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Riding Lessons

There were days I used to sit out in the middle of the field, watching the horses graze around me. Sometimes one of them would get an urge and take off across the lawn with their heads high, tails flagged out behind them. It was the most beautiful sight I've ever seen. I would sit in awe of those majestic creatures. Once in a great while, during my time on that glorious Horse Farm, some amazing animal would bring a solitary tear to my eye.

I got the job at the farm all those years ago by lying. I think they knew I lied about it too, but they could see in my eyes how badly I wanted to work at Cadron Creek Arabians. I'd always had a passion for horses, since my toddler days playing with My Little Pony toys, all the way through my teen years when I kept all but the first Pony I ever had, Windy.

Mom grew up with horses. I heard stories of them my whole life. I grew obsessed with their grace and beauty, their size and stamina. When my friends and I played games together where we had to be a wild creature, I always wanted to be the horse. Louise and Kathy told me I couldn't though, because horses weren't wild. Try as I might, I couldn't convince them that Mustangs still existed in Arizona and Nevada. They just wouldn't listen.

I read books like "Misty of Chincoteague" and "Stormy" and all the Black Stallion series. My favorite book in that series was "Black Stallion and Flame" and had it up until the uhaul was stolen. It's the one of the series with the least human interaction. It's basically all about the horses. I couldn't bring myself to read Black Beauty more than once, because of the hardships the poor thing had to endure. My most favorite book in childhood was by Bill Wallace, called "Beauty", plain and simple. I never cried harder at a book, and that includes "Where the Red Fern Grows" or even "Old Yeller", two of the best 'tissue box' stories known to man. I must have read "Beauty" at least a hundred times.

Mom had a friend out on her mail route when I was a teen named Jerry. He was a kind gentleman who had two horses, Bo and Jack. Somehow they got on the subject of horses one day and my mother mentioned how much I loved them and had only ever been on a horse once in my life, not including every pony on every pony ride at every fair I had ever been to. That kind man, without even knowing me, invited me to go riding.

Bo was a Quarter Horse. Most people don't know where the name comes from. I myself thought it meant they were a quarter of some important breed and everything else was so mixed up that all the other portions were less than a quarter of what they were. I remember how Jerry laughed at me when I told him that. It turned out a Quarter Horse got it's name because if they are allowed to run, to REALLY run, they will hit their stride and go as hard and as fast as they can go for a quarter of a mile. I never forgot that.

Jack was a half Clydesdale, half Quarter Horse - which meant not only was he fast, but he was HUGE. Jack was much older than Bo, so Jerry figured he was an easier ride for me. Bo was only two years old and still had a lot of 'vinegar' in him, Jerry said. He was a spirited animal, and at times even Jerry had a hard time handling him. As I approached the two horses, I started to realize just how big they were. I was immediately intimidated. Jerry was the man I can accredit with my ability to bluff - to put on a brave face when I'm afraid of what it is I'm walking into. He told me the horses could tell if I was afraid and it would make them afraid, so I had to pretend. I got really good at it over the years.

When Jerry boosted me up into Jack's saddle, my legs poked out on either side like antennas on a roof top. His belly was as round and hard as a barrel - but I was overjoyed. I couldn't help but to reach over and pet the gorgeous creature, feeling the heat and moisture from sweat under the base of his mane. His caramel body and white stockings looked even more graceful from this new vantage point.

Jerry threw his leg over Bo and the two of us rode through the pasture, Jerry telling me and showing me how to handle the horse. After a couple of times going over for riding lessons, Jerry had me ride the barrel course. By the end of that day I couldn't believe what he was telling my mother in the other room as I washed up.

"She's got some talent, Beth. She rode those barrels today like she was born to do it. I bet if she did it enough she could compete in next year's rodeo." Mom didn't believe that though. I could see it in her face.

Eventually Jerry had us go out of the pasture in the back. He lead the way across the street towards the field on the other side. Jerry and I rode side by side as people driving past watched us go. My head was held as high as a show horse. People were watching ME ride a horse. Without warning, both horses lurched into the air.

We soared for what felt like ages, but looking back on it now it couldn't have even been a full second. The landing on the other side of the gutter ditch nearly jarred me loose, but I held on to Jack's huge neck and good old Jack did exactly what Jerry had expected him to do - stop dead in his tracks. As soon as the reigns slipped from my fingers, that was Jack's cue to hold his position and wait for his rider to give a command. It was as if someone had installed breaks on the old boy. Jack was a great horse.

