When I was in high school, I saved up money for a horse of my own from babysitting and mowing my grandfather’s lawn. One sunny spring day, with some added cash from Dad, Grandma Dot and I took a drive to look at some promising horses I had found through newspaper ads.
We arrived at the first farm and I scanned the meadow wondering which grazing horse was the one for sale. As we introduced ourselves to the jovial man who greeted us, a flashy chestnut gelding with his head held high pranced up to the fence. My heart sunk. He couldn’t possibly be the horse for sale because he was too gorgeous and lively, beyond my fantasy and my budget. He was everything.
I struggled to focus instead on the group of content equines in the field who gave us as much attention as a rock.
Wait, what? The owner’s words found their way through my funk saying that, indeed, dashing Holly was the horse he was selling. My meager savings had somehow transformed into gold.
My eyes and heart refocused on this curious and regal long-legged dream. I was certain about two things. My family values supported a practical approach, which meant looking at the remaining horses on our list. But, there was no doubt in my dreamy mind that Holly was the one.
Dutifully, we said goodbye to the beautiful Holly and continued our search. I have no recollection of the other horses Grandma and I checked out that day. The moment we met the last horse on our list, fulfilling my necessary duty, we joyfully called Holly’s owner and made plans to bring Holly home. Grandma and I were ecstatic.
Holly was a great teacher. He was headstrong and never walked when he could prance. I learned accidentally that by lightly touching his side with my toes when riding, he would walk sideways, either right or left depending on which side I touched.
A terrifying lesson occurred during one of our first outings. A friend on her horse and Holly and I were riding down a dead-end dirt road. We reached the end and turned around to return to the main paved road. I warned my friend to hold her horse back, but she began to trot, and Holly launched himself down the dirt road. I leaned over his neck trying to pull his head to one side or the other to get him under control. But he ignored my panicked rein work. He had the bit and he was in the race. I hung on and watched as doom rushed toward us.
We galloped toward the paved road with its blind hill, gravel and dust filling the air behind us. The moment we left dirt and Holly’s steel shoes hit pavement, his feet began to slide and his body went down hard. Luck was riding with us and the road remained empty while we scrambled to our feet, one rein still gripped in my left hand. A moment later a driver came over the rise and braked to stare as we stood shaking in the other lane. My jeans were ripped at the knees and Holly limped a bit as I slowly led him back to the barn about a mile away.
My dad was fixing something at the barn and hurried to meet us as we came through the gate and hobbled across the pasture. Flush with adrenaline, I was more worried about Holly’s injuries. I think I mumbled a few words about our epic tumble and then began assessing Holly’s wounds. He had a few minor scrapes on his knees, and Dad and I removed the gravel and cleaned him up.
Holly and I were both a bit stiff for a few days, and I grew a fear of falling especially when we rode down a hill, which never slowed Holly’s quick step. I bought a more flexible bit for his bridle that he responded to, and we enjoyed less dramatic companionable rides throughout the island.
One day, friends of my dad from the mainland out for a weekend drive recognized Holly in our pasture. They told us that he was a registered American Saddlebred, his full name was “Highland Holiday”, and he was a retired show jumper. He was also several years older than we had been told, not 12 but 18.
Holly continued to teach me about subtle body language and how to move with his graceful rocking stride. As his age caught up with him, Holly often stumbled when cruising down a hill, his muscles no longer able to manage the descent and his staccato pace. But his indomitable spirit showed me that you get up and keep going.
Sometimes when I felt his first stumble, I could help him rebalance by leaning back, and he would recover his pacing rhythm. Other times, he would fall to his knees and I would jump off until he regained his footing. We got very good at this dance move, which came in handy during the only horse competition we ever entered at an informal local show on the mainland.
During the bareback event with seven or so riders on a variety of equines riding around an outdoor dirt corral, the event judge shouted out each pace she wanted us to perform. We would walk, trot and canter, and occasionally she instructed us to turn in the opposite direction while maintaining our speed. I learned later that we were also being judged on whether our horse led with the inside front leg when switching from one direction to the next. Good thing Holly knew what he was doing.
About half-way through our event, I felt Holly trip, and he crashed to his knees while the other riders rode past us. Just like we had practiced on island rides, I leaped clear of his body holding the reins. Holly got back up and shook off, and I grabbed his mane and swung up on his back. We joined the circling riders and continued adjusting to the judge’s shouted instructions. Nothing fazed Holly. Including winning the blue ribbon.
After I graduated from high school, I left the island to attend college on the other side of the state, an almost 300-mile journey over mountains and across windy, treeless wheat hills. I was excited, homesick and missed my beautiful Holly. I longed for the quick drive to the barn where he would trot to meet me at the gate, and I could breathe in the scents of horse and hay. His warm muzzle searching my hands for carrots or apples. Slipping into the comfort of the barn routine to shovel his stall, brush his long body or untangle his tail while he stood munching feed.
Instead of our long bareback rides through wooded trails, I was finding my way to classrooms across campus and getting to know my dorm mates. My occasional trips home were usually packed with family time and catching up with a few high school friends. Holly and I spent less and less time together.
Holly continued to be Holly. When the mood struck him, he would leap the pasture fence, free from bridle and human direction, prancing along the road to another pasture a few miles away for some greener grass. My parents would get a phone call about his escapade and either they or someone from his fan club would walk him home.
A few years later during a weekend visit home from college, my dad met me outside holding Holly’s bridle. He hugged me and told me that Holly had died. Once again, my dad was the one to comfort and witness the passing of an animal family member. I felt shattered with the loss of my lively red steed and all he represented to my young heart, his zest for life and enthusiastic gait for the journey. My dream come true.
My riding days ended.
Forty-five years later, Holly’s bridle hangs on my cabin wall.