bleating at me. The show went on for a couple of hours. It was the longest I’d ever been able to ride, though I got off between classes and offered Babe crumbling sugar cubes from my pocket. The final class was something they called The Jackpot, and it was different every year. In 1971, The Jackpot was Bareback Pairs. My friend Anne and I signed up even though neither of us had ever ridden bareback. We weren’t a very well-matched pair, me on my 15hh bay mare and Anne riding a little speckled Welsh pony called Freckles. We had to ride a pattern from memory, like a dressage test performed side by side, without any practice, while keeping our mounts together and making all our transitions as smooth and well-timed as possible. And not fall off. If I’m honest, the memory blurs here. I don’t actually recall what it felt like to ride that course. But I do know how it felt to be presented with the two blue rosettes in the final prize giving. Somehow we’d managed it, and we’d won!
I don’t remember much about the riding at all. It was an “equitation” barn; if you wanted to jump, you went to the fancy barn next door. At our barn, young riders went around in endless circles in the murky interior of the indoor school. Parents gossiped in the mezzanine viewing area. There was a shop that sold stale candy bars, warm Fanta and a smattering of dusty jodhpur pants, chaps and stock pins. For me, riding was secondary. What I loved best was the physical work that took my mind off of my troubles, and the blissful, quiet contact with the horses.
Babe was a Morgan, 15 hands high, a very dark bay with a tiny white whorl on her forehead. No other markings aside from a few scars here and there. And then there was the milky unseeing eye with a halo of blue surrounded by impossibly long black lashes. I quickly worked out that I could enter her stall from the right, which was forbidden, but no one was watching me. From the right, Babe could see me coming with her good eye. No more jumping out of her skin every time a person came to fetch her. I scanned the duty board carefully each Saturday and Sunday morning and worked out exactly when Babe would be required for a lesson. I made sure I was on hand to fetch her, to give her a quick brush, tack her up and hand her, reluctantly, to the lucky kid who had money to pay for it. I would materialise again at the end of the lesson and take her back to her stall. I credit Babe with making me a time-based individual, pathologically punctual.
The men who were paid to do to the work I was eager to do for free were Mexican. I thought they were old because they were grizzled, a bit rough around the edges, often unshaven, always bent to whatever task they undertook. I suspect that if I looked in on that place today, I would be appalled. Those men, who were probably a lot younger than I thought them to be, had families in Mexico. They lived in quarters out the back, sent their paltry pay checks home and never talked about the families they loved and missed. Pedro, Luis, Jose. They were endlessly tolerant and sometimes unexpectedly kind to me.
I was 12 when I started going to the barn, not quite 14 when I walked out of there for the last time, into the relentless sunlight with tears coursing down my grubby cheeks. That Saturday morning, I arrived at the barn and checked the board. Babe’s name wasn’t written up for any lessons. I was thrilled; occasionally they let a horse have a day off. I would be able to spend all my spare time with her, just mooching in her stall, scratching all her favourite spots. Talking with her in a soft voice. Confessing my troubles and my love. I headed past the box stalls belonging to the private livery horses and down the long, dark aisle of straight stalls. Babe’s was empty. I couldn’t make sense of it, so I ran out back to the yard where the blacksmith worked but no one was there. Rushing back inside, I was blocked by Pedro. He put a hand up to stop me. His English was not so good, but it wasn’t hard to understand his meaning. Babe was gone. Taken out back and shot because the vet said the eye was cancerous and there was no room in the barn or in the world for a useless horse.
I didn’t understand it then, but know now that what I took for sweetness was most likely stoicism, her emotions shut down and her body broken by years of clumsy riders going around in endless circles, by a life lived in half-light, the expression of natural behaviours denied and little true comfort. Yet, Babe remains my talisman, my spirit animal, my totem guide to this life I now live with horses.
When we know better, we do better.