Bo was stark black with a white blaze and three white stockings. He had an unusual habit of eating apricots in a most unusual way. He would pick them straight from the tree when they grew out far enough for him to reach. Then he would swish them around in his mouth a moment or two before finally spitting the pit out of the corner of his mouth like an old man with chewing tobacco, and chomp down on the apricot until he was satisfied he had chewed it enough. Then he would swallow with what almost looked like a smile and reach for another. Mom and I would laugh forever of his apricot antics.

Jerry had enough confidence in my skills as a 'natural born rider' as he liked to call me that eventually he let me ride Bo. He taught me how to saddle the horses and I got so good at it I could saddle my horse faster than Jerry could. Then I'd reach over and help him buckle the girth strap. He wasn't as young as he once was. Bending over was hard on his back, he said. I wish he had told me what was really going on - but he didn't want to worry me at all. He loved me every bit as much as I had grown to love him. He was the Grandfather or Uncle I never got a chance to grow up around. I adored Jerry.

I would take Bo around the barrels once or twice and have a great time. Sometimes Jerry would get tired, or he'd start coughing a bit and have to go inside. He always kept handkerchiefs in his pocket, just like a true gentleman from one of my old movies. I always loved that about Jerry. Even when he was filthy dirty from riding all day in the dirt of the field, he had a clean white lined handkerchief in his pocket. There came a day I noticed it wasn't so dazzling white though. I saw a spot of red on it.

"Jerry, you bleeding?"

"I'm ok, Honey. You go on ahead and ride Bo a bit longer. I think Jack and I are just too old for staying out all day long. We need a rest. I'll come back out to check on you in a bit." Then, to cover the question I had asked, he complained about a tooth he knew had been wanting to come out for a while, that it was his gums bleeding a bit.

I got daring with Bo one day. I had always been curious about the Quarter Horse name. I wanted to know how fast the beauty could run - so I let him have his head.

I was riding through the field on my way back to the barrels when I got the bright idea. I figured the field was about a quarter of a mile long, surely long enough to let Bo feel his legs a bit. I loosened my grip on the reigns and kicked him. He started, but held back. It was as though he was in disbelief. Nobody had given him permission to run in so long that he wasn't sure what to do with it. I kicked him again, and that was all it took.

Bo took off with fire. He bolted, his first few strides surging under me like the joints attaching the wheels of a freight train. His back legs coiled while his front sprang forth. In an easy three strides, he was already going faster than I had ever seen him go.

His mane whipped me in the face. It stung, but I felt alive. I didn't feel the pain of it, I felt the force and power behind every movement he made. I felt myself stand up a little in the stirrups and lean in towards his neck. The wind whipped my eyes and brought tears streaming past my temples. I squinted hard, trying to see where we were going and not wanting to pull back on Bo's reigns even an ounce. We bounded and rocketed towards the far end of the field - and when I squinted enough I realized the far end of the field wasn't actually that far away.

Desperately I grabbed at the reigns and began to pull Bo to the left and tried to slow him a bit. Bo wouldn't hear of it though, he kept right on going. He hadn't been allowed to run for so long, he wasn't about to be told he couldn't then. He barreled straight toward the fence on the far end and somewhere in the distance I heard a scream. I think to this day it was me.

Bo turned within inches of the fence it seemed, my body nearly flying off at such high speeds and flying over the top of the railing. Some miracle kept me hanging on though, and we kept barreling through the field.

By the time I got Bo back under control we had gone all the way back down the length of the field again, right back to where we had started from. Jerry was outside watching me - perhaps he had heard me scream.

It's not like in the Black Stallion though - people don't see that love as something they can't control, but rather something dangerous and deadly. In the end I wasn't holding a piece of the Black Stallion's mane in my hand, the world praising me for a wonderful ride and winning the international horse races, but rather with me being scolded the whole way home by my mother for doing what I had done and taking Bo to top speed when he and I were both so new to riding.

Jerry died of cancer a few years later. In order to pay for his hospital bills along that scary, long road of fighting the inevitable, Jerry had to sell his home, his saddles, and yes, even Jack and Bo. I never saw any of them again after that fateful ride I took on that black stallion Jerry called Bo. I wasn't told Jerry had died until after the funeral. I cried like a baby.

I didn't cry because he sold Jack and Bo, because I knew Jerry enough to know he wouldn't let them go to just anybody. They had good homes. I cried because the one person in the world I felt understood me and the life long passion I had for horses didn't have that in return during his final days. I would have given anything in the world to be there for Jerry, especially when he sold his boys. I knew better than anyone how much he loved those horses - they weren't animals to him. They were family. I just hope he knew that I was his family too.

I've cried tonight telling this story. I never properly grieved over Jerry. It's been more than a decade and a half now, and every time I see a horse run with it's head held high, it's tail flagging behind it, I still think of Jerry. I can't help it. Jerry was a good man.

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