Musings, North Dakota Living

A Girl and Her Horse

Sometimes in July, when I am driving through the badlands and the long rays of the setting sun are splaying out over the landscape, a memory comes flooding back to me. It’s a memory of a young girl and a chocolate chestnut Morgan horse, a young girl and a horse who loved each other. At least, the girl very much loved the horse, and she was convinced the horse loved her back.

That girl, of course, was me. This horse came into my life when I was young and tender and obsessed with all things horse. I had an entire bookshelf filled with books like Black BeautyMisty of Chincoteague, My Friend Flicka, and Thunderhead. I had a crate full of “Grand Champion” brand toy horses with names like Firefly, Winnie, Midnight, and Buck. (And yes, I think I could still tell you all their names if I pulled them off the shelf in my old bedroom.) I had a board game called “Herd Your Horses.” If no one would play with me, I would study the game cards that taught young horse enthusiasts about breeds, markings, and colors. I had one reference book about horses that I read many times from cover to cover. (Usually, I skipped the informative but rather shocking section about breeding. The ways we learn, eh?)

In real life, I had grown up riding rather unruly real-life horses from time to time, horses belonging to my Grandpa or maybe an aunt or uncle. These horses and ponies had names like Copper, Pepper, Alexander, and Squirt. But when I was 10, my dad decided we should have our own horses again, as it had been many years since we’d had any. He looked around and settled on a three-year-old, strong-willed sorrel quarter horse named Jackson.

Jackson was a lot of horse for a 10-year-old girl, and after one particularly nasty fall that involved a five-gallon pail, a bareback gallop, and my dad landing on top of me, I was done with him. I wouldn’t ride anymore. So the next summer, my dad, in an attempt to get me riding again, looked around again. This time, he found the perfect horse: A gentle Morgan horse named Kenny. It was a match made in heaven. He was older than Jackson and smaller, and I fell in love instantly. Most importantly, he was mine; my dad bought him specifically for me.

I’m not quite sure why I’m not smiling here, but it’s my earliest picture with Kenny:


Here we are a little older (my dad is on Jackson):

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I could write on and on about the memories I have of that horse, memories of trail rides, cattle drives, parades, and one week at a horse camp in Bottineau. We spent eight blissful summers together.

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It should have been more, but you see, 14 years ago this week our time together was cut short. The first real tragedy of my young life happened on a beautiful July day like many of the days we’ve been having this month.

Rather than tell you the story from my 31-year-old self, I thought maybe my 17-year-old self could tell it, because recently I came across an essay I had written that fall after I returned to school for my senior year of high school. Our assignment for English class was to write about an “autobiographical incident,” and of course, still grieving, I wrote about Kenny. Here it is:


The shrill ring of the telephone cut through the doldrums of household chores on a warm summer afternoon. It was July 25, 2002. I answered and was somewhat relieved to hear my mom’s voice, as she and my dad were supposed to arrive home more than three hours earlier. The relief only lasted a moment. “Rachel?” she began. “I’m afraid I have some bad news… We’ve had a bit of an accident with Kenny.” With those words, I felt as though I had taken a kick to the stomach, and my carefree and happy summer was thrown into a turmoil of tears and heartache.

Kenny was my horse. I remember the day my dad brought him home. He was 10 years old; I was 11 and afraid of horses ever since a bad fall from our spirited quarter horse the year before. But something about the gentle chocolate chestnut horse standing in our yard drew me to him, and from the moment I sat in that saddle, I knew I had found “my” horse. Everyone loved him, because he was perfect. He was gentle and honest, but he had a spirited, slightly mischievous side. We often raced with my cousins in the midst of laughter and flying manes and tails. Kenny didn’t like to lose a race, but even if he did, he was still the best horse in my view.

The summers we spent together were magical. We chased cows, climbed buttes, and raced through tree rows at top speed. He alone was privy to many of my secrets, problems, and fears. I had days that I didn’t feel like riding, but once I got in the saddle everything was good again. But that Thursday in July changed everything.

My parents had gone riding on the Maah Daah Hey Trail of the Badlands that morning. The terrain was rough as they attempted to make their way back, so Mom decided it was best to get off Kenny and lead him. Thats when the accident happened: Kenny’s back feet slipped from a ledge, and in his attempt to scramble back up, the ledge collapsed and he fell about 13 feet off the embankment, landing on his back. He couldn’t get up; his back legs were useless. He lay quietly in the gully as my parents waited for a vet, who said there might be a chance that Kenny would be ok.

After I hung up the phone, I tried to keep myself busy. I finished my chores with tears spilling out of my eyes. I put on a brave face and went to my brother’s baseball game to wait for my dad to arrive with the news. When he finally pulled up to the baseball diamond, I raced over to his suburban, but when I saw his face every hope that I had was dashed. My dad had tears in his eyes. I had never even seen him cry until that day. All he said was, “I’m sorry, Rachel, I’m so sorry.” They buried Kenny where he fell.

