Gypsy, our Welsh mare, seemed as tall as a house and as wild as the stallion she wasn’t when she remembered the clover on the north side of the house and took off. She forgot about me on top, as we loped under a low branch of the hawthorn bush. I grabbed onto the overhang and stayed there, as Gypsy continued on. She left me to dangle for an instant before I crashed down amid cries and giant scratches and fleeting hard feelings about clover and horses in general. I wonder whatever happened to her.
Come to think of it, I don’t know what happened to any of them, except Rockette, who died in the back pasture one summer. Gypsy was just one of many horses in our lives, a list that started with Smoky and Patches. Smoky belonged to Cheryl, my older sister by a year. At that time, when I was seven, she was tall (to me), lithe, and almost able to handle Smoky, who was only slightly taller than Patches and only slightly friendlier. Patches, a pint-size Shetland as ornery as tradition dictates the breed should be, belonged to me. Perhaps they suffer from a Napoleonic complex, those Shetlands. After a few years Dad sent the two away. But I still have, Scotch- taped to a piece of steno paper, chunks of each of their manes—long, black hanks of bristly hair, clipped off on their last day with us before somebody’s trailer took them away. They came together and they left together. That much I do remember. I felt bad when Patches left, even though he had bitten me countless times and had bucked me off nearly as many, and one time had reared up so high when Dad was yelling at him that the horse lost his balance and fell over, landing on top of Dad. I raced into the house in hysterics to announce to Mom and my grandparents that Dad was now dead. How could anyone survive being landed on by a horse? At seven years old, a Napoleonic Shetland was every bit a horse to me.
Besides, Dad wasn’t a large man, something I knew, even at seven. He wasn’t as tall as Dick Dennie, our neighbor, who was over six feet. Nor was he football-big, like Carl Groth, Susie’s dad, who looked like a cheerful bulldog and still does. My dad was just medium in most ways, but not all. He already had his limp, although I don’t remember ever thinking that he walked funny. In fact, in spite of my fear that a falling horse could squash him like roadkill, I assumed he could survive almost anything. Maybe it was his skin. A lifetime of sun on our eastern Washington wheat farm had left him with a reptilian hide that seemed a protection of sorts. Dad’s hands were always covered with nicks and cuts from machinery repairs, but he never seemed to bleed much. Except, of course, the time he almost cut off his arm with the Skilsaw and left a blood trail from the shed to the garage to the living room. Dad kicked open the back door with his foot and announced in his customary understated way, “Dolores, I think I need a Band-Aid,” as his blood dripped onto the linoleum floor. She just chanted his name—“Ralph, Ralph, Ralph”—over and over as she wrapped a towel tighter and tighter around his arm before calling the doctor.
For most of his life, at least the farm part, Dad hasn’t had a visible ounce of fat on him, so hard is the work of managing a thousand-acre wheat farm, sixty-odd beef cattle, a miscellany of other animals, and four daughters who, at best, were sporadic help. We were given horses to improve our reliability. We had to keep the tack in order, keep the rocks out of their hooves, wipe them down with fly repellent, use the curry comb ruthlessly, especially in the spring when their winter hair was coming out in thick, airy chunks, and braid their manes and tails for special occasions like the county fair and the Flag Day parade.
Dick Dennie taught us the parts of the horse. Thanks to him, we could easily identify our animals’ forelocks, muzzles, cannons, pasterns, fetlocks, barrels, gaskins, croups, and withers. He raised Appaloosas and was the leader of the Cayuse Kings and Queens, our 4-H club. He taught us the parts of the saddle, such as the fork, the cantle, the cinch, and the stirrup. He taught us our club song, “Don’t Fence Me In,” and how to give demonstrations with poster boards and pointers.
I chose to give my demonstration on the quarter horse. On a large piece of pink poster board I traced a side view of a particularly good quarter horse from a picture I found in our Encyclopaedia Britannica. As I talked about the animal, announcing to my fellow club members the horse’s most distinctive features, I tapped solemnly with Dick’s pointer on the convenient body parts, although not necessarily tapping on the ones I was mentioning, as my nervousness took its own course. “The quarter horse is one off America’s favorite saddle horses,” I said, pointing to the side of the tail. “It stands about fourteen to fifteen hands high,” I continued, nervously tapping. “A hand is a way to measure horses. One hand is about four inches. When a horse is measured, it is from the ground to the top of the withers, which is the highest point on the shoulder.” I tried to speak with great authority, pretending that I was the only one in the room who knew this information. “The quarter horse has very strong legs,” now tapping its head, “which is why it can run at high speeds for short distances.” By now I was knocking on its tail. “It was named the quarter horse because in the olden days,” tapping on belly, then head, “owners used it to run quarter-mile races.” My pointer was like the blind man’s cane, swinging widely to find a sidewalk curb. I still remember where the pastern is—it’s a part of the foot— and how many hands the average quarter horse stands (about fifteen and a half).
To foster a sense of community service, Dick directed the Cayuse Kings and Queens to meet on horseback one Saturday morning down at the Colonel Wright monument. Dick rode his Appaloosa stallion, Chief Qualchan, the most beautiful horse we’d ever seen. He was so spirited and temperamental that Dick was the only person who could ride him. Appaloosa mares from all over the Inland Empire were brought to mate with him, a rigorous calling that apparently Chief Qualchan was stud enough to accomplish. The owners of those mares paid a large fee for a chance at a foal with the striking blanket of spirals that the stallion wore. From the front he looked just like a black stallion, maybe just a little over fifteen hands tall, but with such a wild look in those eyes that glowed out from that ebony coat that he seemed much larger. And when he turned, no matter how many times you’d seen this horse, that explosion of spots on his back blanket was startling, a wild collection of gray and black circles set on a striking blanket of white horsehair, like an electric tablecloth folded over his body. I don’t know who Chief Qualchan’s mother was, but his sire was Hopi, a champion gray Appaloosa stallion, completely covered from head to hoof with spots, from his muzzle all the way down his legs. Unlike his son, Hopi had a gentle personality, or at least as gentle as a high-strung, well-bred Appaloosa stallion can have.
We had named our 4-H club after the Cayuse Indians. Dick told us that Qualchan was the last chief of the Cayuse, although later we found out he was really a Yakama. On that Saturday of civic duty, we children raked pine needles while our fathers installed a picnic table by the monument. There people could eat hot dogs and potato chips in exactly the same place where Colonel Wright had ordered Chief Qualchan and a few of his braves to be