Coming Back

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Leslie Burr Howard riding Weeble at Ox Ridge Hunt Club. Photo © Judith Buck Sisto

BY ELIZABETH ONESS

2018 Equestrian Voices Honorable Mention

One August, I came home from a local fair where kids were getting pony rides and said to my husband, “It would be nice to have a horse again.” I was just musing, really. We lived on three hilly acres in southeastern Minnesota, and the land wasn’t suited for horses. The horse part of my life had ended long ago, tinged by crime and discouragement. It was hard to imagine wading back into that world.

A few days later, I came home to find Chad at work on the empty end of our pole shed. “How tall would stall walls have to be?” he asked. “If I built a hayloft, how high should it be?” Our pole shed was a long, blue building that occupied one of the few flat areas on the property. Chad had finished one end for a studio space, but the other end, with wide wooden doors, held scrap lumber and tools, an engine hoist, a home-made elevator, an old woodstove, and various junk left by the previous owner. 

I couldn’t quite believe what my husband was up to, but in short order, he used scrap lumber to make a stall and a hayloft, then built a chicken coop in the north corner. At the property’s edge was a grassy hill bordered by pine trees, and he used timbers for corner fence posts, then bought t-posts and tape to fence the grassy slope. 

When I look back, I’m astounded by the energy and generosity of that work. Chad knew I’d ridden and competed as a junior rider, and he admitted that he thought that a hobby – something different than writing – might be good for me. I was in a bit of a slump, a mid-life cynicism, and he knew what that felt like. 

• • •

I came back to horses in mid-life in the way that many people do – my son was getting bigger and didn’t need to be watched every minute, but more than that: something in me was ossifying. I spent most of my time accomplishing the necessary tasks of being a writer and professor. It seemed that all my work required moving from one desk to another. 

After several pregnancies, my stomach muscles didn’t work very well. I never did the recommended exercises to get my stomach muscles back, and if I reached for something the wrong way I got a sharp pull at my stomach. When we moved to the country and started acquiring animals: ponies and sheep and herding dogs and chickens, I started moving my body in ways that I hadn’t in years. I had to crouch and climb over fences, lift heavy items, shove things into place. Be balanced and lean, deft and quick. It felt good. 

• • •

When I was perhaps three or four years-old, my father lifted me up to look over a Dutch door so I could see a horse in his stall. We were at a Celtic festival somewhere in New York; the drone of bagpipes floated through the grassy air. Girls in white blouses and plaid skirts performed stiff-armed dances on the outdoor stage, and I understood they were the approved attraction – prim and orderly – but I was fascinated by the flea-bitten gray horse standing in the corner of his stall. His heavy haunches and plate-sized jaw were a muscular light in the dark. An orange flame licked at the straw in the corner, and I pointed so my father could see. I felt a sharp tug under my armpits as my father pulled me away, and then a great hurrying and shouting rose up around me.

I was a horse-mad girl. Most stables have one: the kid without any money, the kid who’ll clean endless stalls and teach hundreds of children and adults to post: up down, up down, up down. the kid who’ll take groups of weekend riders on trail rides and pray that no one falls off, the kid who’ll do almost any odd job to earn money for lessons or board. She’s not a pretty girl. She’s an outsider, a watcher. 

My parents hoped my horse obsession was a phase, but one year they took my sisters and me to Devon. I must have pestered them to death, told them Devon was the pinnacle of ponydom, that it would be the greatest thing ever to go. 

I have no recollection of what my parents and sisters did for the few days we were there. I do recall that Englebert Humperdink, whose name sounded like a storybook character, was a featured performer. I can still see the position of the riding rings, the smoothly dragged sand, the athleticism of the jumpers. I watched the pony hunters with an ecstatic fervor: the dapple gray ponies, the beautiful fences, the little girls in jodhpurs and garter straps. Shenandoah Firestone and Shenandoah Flintstone were two winning ponies of the day, and I admired how smoothly they met the fences, and watched when they were stripped of their saddles, trotted for soundness, and lined up. Instinctively, I understood I was watching years of practice culminating in the scene before me. 

• • •

Between the ages of eight and eighteen, I spent most of my time studying horses and riding them. I was in 4-H, took riding lessons, and read every single horse book in the public library. School and orchestra and violin lessons were the inevitable interruptions of growing up, but I had a series of ponies at home. I’d find an ad in the Pennysaver, buy a cheap pony with money earned from babysitting, ride it, and then sell it for more than I’d paid. It was the only way I could manage to get better quality ponies and horses. 