Of course I was so thankful that my mom was not harmed in the fall, and I do not hold it against my parents because they would never mean for something like that to happen. But after that, my carefree summer was over. I still feel empty when I remember that when I go back to the farm next year, he won’t be there waiting for me. I know a horse is “just a pet,” but Kenny was more than that to me. He had worked his way into my heart, where there is now a huge horse-sized hole. I feel sad when I see his halter hanging in the garage. I will never forget those brown eyes or that white crooked stripe running down his face.

I know that, despite the sadness I feel now, someday the pain will ease. In its place will be regret that I couldn’t spend 15 more summers with him. Even more, in its place will be beautiful, happy memories. Memories of one of the best friends I have ever known in my short life, and memories of a girl and her horse, forever a part of her heart and soul. 


Gosh, a bit of a tear-jerker eh?

Eventually, the sadness did fade away, and my parents found another young Morgan horse for sale. I named him Chico, and we’ve spent many summers together since then, having a blast doing many of the same things together Kenny and I did. We’ve both slowed down in recent years, but I still love the creak of a leather saddle and the view of a July sunset from the back of the horse.

Although I don’t think about Kenny too often anymore, sometimes my mind travels back – back to those vulnerable years in my life, when, in my innocent and imaginative mind, my best friend really was a chestnut Morgan horse named Kenny. And mostly I smile at those memories. But I might feel just a little sad sometimes, too.

This week, I remember that girl and her horse.



A New Reality

Some days, I can’t believe this little guy is actually here and is actually mine.


Although he was due mid-May, he let me know he was on his way on April 26, almost 3 weeks early, when I woke up to contractions at 4 a.m. and snow out the window (of course, because we had to drive an hour and a half to the hospital, so why wouldn’t it snow?) I wasn’t ready for this, naturally. I had things to do. I didn’t have my sub plans done for the rest of the school year. I didn’t have my hospital bag packed. We didn’t have the carseat out of the box, much less installed, and we hadn’t even taken our childbirth class yet, for goodness sake! I even tried to go to work that morning because surely, this baby wouldn’t be coming when Mom isn’t ready. Luckily, husband didn’t let me.

Baby didn’t care about any of that. No, he basically said, to heck with all of your plans Mom, and entered the world as cute as a button at 4:13 p.m., almost exactly 12 hours after my contractions started and 24 hours after I left school the day before, completely clueless as to what was about to happen to my life.

In 24 hours, I went from trying to encourage 140 students, 139 of whom are taller than me, to care about things like where to put a semicolon and why they should appreciate Lord of the Flies (which can be a pretty tough sell, I’ll be honest) to trying to keep one tiny 6-pound human alive. I’m really not sure which of the two is more difficult.


“Baby Kasen,” as his small cousins refer to him, has been here for two and a half months now. For two and a half months, reality as I knew it before has flipped upside down. Last summer, I was doing things like tooling around Ireland and Scotland with a couple girlfriends, picking out cute swimsuits at Target, and trying to decide which lake activity to do next during family week at the lake. This summer, I’m watching a LOT of Netflix while I’m stuck nursing him on the couch, obsessively Googling various types of baby gear, and although we did make it to the lake, between feedings and trying to safeguard my baby from his very well-meaning but overzealous cousins, I didn’t make it out on the water more than a few times.


What I am sure of, though, is that life has never been so great. For months, as my bump grew bigger and bigger, I listened to well-wishers warn me about this new reality I was about to experience. They said things like “Enjoy sleep now – you will never sleep again!” (Who actually sleeps all that great while super pregnant?!) and “Enjoy your free time now – you will never have free time again!” and “Enjoy [fill in the blank] now – you will never [fill in the blank] again!” I know these well-wishers meant, well, well, but by the time little man showed up, I was terrified. I really like sleep, for example. Like REALLY. Just ask my family. I started putting myself to bed in kindergarten because my parents sometimes wouldn’t get around to it soon enough. I also really like free time. And lots of other fill-in-the-blanks. Part of the reason I was in denial on April 26 is because I really didn’t want my current reality to end.

But looking back, I wish more people would have said things like, “Life is about to get awesome. You might be tired, but believe me Mama, it will be worth it. It will be so worth it.”

THAT would be nice to hear when you’re waddling around with a sore back and a strange melon-sized blob inside you that digs into your hip so hard sometimes during class that you have to grip the podium and gasp as a roomful of teenagers stares at you.

Because here is the thing about my new reality: I do sometimes miss the ability to jump in my car and go where I please, and I’ve been peed and pooped on quite a bit, and not every moment is a cake walk. Case in point: He literally had his diaper off for SIX SECONDS before this happened:


Being a new mom is a learning curve, all right. Never trust a naked baby.

But honestly, when I do get in my car to go somewhere, I love bringing little man along. Hanging out with a tiny human that I actually carried and delivered into this world, who is a spitting image of his handsome dad, is pretty darn neat. And when he smiles at me, none of those fill-in-the-blanks that I’m now “missing out” on now matter at all.


This new reality is worth it.


“Did my heart love ’til now?” – William Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet