Looking out of place, a horse trailer was parked next to the Everette Ice Area. In the parking lot near the trailer was a sizable round metal object, looking to me very much like a merry-go-round. Except there were no kids on it and there was no playground, only cracked tar with grass growing up in spots.
Curious, my father slowed our woody station wagon that our family had named “Pale Blue Pig.” My mother stubbed her cigarette out in the ash tray and I rolled down my side window in the back to see better, also taking in grateful gulps of fresh air.
“Look!” I pointed. “Ponies!”
My father pulled in and stopped. An old guy wearing dungarees, boots, and a cowboy hat led a series of short, stubby ponies down off the ramp of the trailer and tied them one by one to the railings of the metal “merry-go-round.” Last, a big white and red sign: Pony Rides.
“Pony rides!” I said. “Can I go? Can I go?”
“After we finish our errands,” my mother said.
Before long we pulled back into the parking lot of the Everette Arena. There were now several cars parked and, I was disappointed to see, a line of kids waiting. The ponies were trudging round dutifully in circles, each with a kid astride holding tightly to the saddlehorn. Some kids were grinning and others looked about to cry.
My dad looked back at me over the seat, his blue eyes jolly. “Ready for your first pony ride?”
I swallowed and nodded, pulling up the knob to unlock the door. My mother took my hand and we went to join the line. It seemed to take forever. I watched as one kid burst into tears, screaming for his mother, terrified. The guy in the cowboy hat stopped the lead pony and went to the mother and kid. They talked for a moment and she removed the little boy who continued to scream and cry as she cradled him in her arms. A young girl in a pink dress was plopped on the now empty horse. The merry-go-round began moving again, the ponies’ tiny hooves making a clop-clop and the metal go-round squeaking as they turned in the circle.
My dad turned to me grinning. “Are you going to scream and cry?”
I shook my head no.
Finally it was my turn and the old guy came over. “Well, well,” he said, smiling. His teeth were stained brown and he spit a bit of tobacco on the pavement. “Looks like a young cowgirl if I ever saw one! This here’s Slow Poke.” He gestured to the one empty pony.
Slow Poke was perfect—the pony in every little girl’s dreams. He was light golden brown and his long mane and tail were silver. He had mischievous, wise brown eyes. Best of all, he smelled like dust and grass and his fur was soft. My father picked me up and put me on. And around we went. And around. It wasn’t all that exciting really, going in the same direction, tied to the rail. But I was in heaven. And I wanted him. I wanted Slow Poke in the worst way. For my very own.
I must have told my parents because the next thing I remember, Slow Poke was delivered to my house. I was over the moon! My very own pony. My mother already had a half-thoroughbred mare, named Ribbons. Now I could go riding with my mom!
In short order, Slow Poke was saddled and bridled. My dad held him out in the pasture. He gave me a leg up and I was aboard! I sat up tall. So very grown up! My father led me around, his big hand on the bridle, his large athletic frame reassuring me nothing could go wrong. He showed me how to put my heels down in the stirrups.
“So your feet don’t slide through and you get dragged if you fall off,” he explained.
My mother stood nearby. I was glad she could see how quickly I was learning and how brave I was.
“Would you like to try a bit by yourself?” my father asked.
Though I was uncertain about this move, I nodded. I wanted to be strong like him.
“Ray,” my mother cautioned.
“What? She’ll be all right,” he chuckled. “The pony’s name is Slow Poke.”
The second he let go of the bridle, Slow Poke bolted. I dropped the reins and grabbed the saddlehorn. I may have been screaming, which may have made Slow Poke run faster. Faster and faster Pokey ran down the pasture, my father hollering from behind us. And my new, stubby, smart-as-the-dickens Shetland pony headed straight for the only tree in the pasture. An apple tree with low-hanging branches. He made for the very lowest branch. I was too busy hanging on to do much else.
Wham! The branch caught me right across the chest and I was clipped off backward over his fat little butt to land on my back on the ground. Woosh! The air went right out of me.
Slow Poke, well, he turned right around on his little hooves and galloped right back to the barn where my mother caught him. As if to say, “There, I took care of that!”
My father arrived. “You okay?” he said, feeling my arms and legs for broken bones.
I gasped in a breath of air and nodded, then stood shakily.
“Guess what we are going to do,” my dad said as he took my hand and walked me, limping, back up the pasture. “I want you to get back on your pony and ride.”
I might have cried or protested, or maybe I was stoic and did as he said, I don’t remember. But I know I got back on and rode, right then. For my dad knew, and I knew, that if I didn’t face my fear right away, I’d never ride again.
If I hadn’t ridden again, I would have missed one of the most magical parts of my childhood—my daily jaunts through the forest on Slow Poke, and later Topsy, a chestnut Welsh mare, and last Melody, a chestnut quarter horse. Four-footed furry companions for a lonely, only child. Horses brought me my three best girlfriends—Becca, Jessy and Jane—also horse lovers. Caring for horses all my young life taught me a lot about respect, responsibility, and courage. And of course, to expect the unexpected.