Grandpa came home one day with a blood-red Arab mare named Suzy. We all thought he was foolish for buying her; a 65-year old man had no business on such a hot-blooded horse, a mare no less, which would be coming into heat every month and acting crazy. We were all afraid he would get thrown and break a hip. But Grandpa didn’t listen to our protests. I think he was attracted to her beauty rather than her practicality, like a man in a mid-life crisis purchasing a flashy red sports car. And Suzy was a beauty, lightly built with sleek graceful lines and a delicate head with the dished shape characteristic of her breed. Beautiful, but entirely impractical.
We figured Grandpa was trying to relive his youth. We had all heard the stories of how he had ridden his horse 15 miles roundtrip to school every day during the height of the Great Depression, becoming the first in his family to finish high school. He was born in 1915 and raised in a time and place when there were few cars around, and most farmers in our rural community were too poor to afford cars anyway. He and Great Grandpa farmed with a team of horses, and he had grown up using horses to pull farm implements and for everyday transportation. For Dad and me horses were just a hobby. We rode across the Osage prairies on weekends for fun. Grandpa wanted to join in the fun and thought he needed a horse of his own.
Grandpa never did anything halfway, if he was going to get into horses he was going to go all in. He bought a fancy horse trailer to pull behind his truck, an expensive Wyeth saddle and all kinds of fancy riding tack, and a bunch of horse feed and good alfalfa hay. He always had the best equipment money could buy and he took meticulous care of his things, including his horses. Living through the Depression seemed to make people of his generation appreciate things more and take care of their possessions.
I have been riding horses almost as long as I have been walking. I got a spotted Appaloosa-mix pony named Filly when I was seven. I wasn’t strong enough to lift the saddle onto her back alone, so I rode bareback most of the time. Filly was old and lazy, so there was never much danger of her throwing me or having a runaway, as she could hardly be bothered to run under any circumstances. Dad rode a huge gray Tennessee Walking Horse mare named Gracie that he compared to a Cadillac because of her smooth gait. Filly’s stiff-legged jarring trot was hardly Cadillac-like, by comparison.
We came home one day to find Grandpa with an ugly scrape on the crown of his bald head, making him look like Gorbachev. He had been riding Suzy alone around the barnyard and she had decided she wanted to go back inside the barn, with him on her back. He couldn’t stop her and couldn’t jump off in time and had banged his head against the barn door and had been knocked off. He was unconscious for a few minutes, lying there in the barn yard. He sheepishly admitted to Dad and me what had happened later, but made us swear not to tell Grandma. I don’t know if she ever found out how he scraped his head, but I think he made up some lame story about falling off a ladder or something. Suzy must have scared Grandpa pretty badly because he stopped riding her after that.
Dad couldn’t handle the Arab mare, his impatience and temper clashed badly with her own fiery stubbornness and they feuded often. If he became angry she acted out even more, which made him even angrier and the battle just escalated until one of them (usually him) gave up in exasperated frustration. I was the only one who could make peace with her. I’ve always had a lot of patience and a pretty calm demeanor. Horses can sense that and they react to your own personality.
I rode Suzy often that summer. She was fast! Such a change from my little stiff-legged Filly. With the toes of my boots set lightly in the stirrups in case I needed to bail off quickly, and with a tight grip on her flowing blonde mane we would race across the prairie at full gallop. Sometimes I would get scared and grab the saddle horn, something I knew real cowboys never did. But I only did this if sure no one was watching.
One summer day we were riding leisurely across a cow pasture near our house when a horsefly landed at the base of Suzy’s tail and bit her. She bolted, nearly throwing me off backward in the process. She bucked and jumped like a bronco in a rodeo and I clung to her back for dear life. I could hear Dad yelling “there’s a horsefly on her rump!” so I turned and swatted the fly in a calm moment between her leaps. I made her run a few hundred yards back and forth after that to work the adrenaline out of her blood. She calmed down pretty quickly after that and we continued to ride the rest of the day without another incident. My wild ride earned Dad and Grandpa’s respect. After that they said I was a real cowboy who could ride anything, and they told the story to everyone about how I had stayed planted in the saddle as if stuck by glue. I could tell they were proud and it made me happy.
Grandpa sold Suzy not long after that, I think her panicked reaction to the horsefly was enough to convince him of her incurable flighty nature. I was sad to see her go, I had grown fond of her fiery temperament. He made one more attempt at riding by buying a docile Quarter Horse named Jimmy. But when Jimmy too turned out to have some behavioral problems, Grandpa gave up riding completely.
A few years later we lost Grandpa. Our family’s affair with horses was pretty much over by then. I was a teenager, and was more interested in cars and girls than spending weekends riding. Grandpa’s death came as a shock, as suicide always does. It knocked the wind right out of all of us. They say suicide is painless, and that may be true for the victim, but it’s definitely not true for the surviving family. Somewhere, somehow, in whatever constitutes the Great Beyond I hope he’s flying at full gallop on a blood-red Arab mare with fire in her veins.