After we moved to the woods, we unpacked musty dreams from the bottoms of trunks. Overalls and Little House on the Prairie and cowboy boots.
When I met Jack my horse, he lived at someone else’s place. The owner, sipping select tequila on his gazebo, thought it was Southfork Ranch; I, fresh from suburbia, thought it was the Ponderosa; Jack, low man in the herd scrabbling in a dusty yard for too-few calories, thought it was a low-rent apartment.
The horse can feel a fly land on one of his hairs in a windstorm. Once, I put someone else’s saddle on Jack. He was reluctant to move that day but I made him. Mid-way through our ride, he gave an all-over shudder like a wet dog. When I took the saddle off, we ran fingers along his spine and he flinched, scooping his belly toward the ground. I felt like a traitor.
I bought a lonely little colt, just days weaned from his mother. When I introduced them, the colt immediately tried to nurse on Jack. Jack’s eyes bugged out but he let the baby hunt.
Jack and I were collecting cattle from open country. We got separated from the other riders and horses. Despite my efforts to deserve him, Jack did not believe I had control of the situation. He called and called to the 360-degree horizon for a better companion. I sat isolated on his back.
Jack had five owners before me. One rejected him after a year together, at age three. One rode him once a year for three years. His last owner ignored Jack after Jack fled from the guy so hard the horse broke his own halter rope and went tumbling over backwards. Jack showed the vet the whites of his eyes and visitors the back of him. Jack is very selective in his friends, but he lets me scratch between his ears.
I have a herd of three. None of them is a dominant horse by nature. The painted pony is a schoolyard bully who arches his neck and prances around threateningly. The other two move away and let the pony eat or drink first. They are not submissive, they just don’t want any of his crap. But when anything frightening happens, two silly horses run to hide behind Jack, who always knows when not to worry.
I had a tough time. I fell off young horses and got injured. Worse, I developed my first fear of riding. Even seeing people on TV riding horses made my breath solidify. Only Jack could help me, allowing me to crawl on his reliable back and ride him in slow, tiny circles until I could breathe again. He ignored my tears.
Jack grew old early. Never a full-bodied horse, he grew bony in his early twenties. I fed him hot mash and cloaked him on winter nights. He bulked up a little bit. He still carried me, or a friend or friend’s child, easily and gently, through known and unknown terrain.
Jack died. Not like he should have, not peacefully in the sun. We’ll never know what, but something in the night caused him a severe head injury, which led to frenzy and bloody, foamy lacerations and the extinction of hope. My regular vet was out of town and the crotchety old stranger who arrived said “You can shoot him or I can euthanize him.” “You have no idea who you’re talking about,” I thought. After the injection, I sat with Jack a long time.
Kate Burke lives in the woods high in the Rocky Mountains with horses, cows, chickens, dogs, elk, bears, and eagles. She also practices law and attempts to convey her world in writing.