I put the button in my pocket, and thirty-five years later it hung on the bulletin board above my desk at home. It’s small and round and evokes more images than a feature-length film. One touch and I’m tugged into a world full of horses and carriages circa 1900: traffic jams of horses, horses broken down, horses parked at the curb, horses eating lunch, horses whose coats shine like the waxed paneling of the Knickerbocker Club on Fifth Avenue, and horses as shaggy as schnauzers. A perpetual horse show: every day, everywhere, all the time.
It was my grandmother who had given me my first horse when I was five.
“Her name is Bunty,” my grandmother proclaimed, handing me the lead line as she herself marched out of the pasture, leaving me alone with my new pony.
Standing at the other end of the lead, I squinted up at a fat white body slung between two sets of shaggy legs with a tail that swept the ground at one end and dark narrowed eyes under thick lashes at the other. It was like leaving me alone with a chain saw. I knew I was in mortal danger, but I was holding a horse. My horse.The best thing that had ever happened to me. I wish I could say I was a natural from the start.That I hoisted myself onto her back and, with a willow twig for a crop, went for a wild gallop around the field. But the truth is, I had no idea what to do. I stood trembling in my pink sundress, staring at the pretty pony until she lunged forward and removed some of the baby fat packed around my upper arm.
It never got much better than that, not with Bunty. I loved her anyway: blindly, doggedly, through years of her biting, kicking, and embarrassing me in horse shows by sitting down and refusing to enter the show ring, or refusing to leave it. Occasionally her foul mood lifted and she was a pleasure to ride, but most of the time she brought me to tears. At ten I was given a Morgan gelding named Alert and was shocked to discover that a horse could be gentle and affectionate. I hadn’t realized what a hostage I’d been and, beginning with Alert, developed a lifelong love of Morgans.
Now when I walked into my barn, I walked into timelessness: the coachman’s button evoking the distant past, my childhood, the present—all merged into one panorama of horses. I already owned three horses, and the time I spent with them wrapped around my day like brackets, the same beginning and ending no matter what happened in the middle. I worried, since turning forty, since I’d developed a bad back.What if I got too weak to take care of my three horses, a mare and two geldings? What if I got too stiff, what if I got too old? My next-door neighbor, Henry, had owned twenty-five dairy cows. He loved every single one like a daughter. Sometime in his late seventies he got old.Arthri-tis twisted his fingers, and emphysema stole his breath. For a year he crawled on his hands and knees from cow to cow to get the milking done. He hid his face behind his swollen hands and wept the day the big cattle trailer came to take away his herd. From time to time I had feared that something similar might happen to me. And yet, I stood, waiting to take on the care of yet another horse, one in desperate need of a home.
A man stood beside me at the fence, an SPCA volunteer named Ted, who had helped confiscate these horses. After I’d signed the necessary papers, agreeing to foster a mare, he’d come outside with me to help find and then herd her into the trailer for the drive to my farm.Ted was hatless and coatless, in blue jeans and a plaid flannel shirt, splattered with mud from his leather work boots to his unshaven chin. His brown ponytail hung dark and wet, coiled between his shoulder blades. Ted wiped at the raindrops gathering on his wire-rimmed glasses, smearing wet lines across thick bifocals. He wore a small gold stud in one ear and when I moved closer to look at the list he had pulled from his back pocket, I smelled nicotine. He traced a thick, nail-bitten index finger down the computer printout and stopped at number ten.
“Here she is.” He tapped the paper. “Current Squeeze.”
It was a strange way to acquire a horse, sight unseen, by choosing an appealing name off a Seized Merchandise list from the Ulster County Sheriff’s Department.The entire situation was strange. I knew nothing about Standardbreds beyond the fact that they were long-bodied, harness-racing horses, sometimes called trotters because they raced at a trot. I wouldn’t have known what to look for beyond general good health and a pleasant temperament, neither of which was relevant in this situation. The closest I’d ever come to a Standardbred had been the occasional high-speed glimpse of a brown face looking out the window of a horse trailer as it sped down the thruway on its way to the track with one of the graceful-looking racing carriages called a sulk...