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 Beauty, Misty 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):
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.
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.