It was one of those sunny days when you can’t sit still, when something stirs in your belly – in your blood – and you’ve got to get out and do something! The sound of a lawn mower danced on the breeze; the smell of fresh-cut grass and evergreen sap flowing through grandfather-trees surrounding the house. The weathered barn, with its slate roof, stood strong against the unspoken murmur of clouds sizzling away in the morning. Chickens ran madly from their house into the open lawns, and dogs in the kennel scolded them for … well … maybe just for being chickens. It was summer at the farm in Michigan. The unpredictable breeze off Gull Lake could wash the pastures in a minute’s whim. The horses were calling.
Only a few mares remained from the group of eighteen or so that we had bred the previous year. Mares from some of the most interesting strains of Arabian horses in the world; a collection carefully and intelligently gathered for decades. Among the mares were mothers, sisters and grandmothers of champions throughout the United States and Brazil. Others had joined the foundation herd of Russian-related Arabians on a farm in Canada, for the purpose of preserving bloodlines steadily disappearing from the pages of history. World-famous names like Kilamandjaro, Aswan, Mag, Priboj and Furno Khamal – just to mention a few – were sprinkled like raindrops on the parched sands from where the Arabian breed had first sprouted to life. We were happy to be among the breeders who had sent horses of such caliber to perpetuate the bloodlines and the history they represented. Such thoughts swirled through me as I hurried to the barn, and to the Chestnut-colored racing mare that I called “Honey Babes.”
In the years since I had found her at an auction, Honey Babes and I had seen many trail rides together. While most people knew my riding horse, Nahgua, who was the Bay stallion famed in my writings, very few of them knew I had been riding this little mare for the past few years. Was she special? Not really. She was just a steady, low-to-the-ground mare with a heart of gold. A brave mare who wouldn’t hurt a soul. A mare who wanted to please me in any way she could.
I reached for my saddle, bridle, helmet and gloves. The smell of leather made me feel fresh and alive, as if I could knock off the cobwebs of daily worry and find new energy. The scent of leather had once been captured in a cologne by Hermes, makers of fine leather, and the founder of the herd (a connoisseur of fine things) had once visited the place in France where it was made. There were still bottles of the cologne to be discovered in nooks and crannies of the house and I had confiscated one for myself. I was, after all, a horseman, you know.
Honey Babes liked my cologne, or maybe she was just ready for a ride in the fields surrounding Hickory House. Gently, she stood for me as I saddled her, adjusted the girth and carefully placed the bridle over her face. I had once read a story about a dog breeder who held mental conversations with his dogs and, like him, I had always spoken to my animals in the same, quiet way. Yes, of course, I spoke out loud, or sang to them, too. But, we also spoke mentally. No one could hear us. No one knew.
Honey Babes had a melodious, warm voice. Today, she was asking what had taken me so long to come to her. She wanted to know where we might be going. She wanted me to hurry.
In turn, I praised her for standing so still as I tightened the girth that I knew she was puffing her belly and holding her breath against. Honey, you really do need to do something about this waist-line, I thought, quietly. It didn’t make a difference. She still held her breath.
After a while, I led my chubby friend through the sliding door of her stall and into the center aisle of the barn. The other horses, excited, whinnied and nickered to us – “I’m next! What about me! Where are you going! I wish I could go, too!” All would have their turn, but not in the same way. Some were too young to ride. We didn’t train them for riding until they were about three years old, or until the growth plates in their knees had filled in. This could vary with the individual, though some farms didn’t allow for that diversity and stuck to a training regimen that suited their own requirements instead of a horse’s individual development. In our case, we had discovered that taller, larger horses naturally take longer to mature. Therefore, our training program operated at a slower pace. Honey Babes was glad for that. In her case, she had already been trained for the track – by one of the best, I might add – when she had come to us as a four year old. Without a shadow of a doubt, she would have been a winner. But, she came to us during a year when we weren’t sending any of our horses to the track and she became my riding horse instead.
Where are we going?, she asked.
