When I was 12, I got my first horse. Not a pony or a shared horse, but my own four legged wonderful creation, a black Morgan with the personality of a circus clown on cocaine and a heart that never stopped giving. He would become my savior in the years to come, a savior that I would desperately need, but I did not know that the day he came home with us, and I would not know it for sometime. I just knew that he was mine, although the reality is more likely that I was his. Jesse was his name and when I was with him, I laughed more than I cried, but when I cried, he laughed for me.
I remember the first day I saw him. It seemed like a long drive at the time, but in reality, it was an insubstantial distance from Newport, WA to his home down the road past Jazztime Morgans in the Spokane Valley. The woman who owned him gave a whistle and a white blaze appeared in the inky darkness of the pasture shed. Ears pricked and feet light on the still frozen spring ground he trotted the length of the pasture to meet us at the gate. A black coat shone with life and vitality under the murky sky. The eyes to his soul were bottomless mahogany depths. His nose touched my hands and our hearts meshed like heavy duty Velcro.
We spent that spring falling in love with each other. Every day he patiently stood at the corner of the pasture in sight of where I did my schoolwork and waited. The habit became a ritual. I would speed through my homework and fly down the stairs, grabbing a halter on the way and we would be off, somewhere into the hills above my house, losing ourselves in the forests on Mt. Pisgah. In the summer that followed, he and I competed in arenas from Coeur d’Alene, ID to Spokane, WA. I won my first ribbons and my first trophies for pattern racing and rodeoing together. We fell in love with speed. It became a part of us, a bond that tied us together in the same way that a bird is tied with his sky.
At the close of that summer, it was time for another journey. Dad decided that riding to work would be an awesome adventure, never mind that work was seven hours away by truck, and on horseback over the mountains was an entirely different time frame. We started out on a 600-mile pack trip over the Lewis and Clark Trail. Those miles overflowed with wrecks, sweat, blood, and more than a few cuss words. The trails were not fit for mountain goats; the temperature rose to triple digits on some days and sunk to below freezing on some nights, and I came to hate Lewis and Clark with a fiery passion. That year was even fierier than my dislike of the two explorers. The infamous wilderness forest fires of 2000 hemmed us in, their smoke plumes climbed high in motionless skies, nature’s atomic clouds. We watched them with worried caution. On the windy heights and in the gusty canyons, fires become a living thing that can run you down, and we were a slow moving band with multiple pack mules on trails that were dangerous at a walk.
Jesse, new to the world of smoke, outfitting and wilderness riding took it all in stride, and kept me sane through Mom and Dad’s bickering and Dad’s bouts of temper. Jesse would patiently stand with his ears quirked as if laughing while Dad pushed his horse through brush and branches searching for trails that did not exist. Jesse pulled a string with the ease of long practice that he did not have. He never spooked at ropes under the tail, Becker the Wrecker taking out innocent saplings with the cook boxes, or Reno rolling down a 250 feet boulder strewn embankment into Moose Creek. A person would have thought he was mountain born and bred instead of having been raised in the soft and fertile landscapes of the Spokane Valley.
Burned out by fires, the trip found itself forcibly sliced short at 300 miles, and we went to work early for Wilderness Outfitters. We left our stock pastured out to town with Wilderness Outfitter’s stock for a few weeks and headed into the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area for the remainder of the summer. When the guides loaded up the horses and mules to bring them in for hunting season they noticed that Jesse was rail thin with a nose packed full of snot. Wilderness Outfitters was a fly in, or seven-hour ride in, so I was stuck listening to what the vet had to say over the backcountry radio.
Shipping fever was the verdict and Jesse got a good round of doctoring at the Lone Pine Animal Hospital in Challis, Idaho, and the fall hunting season off. Later, the vet told me that he had never seen a horse alive and standing with as low a white blood cell count as Jesse had when he showed up at the clinic. I went back to riding my old favorite in the outfit string, but it was not the same knowing that I had my own horse sitting out in town waiting for me to visit him.
The season dragged on and finally we were free. Mom, Dad, and I packed everything up, loaded the stock and headed back to Washington. Winter crawled on and Jesse and I grew restless during the short days, snow banks, ice, and sullen skies that hung over us in those months. Finally, the sun broke through the clouds and the snow melted.
Jesse was my only care and I doted on him. I bathed him after every ride, not to get him clean but because of how funny he looked as he bit down on the hose and his cheeks filled up like a fat chipmunk. I sat on his back in the pasture and burned myself to a fine shade of red just because I had nowhere else that I wanted to be. I would take a book to the pasture and sit at the base of the huge pines, reading and watching him run the other horses around swinging a stick in his mouth like a whip. We meandered through the hills with others or alone, and life had no imperfections.
We spent the summer racing across arenas, doing 4-H, and soaking up the beautiful life we had. We won our first buckle, the one that used to sit next to a picture of him, but is now packed in a box in Washington. I taught another horse to rodeo while I rode Jesse, but no matter how much I practiced with Apache, Jesse remained my focus.
