I am about three years old in this picture. It was taken at Belle Isle, Detroit, Michigan, before Detroit went into melt down and turned into a hell hole.
If my mother had known what she was letting herself in for by putting me atop this pony, she probably wouldn’t have done it. But then, I believe the passion for horses is genetic. She’d told me HER grandfather had been kicked in the face by a horse when he worked as a stableboy in Kaiser Wilhelm’s stables. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know. But that kick leapt two generations and landed in me. I was horse crazy as long as I can remember.
I remember my mother also had a picture of my brother on a picture pony (complete with six guns, a hat, and cowboy boots…and my brother is in shorts) and he isn’t horse crazy. He’s been on a horse once, since, and he literally fell off before the horse had taken a step.
I remember this day. Either before or after, I was put up alongside the driver of a pony cart. My mother, my sister (17 months younger than I), and my grandmother were all in the cart together. I knew even then that I wanted to drive, but the driver never considered handing the reins over to me. What I remember, most vividly, was the pony cart about half a mile behind ours. That pony began whinnying and galloped as fast as he could towards ours. The people in that cart were probably terrified, and obviously the driver was incapable of controlling the pony. But I was entranced, because the pony raced up to our cart and tried to climb into the cart with us. My grandmother was a city girl who was terrified of any animal that didn’t say woof. Me? I was enchanted and honored that the pony had decided to honor us with his presence in the cart.
I have one earlier memory. I must have been a mere infant, probably not even walking yet. I clearly remember being put atop a horse that was so wide that my legs were sideways at the hip. Later on, my parents denied ever doing something like this. However, I learned from my paternal aunt that my grandfather had a favorite draft horse named Deck. It was he that I’d been put atop. You don’t forget physical memories, unlike mental ones, at that age.
As early as I can remember, I wanted a horse. I dreamt of them constantly. I drew them, read about them, studied everything I could. The fact that I lived in Detroit made it impossible to own or ride one. The worst part was not so much unrequited love but the verbal and emotional abuse from my father. He’d decided from my early days that horses were not in my future. This was compounded by the misfortune of a girl who lived across the street, Janet Gordon. She was in her teens, when I was just a puppy. She took riding lessons god knows where, and one of the guys at the stable got her pregnant. My father decided that horses=pregnancy. He was insanely angry with me from then on. Anytime I wanted a horse, asked for a horse, tried to save my money for lessons, I was screamed at, told that I was going to get pregnant. How in the world a horse could impregnate a girl, he never discussed. It had happened to Janet Gordon and apparently, I wanted to go down the same path. (I never met Janet, by the way.) He made it sound as if horses were the secondary path to my really wanting to get knocked up.
No way. I played with the boys in the neighborhood (as there were no other girls save my sister), but I knew from an early age that I was going to marry a horse.
My father, and to a lesser degree, my mother, tried to burn the love of horses out of me. As if that were possible. I’ll stop breathing before I stop loving horses. They forced me to take dance lessons. Why, I have no idea. My sister had something to do with it. She was forever being hung on me to keep an eye on, and greater antipathy towards each other was never forged. To this day she blames me for her failing to become a ballet star. She did not blame her own lack of talent.
I soon realized that the dance teacher couldn’t force me to get onto the floor. I had no desire to learn how to dance. Her rental shoes hurt my feet, I had the grace and balance of a hippopotamus, and all I wanted was to go outside. Being inside that dance studio with a bunch of girlygirls galled tomboy me. I found the teacher’s stash of comic books and determinedly read them, to avoid the dance floor. She obviously reported my noncompliance to my parents, as after several Saturdays, we were no longer forced to go. My sister, I suppose, could have continued, why she did not, I don’t know.
I’ve often noted that if a girl exits puberty with her love of horses intact, she’ll be horse crazy forever. I’ve not seen it fail yet. So it was with me. I liked the boys, but horses were my passion.
We moved to the suburbs when I was thirteen. I found horses in backyards and pocket farms. No one invited me to ride, but at the time, just being near one…even on the other side of a fence-was enough for me. For a while. I found a friend in school who had everything: a father who loved her, a car, a boyfriend-and a horse. Teri was not much of a friend, but when you’re addicted as badly as I was, anybody with a horse will do. We would go to the boarding stable where she kept Dusty. She never let me ride him. She would take off and I would hang around, meeting all the horses. And the stable hands, one of whom was (I know now) a pedophile. He tried to get me into the hay mow, but I wasn’t stupid. Strangers who took a sudden and overly nice attitude towards me were such a rarity that I knew immediately he meant me no good. The gift of fear………
My father had been pressuring me to find an after school job. I had to pay my way in life, as far as he was concerned. But I would have to find a job that I could get to on my bicycle. No way was he going to allow me to drive the car, or make my mother take me and pick me up. I was really pushed into a tight corner. Father hated me and never let me forget it.