• • •

Over the past few years, there’s been a resurgence of people buying OTTBs and training them for the show ring. In the sixties and seventies, it was simply what you did. Dealers would buy a bunch of horses off the track, run them through a jumping chute, and see who looked promising. My first riding teacher, Mary Jane Mitchell, had an excellent eye. Sometimes she scouted prospects. One day, she called me and said, “I’ve seen the right horse for you. He’s a little bay thoroughbred, he’s over at Beech Hill.” Mary Jane’s word was – and still is – gold for me. On a winter’s day, we went to look at him. He was sound, a bit thin, but he had a sweet face. I looked at his feet, ran my hands down his legs, and plunked down one thousand dollars. Every cent I had.

My parents were leery about all of it. To them, the horse world was filled with teenagers who smoked cigarettes, shady horse dealers, and people who didn’t go to college. In order to keep the horse at a show stable where I worked, I made a devil’s bargain with my parents: I would be allowed to keep the horse if I promised to sell him and use the money for college when the time came.

• • •

When you come back to a sport in mid-life, you realize how much muscle memory you have, and how well instinct serves you. You also realize what you misremember, and what bad habits still persist. It can be educational to see how much that world has changed or developed in your absence. In the twenty-five years I was away, the horse world has changed both a great deal and very little. ‘Natural horsemanship,’ in its commercialized sense, didn’t exist when I was younger. 

Many of the big names from my youth are still at it, or have left an enduring legacy. George Morris coached the Medal & Maclay kids and, since I groomed for a show barn, I watched his students and listened to him every weekend. Ronnie Mutch had beautifully turned-out hunters, and Twentieth Century Limited was one of the most lovely horses I’d ever seen canter over a field of jumps. Judy Richter, her hair pulled back in red bandana, had marvelous ponies and seemed a knowledgeable and unflappable presence. With an unstudied elegance, she seemed to belong. Bernie Traurig and Rodney Jenkins and Leslie Burr were riders I watched regularly. Some of the people I rode with as juniors have gone on to be professionals; others have moved into other avenues of life.

• • •

Shortly after I bought the horse, before I’d even named him, he colicked. Colic surgery wasn’t common in the seventies. When a horse colicked, you walked him – for hours.

My horse was dark with sweat, dark behind his elbows, head down, clearly miserable. The indoor ring smelled of oil and peat. Our vet, Chick Gandal, was a friend, someone I’d ridden on calls with, and he’d given my horse as much Demerol as he could safely take. Sedating a colicky horse is tricky; there’s a fine line between keeping a horse calm, and making sure the horse isn’t so dopey that he goes down. Mine could barely stay on his feet. It had to have been one or two in the morning, my mother in ski clothes, shivering in the damp, indoor ring, solemn. Although she didn’t care much about the horse, she knew what he meant to me. 

Chick was an experienced vet and a kind soul. “Beth, I’m sorry to tell you this, but I’ve never seen a horse this sick get better.” 

I stared at the rough nap of his coveralls and put my hand on the horse’s shoulder, warm, even on the cold night. I opened my mouth to say something, but there was nothing to say. I knew he would only tell me the truth.

“We might as well leave him for the night,” Chick said. “We’ll see how he’s doing in the morning. There isn’t much else we can do.” 

Aside from my basic sympathy for an animal in pain, I felt that, if this horse died, I was simply out of luck. To my young mind, he represented the culmination of so much work – waiting tables, babysitting difficult children, buying and selling all of my ponies for graduated amounts – it would come to nothing. Now, when a teenager tells me that they’ve worked at something for a very long time, I stifle a smile, but I remember that feeling – time is relative when you’re young. 

Early the next morning, when I got to the barn, the horse was up, nibbling at hay. He wasn’t nearly as wobbly as he’d been the night before. He seemed weak, but his eye was calm. I named him Weeble, after a little egg-shaped toy that was popular at the time. The advertising slogan was, “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down.” And that pretty much summed it up.

• • •

Elizabeth and Weeble

I learned a lot from training Weeble. I joked that, fresh off the track, every time the phone rang in the indoor ring, he took off. I earned his board by working at the barn and grooming for the Medal and Maclay kids. When you hear people talk about the good-old days of horse-showing, I can say this: I was able to earn enough money from braiding and baby sitting and waitressing to pay for recognized shows when I wasn’t grooming. I had no room for pride: I was grateful to wear other kids’ cast-off field boots and shirts and breeches. I did own my own show coat. I’m sure the barn owner covered my trailer fee since I was at the barn at 3 a.m. to wrap everyone’s horses and load them onto the van. 