In the arena, we snaked around barrels and through poles. At home, we climbed the mountains and raced through green fields. I was happy, sunburned, always smelling of horse sweat and saddle leather, but happy. We did not compete to win, we competed because we loved the feel of knowing exactly when to turn, when to slow, and when to give it everything we had.
Jesse was a lesson in not taking myself too seriously. He would take off with me ball cap, untie himself from the trailer at a competition to come greet me at the hamburger stand, and chew on his reins when he was bored. He ate popsicles with me, and generally made a nuisance of himself, and I loved him for it.
Jesse and Apache were night and day. Where Jesse was easygoing humor, Apache was flash and fire. Jesse would amble up to a start line at a gymkhana and look at the horses to his right and left as if to say, “How’s it going fellas, ain’t it a pretty day out here?” At the end of the run as we emptied the arena for the next group to come in, Jesse would nudge the other horses, all curiosity and friendliness, “What happened out there bud, I lost ya?” Apache would approach a start line on tip toes, paint hide quivering, ears pricked to the first pole or barrel, all business with no small talk to the other horses. When we exited the arena, he would dance, like the pretty queen horses in the parades, his breath blowing in and out like some knight’s destrier. But Apache was new to the game and he took second place, while Jesse took first in year-end awards that year.
The carefree spirit of summer ended and the world took a sharp turn towards left, no more homeschooling where I could finish my work in three hours and have the rest of the day to myself. Instead, I found myself staring through white walls inside of a private Christian academy. Some say high school is where children become intelligent young adults. Such fantastical ideas are for the naïve or blatant liars. High school is where you learn to conform or fight; it is the thing that places cynicism in your mind and a shadow behind your eyes. Hypocritical religious rich kids and working class poor kids lumped under one-roof forms a volatile combination, not as bad as plastic explosives but equivalent to 50-year-old dynamite sticks sweating nitroglycerine.
I sat in those walls seven hours out of the day and fell apart piece by piece. High School is an experience we all have faced, but I had experienced 13 years of freedom before I was caged and for the first time I understood the dull haze that covered the eyes of the lions in the Fresno zoo. As I shattered inside, I hardened outside so no one could see in.
The only time the walls came down was in the evening and on the weekends when Jesse and I escaped into the wind, fled from the homework that chained us down. I found freedom in those dusky evenings as I lay on his back, face towards the fading sun and listened to him chewing grass in his leisurely way, snorting hello to the bumblebees that always seemed to love him, and swishing goodbye to the flies that annoyed us both. He always had a smile for me, a tug on my jacket, or a neck to catch my tears when I needed it.
Summer came again, a blessing and a curse. After a school year of confinement, I wanted release, some drug to take away the fact that I would return to the prison when summer faded away. Jesse gave me everything he had, but he loved me more than he loved the speed I craved. Jesse was my savior, but Apache became my drug. I rode them both that summer. As those sunny months fled by my craving for speed took all of my time and I started to ride Apache more than I rode Jesse.
Jesse built up my confidence, believed in me, trusted in me, and loved me. Try as he might my best friend could not take me down the road I traveled, and the fickle heart of a fourteen-year-old girl in desperate need of release started moving on. Apache provided that release; he was the craziness I craved. We were filled with the same quivering need to run, him to feel the wind in his face and the ground churning beneath his hooves, and me to feel like I was free. Together we pushed it to the edge of recklessness. There is a picture of us somewhere in a dusty photo album, rounding third barrel at a 45-degree angle to the ground, his back level with the top of the barrel. I remember we won that event, but the next one the ground gave way beneath us and we slid across the arena, flailing hooves and tangled stirrups. No matter the wreck or narrow escape, we never slowed down.
When year-end awards came around Apache took first and Jesse slid to fifth. That was the last trophy we won together. Still he loved me, doted on me in the pasture, rubbed his head against my hand, even though his halter was on another. It was not in his nature to hold it against me. After long days at school, tolerating the popularity contests and petty judgments he continued to comfort me. He still let me cry into the inky blackness of his mane and those salty tears never stained his shine.
My betrayal continued through the next school year and into the beginning of summer before I broke. I could not continue to watch him stand at the gate as I walked away with another horse. With Apache missing a shoe one day, I caught Jesse instead. I competed on him in Airway Heights under the sun and he loved it. He loved being used and doted on and hugged, and I could not do it any more, not like he deserved. I was too desperate for a release to let go of the drug that Apache had become. So I said goodbye and sold him to a tall willowy blond who promised to love him like I had. I did not cry the day he left. I cried my tears the night before with his head on my lap as he lay in the pasture that had been his home for years and I apologized, not apologies for him because he required none, but apologies to soothe my soul. Because even in my desperate craving for the drug I needed to escape, I realized I was letting my savior go.
I saw him a few months later and his eyes laughed with the joy of being used and loved. Andrea kept him until last summer when she left for college. She did not sell him; just let another girl use him. Another girl who would dote on him as Andrea and I once did. I wonder if at fifteen he has grayed out at all, or if he still flips grain pans over his head. But I do not know, and I probably never will. I just know that he will be her savior when she needs it, as he was for the girl before, as he was for me, as only animals can be.