Teri and I found jobs. We went to the local racetrack and got jobs walking hots (hotwalkers walked just raced or just trained horses until they were cooled off). The problem was the job entailed getting up at 3 am in the morning. After which we went to school. (I never skipped a day of school). After a week or so, Father learned of it when I tried to give a part of my first paycheck to my mother. (room and board were considered obligatory, no matter how paltry one’s paycheck. And mind you, I was just 16 at the time.). I was doing exactly as he’d demanded: get a job and remand part of my income in order to repay all the money I’d cost him throughout my short life. But no. Again, I was bad.
To say he went berserk is an understatement. I heard all about getting pregnant again. (by this time I knew that no horse would ever try to impregnate me. Father did not trust me that I knew that the men at the track would, even though I never gave them the opportunity.) He was furious. Trying to reason with him was like trying to reason with a rock. I had figured a way around him. I didn’t use his car, I got to the job via some way other than a bicycle, and I was bringing in some money.
After discussing my worthlessness at great length and volume, he kicked me out of the house. He gave me ten minutes to pack a suitcase and get out.
I was mad, scared, and exhausted from his abuse, but I was totally agreeable about getting the hell out. I didn’t need ten minutes to pack. I’d packed a bag long before, intending to run away. This merely made it official.
I was on my bicycle when my mother came outside and told me to come back in for dinner. For the first time in her life, she’d gone against him. She’d told him, you cannot put her out, she’s a minor. So I was allowed back into the house, but I was grounded for a month and forbidden to have anything to do with Teri, or horses.
All that accomplished was to teach me to lie and cheat. Soon after, I ‘joined the book club’ at school. My parents never checked to find out if there really was a book club. They already knew I was a voracious reader. Teri and I would nip out after school, go to the stable for an hour or two with Dusty, and then we’d go to her house, where I stashed my bicycle. It was easy to ride the bike to her house, catch the morning school bus at HER place rather than my own, and make the story plausible. Her parents were warm, lovely and understanding people. They knew a wounded animal when they saw me. Teri’s home was a refuge.
My father was transferred to Saginaw, MI. We moved into a house next to a horse crazy girl’s dream: a horse farm. I spent as much time as possible there, doing a ton of work for only the privilege of being next to horses. I learned a million things, how to handle them, how to foal out a mare, how to break the foals to halter, you name it.
I never got into trouble. I stayed at home, or at the horse farm. But I was still my father’s daily target. My sister got pregnant by her boyfriend at the age of 17, but somehow, she never got the abuse.
When I turned 18, my father turned up the pressure. I had no where to go this time. Teri was half a state away, had graduated and was going to college. College was out of the question for me, as my father refused to even help me get a student loan. I stayed out of his way if at all possible, which, in a Michigan winter, isn’t that easy. If I wasn’t at the horse farm, I was out in the forest. I taught myself how to survive in the woods. I can still navigate by the stars, build a cooking fire in the rain, read the sky for weather.
But I still had father to deal with. He tried to force me into the convent. Instead, I went down to the Army recruiting station. I didn’t tell my parents. I had to wait, as at that time, women had to wait until they were 19 to enlist. I endured a year of torment from my father about my uselessness.
My sister ratted me out about my plans to join the Army. That merely turned up my father’s abuse. I was supposed to be a NUN, damn it, not anything but, because everyone knew I was worthless for anything else. (and in the Catholic church, a parent who had a child join the convent or the seminary had an automatic ticket into heaven.). If I joined the Army, I was going to get pregnant by a black guy, or I was going to turn homosexual, and besides, the Army wasn’t going to take me. I was too stupid.
But I continued. The Army may not have had a cavalry by then, but it was a refuge, a job, a place to live away from him. Despite what my father said, the Army was very happy to take me. I had topped out on all their tests, I was in excellent physical condition and I was motivated to join.
The evening before I turned 19, Father told me to out of the house by this time the next day.
This time I was prepared. I had my contract with the Army in my pocket, and a suitcase in my hand. My recruiter came and picked me up at oh dark thirty, ending that life forever. My mother got up at that ungodly hour to say goodbye. (I know now that she’d spent the entire night awake, crying. For me.) Father couldn’t get his fat ass out of bed.
My love of horses had pulled me through the hell, and I left with it fully intact.
Words cannot convey the loathing I have for the man whose semen fertilized mom’s egg. He was the sperm donor, nothing more. I was his punching bag for 19 years and was effed up for many years afterwards.
Once I married, he had the enormous gall to ask when I was going to have children. Never. Not ever. I had too much emotional baggage to deal with a child. Nor had I any intention of letting him have any contact with a child. Father taught me hatred, fear, loathing, and nothing else.
The author Deborah Holbrook wrote, “The reason women are so good with horses is because they know what it’s like to be prey.” That is absolutely me. It defines me. If there can be any silver lining in the abuse my father poured on me, it’s that I learned how horrible it feels to be the recipient. To this day I cannot and will not condone or tolerate cruelty or abuse. After I grew up and became whole, I became gentle and kind, and to this day I handle animals-and people-this way. It leads a lot of people to abuse me, but nothing was worse than Father. And it no longer penetrates to my soul. I have a husband who treats me like a queen (and he is my king), and that is enough.