Let’s just go for a ride on the trail, I thought.
Casually, we walked past the other horses. We walked past Chancellor, the tall, Bay three year-old colt who had once nearly dragged me around the show ring in his exuberance and we were still laughing about it. We passed Nahgua’s last son, and a colt sired by the beautiful NV Beau Bey. At the very end of the barn, in a stallion stall, we passed by Angelo, sire of our grand champion mare, Angelina, with his eyes radiating mischief beneath a thick forelock reaching all the way to his delicate muzzle and flaring nostrils. As always, I admired his muscular chest, level top-line and long croup. Earlier, his work-out had gone especially well. He would be ready for the photo-session we needed so badly in order to promote him correctly. We had been very careful with him all winter, hoping to get some great pictures.
Outside the barn, the air was fresh from a splash of rain. A small flock of peacocks, which had roamed the farm loose for thirty years, were piercing the air with their jungle calls and fluttering down from the tall Norwegian Spruce trees in which they roosted each night. As was my custom, I had sprinkled corn scratch for them on the ground and they were eagerly devouring their breakfast. I considered the scene for a minute. Peacocks in Michigan. I didn’t know which was wilder – the birds or how out of place they seemed. Honey Babes brought me back to my senses: Aren’t we all ‘out of place’ somehow? I thought we were going for a ride.
I took hold of her near rein and rubbed the side of her mouth with my fingers. It was just a habit I’d picked up along the way, reassuring her that everything was OK. Whether it reassured her more, or myself, didn’t seem to matter. We walked to an open area on the driveway, I lifted my left foot to the stirrup and raised myself up and over her back. Settling into the saddle, I felt for the other stirrup and slid my foot into it. Honey Babes waited patiently, until I was sure of my balance, and, as if she knew when I was ready, she set off at a comfortable walk.
There weren’t many drivers on the road, and they drive slowly past us. Considerate of them, I thought, as we turned right and I dismounted to open a gate. A pair of black squirrels scampered off the gate-post, flicking their tails and scolding us for disturbing their meal of acorns. Someone had once told me the black squirrels were imported from Europe and, for many years, they were protected.
Back in the saddle, I rode Honey along the fence line and through the fields. There was a lake I knew, and a swampy cove. If we hurried, we might find the swans. According to legend, Swans mated for life, and I wondered how long these two had loved each other.
For years, they had guarded their nest and raised their young in this cove. Quietly, they lived out their years, spreading their wings to fly across the waters, but never to fly away.
What is it, Honey? Why are you stopping? Why are you raising your head to see? What are your ears pushing forward to hear? Every muscle in her body had pulled tight. Alerted, I leaned forward to search the trail ahead of us, and the waters nearby.
There she lay … a heap of white feathers … her wings crumpled and her delicate neck twisted senselessly. Her eyes closed forever. I looked to her mate, guarding their nest of eggs in the bullrushes a few hundred feet away. I looked above, at the telephone wires that had not moved in how many years? White feathers clinging to the wires remained silent, even as they screamed the story of a flight miscalculated just enough to end the love affair of the swans. But, had it ended? Or, had it simply entered another level? Urging Honey-Babes forward on our path, I preferred to believe the latter. Father Swan would protect their eggs, I reasoned. He would witness the hatching of their children. He would raise them and, for those who escaped the fate of wicked telephone wires in the night, something of their love would live on.
The little Chestnut mare and I navigated the trail as we did every year. Splashing through mud puddles, jumping over fallen trees, swooping under branches that appeared out of nowhere, we walked and trotted and ran until, once again, the barn was in sight. “Easy, girl,” I said, leaning back in my saddle and letting her feel the slight pull of the reins. On our ride, we had seen birth. We had seen death. We had met challenges and road-blocks – and we had overcome them. Together, we had navigated a journey with faith in ourselves, with hearts open to whatever they might discover, and with hope that we would find our way home. On a restless, sunny afternoon we had set out on a path to nowhere in particular … and ended up taking the ride of our lives.