Ya'll can thank my associational memory for this one. Mentioning the fact that I'm horse nuts in my previous post got me thinking about my horsey times, which brought to mind my oldest friend, as it always does.
You see, my oldest friend is... was.... a horse. I still have trouble sometimes remembering that we lost him this last winter, I keep expecting to see the old man coming up for a treat and his ration of pets and attention.
Growing up, my family raised cattle. I was still tiny when the patriarchal side of the family got out of the beef industry, but I can remember moving cattle on horseback. I was just big enough to hold onto the horn in front of whichever parent drew the short straw and squeal in delight as they took off after a rogue. As a side effect of raising cattle, and because gangly colts are some of the cutest critters to walk the planet, they raised horses. American Quarter Horses, to be exact, of exalted bloodlines, and patient personalities.
One of the best we ever had, in my memory and anyone else's, was Cutter. Cutter was, technically, Hygro Cutter Sauce, but he was always just Cutter to me. He was born in the early '70s, saddle trained, and started on cutting by one of the best trainers in the land, and finished out by my father, after an afternoon chat aided by some copenhagen and a nice breeze. The trainer, while he still had him, won three minor futurities, sitting square in the middle of one of the smallest cutting horses he'd ever trained. Watching this horse work a herd of cows, and he did it mostly on his own, was as beautiful as any Mozart symphony, or Rembrandt painting in the world. He was a short little sorrel, with a blaze down his face and white socks, and a mane and tail that were perpetually ratted, no matter how I tried to keep them flowing.
When I say he worked mostly on his own, I mean, he'd wait for you to tell him which critter you wanted, and then go to work. When in the pasture, he would amuse himself by cutting the calves off of their mommas and taking them off to play for a while.
By the time I came on the scene, Cutter was a solid member of the family, and had already proven his patience and skill with children. He would not allow a child to fall of his back, ever. Unless there was a person standing there with a firm grip on the kid, he'd hurt himself getting well under the munchkin, rather than let them slide off.
This, of course, made him the perfect horse to teach my brother and I (mostly me) to ride. Of course, once I had a few basic skills, enough to stick my butt to the leather, he moved on to some more difficult lessons.
Like be careful when you ask a cutting horse to turn, or he might just spin you right off. It took many years before the ol' boy was willing to let me take my lumps, and he never entirely stopped treating me like one of his "kids," but he spit me out of my saddle a couple of times, when he thought I was getting too big for my britches.
He was my babysitter as a child, watching over me when I would toddle away from my mothers side and go romping in the horse pasture. He was my confidant, patiently listening to the secrets I cared to whisper into his ear and nodding sagely as I told him of the resolution to some conflict. He was my teacher, instilling in me the love and respect of our equine friends that I carry with me today. He was my friend, sharing with me fiery sunsets out in the pasture, one arm over his neck and leaning on each other. When all else had failed me, five minutes in his company could remove the greatest stresses, and calm the roiling seas of my emotions and mind.
Later in his life, he became more and more arthritic. Our long rambling exploratory rides became limited to him insisting on taking me for a ride in the pasture, meandering around a bit as he showed me the best of the juicy grasses, and then depositing me back where he'd picked me up when he was ready, all sans saddle, bridle, or even halter. The last time we went on a real trail ride, we came upon some cattle in the canyons, and I saw him perk up, felt his muscles tense, just waiting for the signal to go get 'em.
That poor old horse's whole body drooped when I kneed him on past the placidly grazing cattle.
Of course, that meant he had to prove that he still had the same turn on a dime and give you five cents change skills that he'd had in his youth, as I discovered later in the ride, when I asked for a sharp right and got one much sharper than I'd intended.
We spent five minutes checking his legs, and another twenty with his girth loosened and me on the ground, the old sorrel giving me the hairy eyeball the whole time for insisting that he not strain himself.
The more arthritic he got, the less we rode. The less we rode, the thinner the old man got. The rough winter this year was just too much for him, and sometime during the blizzards he laid down and let the snow cover him.
I cried when we found him.
The tradition lives, although we lost all our breeding stock in my grandmother's divorce. While at the horse sale, a couple of months ago, looking for a new horse to take to college with me, we found his sister. Or, she might as well be his sister. She pranced into the sale ring with the same "look at me!" attitude he'd always shown in parades, has the same bloodlines, similar coloring and markings, and even has "Cutter's" in her registered name. My grandmother cried, and I bid, and we got her. Her use name is now Etta, she's two years old and well worked with. Next summer, I'll begin training her.
No horse will ever replace the Old Man in my heart, but with any luck I'll do justice to the memory of the partnership he shared with me and my family.
P.S. My grandmother carries around more pictures of her horse than she does of me. No wonder my priorities, when it comes to my equine friends, are skewed.