I didn’t mind grooming for kids my own age, though I felt awkward when they had bad rounds because I didn’t know what to say. And I understood my own limitations – perhaps too well. Even if I could have afforded qualifying for the Medal or Maclay, I don’t think I would have cut it. I wasn’t particularly bold, or consistent over a 3’6 course, especially if it had technical demands. I took the same lessons the equitation kids did, rode without stirrups, rode hair-raising gymnastics, but my heart was with the hunters. When I’d saved enough money to go to a show, I was thrilled to place well at Boulder Brook or Fairfield Hunt Club. A nod from the more polished riders of the day felt like everything. 

When the time came, I sold Weeble to the stable owner, whose daughter was a very good rider. In short order, she qualified for the Medal and Maclay Finals, and took my horse, now her horse, to the two big shows at the end of the year: Harrisburg and Madison Square Garden. As I’d promised, I went to college that fall, but I left school to watch Weeble go at Harrisburg, where he was Small Junior Hunter Reserve Champion. I came back to New York to see the Maclay Finals, and Weeble won the Special Hunter class at the Garden. Watching the two of them go was bittersweet.

• • •

Weeble was sold after that. His new owners had a professional show him. I have a photo of Leslie Burr riding him at Ox Ridge Hunt Club. Weeble looks terrific, round over a big oxer, snapping his knees.

After that, he was sold again. When I came home from college one summer, a friend had news she didn’t want to give me. My horse had died in a stable fire in New Jersey. It was thought to be arson; the stable housed a number of valuable horses.

I walked away from horses for twenty-five years.

• • •

Like many writers, I have mined my life for any number of subjects. When I give readings, I do the joking patter – partly provocative, partly clarifying – about misguided romances, alcoholism, drugs, cultural differences between different parts of the United States, the particular craziness of an Irish-Catholic family. I will tell friends, those past the childbearing years, how many pregnancies I’ve lost. In certain company, I moan about the indignities of middle age. But there are a few places where I drop a screen, like a heavy metal door, and block my mind from dwelling on where it should not go – and one place I block is imagining a stable filled with burning horses. 

• • •

When we decided to get a pony to fill the stall Chad built at our farm, I didn’t think about riding at first. I thought it would be enough to simply own a horse and care for it. Because our bit of land was so small, and there was no place for a ring, my first thought was to get a Welsh pony. Our son liked animals, and we liked sharing our menagerie with the children of our friends. What toddler doesn’t want to hold a baby lamb or chick? I can make a Welsh pony sound like a practical decision, but it was not. You know the middle-aged guy who goes out and buys a red convertible? My version of that is a Welsh pony – dapple gray and fancy.

Our first acquisition was a black Welsh mare. She was about twelve hands, forelock tangled over her eyes like a defiant teen. She had shaggy fetlocks, wrinkled nostrils, and a gypsy look about her. We called her Romanee, or Romy or short. She’d been bred to a very nice Welsh stallion, and her foal was due in the spring. When I walked her off the trailer, I couldn’t quite believe she was ours. In her stall, freshly bedded with pine shavings, the scents of my childhood came back to me: hay and manure, sand and swept cement, leather and air. The tangy scent of a horse is like the smell of a puppy, you know it instantly. Bending to clean her hooves, the smells of manure and pressed earth fell in a cloven clump to the ground. 

Keeping a pony was familiar and renewing. I liked the structure of my days: get up and feed, let the pony out, assess the weather, figure out how to manage work and chores for the day. 

When we started acquiring our menagerie, I became more aware of my senses; I rediscovered getting dirty. Dirt is something that living-in-town-types don’t think about much – or if they do, they’re sometimes afraid of it. We had a friend who didn’t want to come visit because she’d just gotten a new pair of sneakers. She was actually serious, which made us a bit sad, but some friendships fall by the wayside. We get dirty. Tired of the petty theorizing of academic life, I’d think: dirt is annoying, but real. Chicken poop is smelly and annoying, thus the expression, that’s chicken sh–, but dust, mud, muckiness, everything has different textures; the gravel in the driveway holds a different kind of mud than the soft silt that runs down the edge. When I come from the barn to the house and wash up, I’m not washing invisible, theoretical germs, I’m washing off dirt. 

