One day at our Lodge we were discussing how difficult, indeed impossible, it is to separate people into clear-cut groups – into the “good” or the “bad”! Life does not seem to work that way. There are elements of the bad in the best of us, and something of good in the worst of us. I am about to present a case for believing that the same may well apply in the animal kingdom too.
When my sister Doris and I were seven and six years old, respectively, our Dad decided we were old enough to ride horses to school. Bareback riding it would be, no saddle to give a false sense of security, no stirrups to add danger to a fall. We were to learn to move with our horses, hang on with our knees, and guide with the reins. He purchased a beautiful sorrel coloured pony for Doris. She promptly named her mount Daisy. Dad wanted a slightly smaller pony for me, and could not find one in our area. His search led him to the Indian reservation at Gleichen. There he purchased from the Indians, a cayuse. This was their name for any riding pony that was fleet of foot, trained to obey rein signals, and reliable. Well, this cayuse was pure white, slim of body and legs, and with a nicely shaped head. She was well trained to obey the neck rein signals and could run like the wind – but reliable? That could be a matter for discussion! As it turned out, she also had a will of iron. I loved her at first sight, and named her Grace.
Dad coached us thoroughly and we did not get to ride to school until he felt we could safely manage our ponies. There was a barn at school, and grain to feed the horses when they arrived. This provided an incentive for the children’s mounts to want to come to the school. The older children helped the younger ones to tie up their mounts, and to feed them. They also helped the little ones to get on their ponies when it was time to go home. And that brings up my first problem, which was to remain an ongoing tussle for some time. Dad had a solid, square-mounting station. We could lead our ponies to it, then get up on the station and from it we could more easily get on our ponies’ backs. We would jump up so our stomachs were over the low part of the horses’ backs, throw our right leg over and sit up. It worked like a charm except when Grace decided she did not want to cooperate. I would lead her to the block, climb on it still holding the reins, and start to pull her over. Usually she would obediently walk over and stand while I jumped on. On her bad days her ears would lie back and she would back off the length of the reins, snort, toss her head and refuse to budge!
This came under the heading of my problem. I had to be in control of my own horse. I would pull, coax, threaten – all to no avail. When she had made her protest known, one of two things would occur. She would either calmly walk over and stand by the station and wait for me to jump on, or she would use another method. This consisted of her lowering her head until her muzzle touched the ground. This allowed me to lean my tummy against her neck. I would grab a handful of her mane, she would raise her head and I would slide down her neck until I could swing my right leg over her back – and we were finally ready to go! I wonder now how often Dad watched this performance from afar, waiting to step in if I could not get Grace to obey.
There was another way Grace exerted her independent spirit. She was keenly aware of my state of mind by the feel of the reins. If my attention wandered, if I was daydreaming, she would feel the reins go limp. At that point she would suddenly jump sideways. Off I would tumble, of course. If I could hold to the reins she would give up and let me mount again, either by the neck method or any convenient stump or rock if such was around. However, if I dropped the reins it was good-bye. She continued on to the school barn and I would find her there in her proper stall. If we were on our way home when the spill occurred, she trotted into the farmyard as if nothing unusual had happened. My parents learned not to panic if Grace came home alone, holding her head high to avoid stepping on the reins. They waited a while before going in search and usually would see me trudging along towards home – mad as a hatter!
As I grew older, Grace’s tricks became fewer. Still, I always took note of how her ears lay, to gauge her mood! We shared many things. She loved my excursions south of the house to an open bit of prairie. I would pick cactus blossoms with a pair of pliers and put them into a bag in order to carry them home. While I picked, Grace would munch on the sparse prairie grass which struggled to grow between the cactus plants. The trouble in mounting had by then vanished. Grace and I both had a poor opinion of cows. I considered them a necessary domestic animal with few redeeming characteristics. Why Grace disliked them I never knew – but it was certainly obvious. When I had to ride to an adjoining pasture to bring home the milk cows, Grace loved it. She could round up the reluctant beasts with enthusiasm. The cows moved when they saw her coming because she nipped their tails with her teeth – and enjoyed doing it. All I had to do was to curb her zest. Left to her own devices, she would have them running – which is a no-no for getting a milk cow home with its udder full! Did Grace return my affection? Truly, how does one know? Still, she never left me in real trouble, we liked many of the same things, and she even condescended to nuzzle me on her very good days. On her ears-laid-back days she sometimes tried to nip my leg if she felt the reins go limp, as if to remind me that I had a job to do!
Grace was my mount from my sixth year until my fifteenth, when we moved to Calgary. I was tearful when a neighbour bought Grace for his daughter, who was starting school. It was a comfort to know that Grace’s trips to the old school would continue.
Grace will always live in my memories. How fortunate I was to have such a companion. Memories of her always bring a smile to my lips. Mixed feelings flood in of respect and love and companionship – spiced just a bit with a few grains of exasperation. May it ever be so.