|Because of a horse, my life changed drastically when I was twelve-and he wasn't even my horse.
I grew up in suburban New Jersey in the 1950s, a horse-crazy kid in a town where real horses were a thing of the past. My parents couldn't afford to buy me one, even though I had begged for a horse ever since I could talk. (Forget ponies. I wanted a horse-preferably one that could be tamed by love, like Walter Farley's The Black Stallion.) Since a real horse was out of the question, I did what all horse-crazy little girls do: I read everything even remotely related to horses. I cut pictures of horses out of newspapers and magazines and pasted them into a scrapbook.
I rode whenever I could cajole one of my parents into taking me to a rental stable. Some were snooty and highclass- these tended to be English. Others were slapdash cowboy outfits. I rode in saddles so big for me that I had to put my feet into the loops of the stirrup leathers instead of the irons. I got stepped on. I fell off. But pain only encouraged my passion.
The year I turned twelve, we moved to an area that was still mostly farmland. As my father drove us up the street to our new
house, I made a startling discovery: a horse lived next door. First I made friends with the horse, whose name was Playboy. Then I
made friends with his owners. That summer I spent more time in Playboy's pasture-an old apple orchard-than I did at my
new home, which I viewed as a place to eat and sleep. My true home was with my true love, Playboy.
Hugh Massey, Playboy's owner (I was encouraged to call him "Uncle Hugh"), was an ex-cavalry man and an excellent rider-
quiet and tactful. He and his wife both worked. They had no children. During the day, since I was there all the time, he would
patiently impart what he knew to me. At night I would kneel by my open window and watch Playboy graze in the moonlight, the air smelling like cider from the fallen apples in the grass.
Playboy was about my age-old for a horse in the '50s-a tall, big-boned chestnut gelding with not a white hair on him. To judge from his vertical neck and a tendency to prance when he got excited, Playboy was a Saddlebred. One day when I asked Playboy to trot, he responded by doing something else- probably a rack. I could never get him to do it again. From some of the conversations I overheard, I think Uncle Hugh was supposed to be teaching his wife to ride, but the first time she got on Playboy, he bucked her off. She never rode him again. When Uncle Hugh rode him, Playboy behaved. Since Uncle Hugh was the one who hadn't gotten bucked off, I did whatever he told me to do.
I'm surprised my parents let me anywhere near Playboy. I was an over-protected only child whose mother was terrified of horses, and my stern, handsome father was more interested in my school grades than my infatuation (as he called it) with horses. "You should be thinking about the future," he called to me one day as I dashed out the door, my arms overflowing with carrots.
Uncle Hugh taught me how to feed and groom Playboy, how to tack him up, and- under his watchful military eye-how to ride him. By the time autumn came, Uncle Hugh asked if I would bring Playboy into the barn from his pasture and feed him before it got dark. In return, I could ride whenever I wanted to-even when he wasn't home. I was in heaven.
Playboy, I discovered, had pronounced likes and dislikes, just like humans. Whenever he didn't feel like being ridden, he'd stick his long, bony nose so far in the air I couldn't get the bit in his mouth. And whenever he decided I'd ridden long enough, he would try to scrape me off by swerving under the branches of the ancient apple tree in the middle of his pasture. I'd come home for dinner blissfully happy, covered with scratches, tree bark snarled in my hair, and smelling like a wet saddle pad.
By then my circle of friends had extended to Cheryl, who lived down the street, where her family raised sheep, had beehives, and kept chickens. At first I enjoyed being at her house because of the animals, but I didn't particularly like her parents, especially her father. Ray (nobody encouraged me to call him Uncle Ray) was a salesman for Hotpoint stoves, so called because a red warning light would blink whenever somebody turned on a burner or lit the oven. One day Cheryl showed me her father's favorite necktie. It was hand-painted, and featured the head and neck of a seductive blond like the ones on the covers of cheap detective magazines. One breast was spilling out of her dress, and there it was-a red "warning light." I snickered dutifully, but I didn't think it was funny. Wasn't Cheryl's father embarrassed to wear a tie that showed a woman exposing herself? Since I didn't know how to act around him, I avoided him.
On weekends, Cheryl and I sometimes took turns riding Playboy. One chilly fall morning, while Uncle Hugh was raking leaves, Cheryl and her father drove up in Ray's Cadillac. As Cheryl and I rode, Ray and Uncle Hugh chatted and watched us. We never rode him hard-Uncle Hugh had made sure we understood the consequences of that (interminable walking until he had cooled down)-so we only cantered once, from the back pasture through the gate, around the big apple tree, and back to the barn.
Cheryl had just dismounted when Ray asked Uncle Hugh if he could ride. He said he'd ridden his family's work horses when he
was a kid, and a day like this brought back memories. Cheryl and I exchanged frowns. Ray was encroaching on our territory. His world -the adults' world, full of politics, cigarette smoke, and ugly neckties-was not our world. And our world- full of long-tailed horses and romantic sagas like Emily Brontë's novel Wuthering Heights-was not their world. Ray's wanting to ride Playboy was in some way unacceptable, and Cheryl and I both felt it, even though Ray was her father. And because we knew Playboy, we knew there would be repercussions. Without exchanging a word we scrambled up to the top rail of the pasture fence to watch the show.
In less than a second Playboy metamorphosed from a sweet, docile, anybody-can-ride-him horse to an eye rolling outlaw. The instant Ray gathered the reins and put his foot in the stirrup, Playboy pulled back, neck vertical, nostrils flaring. Ray managed to heave himself into the saddle before the horse took a few tense, springy steps backward. Uncle Hugh yelled to him to ease off the bit, but it was too late. Playboy took off bucking. Ray struggled to keep his balance by hanging onto the reins, his upper body swaying back and forth like a rag doll's.
Cheryl and I hugged ourselves, desperately wanting to laugh but not daring to. This could not be happening. In our 1950s universe, fathers were dignified beings, nearly god-like. They never looked stupid and they were always in control. At least they controlled us. But Ray couldn't control Playboy.
By now he had lost his stirrups. In a last-ditch effort to save himself, he wrapped both arms around Playboy's neck in a hammerlock. But one more buck and he slid slow-motion off Playboy's back and landed in the grass. As Playboy headed for the far corner of
his pasture at a dead gallop, Uncle Hugh rushed in to ask whether Ray was hurt. Cheryl and I rushed to catch Playboy, to make sure he wasn't hurt. He was grazing placidly in the tall grass, surrounded by late-blooming buttercups and Queen Anne's Lace. We led him back to the barn, where we unsaddled him and mounted him bareback -me in front, Cheryl behind me-as Uncle Hugh
helped Ray to his feet.
The two men hobbled out the gate (normally people just climbed the fence), and Cheryl and I sauntered past them at a walk. We had done neither of these things before-ridden bareback or ridden double, but neither of us had said a word to one another. We both just did it, as though we were reading each other's mind. First at a walk, then a jog, we rode Playboy around the pasture,
giggling as we re-positioned ourselves on his sweaty back. Ray insisted loudly that he wasn't hurt, but Uncle Hugh insisted on driving him home. With no witnesses to impress, Cheryl and I slid off, brushed Playboy until he was dry, and turned him out to graze.
Cheryl and I lost our innocence that day. Two little girls had done what a man, a father, had been unable to do. The balance of power had shifted-not for very long, and not very noticeably. But Cheryl and I had noticed. Our lives would never be the same.