Having animals forces a person to move around, which in our very-convenient lives, becomes easy to avoid. Climbing into a loft to pull down hay, mucking stalls, cleaning watering troughs, fixing a wheelbarrow, all these chores, remembered from childhood, allow me to move around in ways that I wouldn’t do otherwise. By now, they’ve become second nature, again.

• • •

For two weeks before Romy’s foal was due, I was sure it would be born any day. I learned that some people use baby monitors or sleep in the barn. Some breeders have cameras to monitor their broodmares. I did buy a simple camping cot, but before I even used it, I went out to the barn one morning and found a slick black filly in the stall with Romy. I was amazed. 

Brand new foals, like brand new babies, are enchanting creatures. My husband jokes that all babies look like Winston Churchill, and newborn foals might, objectively, look like gangly aliens, but something in us is prepared to love them. The foal’s hooves were covered by feathery bits of flesh, protecting the mare while the foal was still inside her, but the fin-like bits of flesh were startling. Her legs were unbearably slender. Romy seemed comfortable, and I checked the afterbirth as the vet had instructed me; everything seemed whole and untorn. The foal wobbled up, adorably clumsy, and began to nurse. Sitting in the stall, watching them together, I felt a sense of calm I hadn’t felt in years.

• • •

A few months after Romy had her foal, I decided to get her used to being ridden. I did get her accustomed to a saddle and bridle, and rode her a bit, but she was thirteen years old, used to being a broodmare, and wasn’t interested in work. She was mannerly enough, but she wanted to be left alone to eat and play, none of this exercise stuff. 

When I came back to horses, I thought I knew a little something. After all, I’d trained a terrific horse. But when I started taking lessons again – and especially learning about dressage – I started to understand the huge gaps in my education. It’s taken me a while to even begin to fill those gaps. 

Having owned and worked with a number of horses over the past decade, and owned some herding dogs as well, I think it’s fair to say that my early success goes to the instincts of Weeble himself –and to Mary Jane’s good eye for picking him out. I don’t remember teaching him how to do a flying change, though I remember being able to ride him in a straight line and shift my seat and have him change and change and change. In taking lots of lessons and clinics as a junior, where I was truly learning about jumping, he learned along with me, and my lack of boldness may have helped him because we proceeded slowly and methodically.

• • •

We live on a different farm now, with more land for horses. Wildfires out West scrim the air. It’s too hot to ride, so I let the horses out to pasture early, then spend the morning cleaning the run-in, down to the barest earth, while the horses are out. 

In the oppressive humidity, it’s almost a relief not to ride. With the exception of my three year-old, most of the horses have had a few days of ring work, so it’s good for them to have a day off. They’re progressing in their training as I’m progressing in mine. 

Our barn is an old dairy barn, and previous owners built a large run-in off one end, so cool air from the lower level of the barn drifts out the windows into the run-in. I lay down a generous amount of lime, and then, in the shadiest corner, where the horses like to stand and urinate, I bed it deeply, and hope the shavings and shade will help ward off flies. I top off the watering trough and add apple cider vinegar, though I have no idea if this is an old wives’ tale or if it really does help with flies. When I’m done, I whistle the horses in from the pasture. After a morning in the sun, they trot in willingly. 

They drink from the trough, dribble on each other, then the four of them arrange themselves, head to tail in the coolest corner. My three year-old positions himself in front of me and lowers his head. He wants the inside of his ears scratched, and I use my fingernails to scratch where he can’t reach with his hoof. When I stop scratching, the geldings start to fuss with each other. My boss mare puts her ears back, and they fall into line. It becomes quiet. The fan blows. They will rest here in the shade for several hours, and their peace translates to me. I’ll go into the house and do some work, knowing that they’re cared for. This is why I’ve come back: the tenderness of caretaking, the sense of peace and rest after work, the scent of horses in the shade on a sunny summer afternoon.


Elizabeth Oness lives on a biodynamic farm in Southeast Minnesota. Her stories have received an O. Henry Prize, a Nelson Algren Award, and the Crazyhorse Fiction Prize. Her books include: Articles of Faith, Departures, Twelve Rivers of the Body, Fallibility, and Leaving Milan. Elizabeth is a professor of English at Winona State University, and when she’s not teaching, she’s usually riding horses or playing music.


The inaugural $2500 Equestrian Voices Creative Writing Contest celebrated stories written by and for horse lovers from all over the world. We were inundated with amazing narratives about triumph, loss and the deep emotional experience that is being with an amazing horse. To learn more about the 2019 contest, visit theplaidhorse.com/write

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