For Bill: A Man and His Horse

Photo © Tobias Keller


2018 Equestrian Voices Creative Nonfiction Honorable Mention

In Memoriam

“So, I just wanted to let you know that your dad can’t walk anymore.” 

It was my sister-in-law, calling me from her car. I could hear the rhythmic whooshing of the windshield wipers in the background. The speaker of her cell phone seemed to hold onto the sounds longer, stretching out the time. Blythe seemed worlds away.

She explained that Dad was able to walk just the day before, using his walker for assistance like he’s done for the past year. His step was shuffled and he stooped as if carrying an unbearable load on his back. But he could move.

Now, on this rainy morning in early-September, my father can’t get out of his bed. He can’t swivel his legs over to the floor. He can’t prop himself up on his elbows. And now, my sister-in-law is returning from a medical supply store with a wheelchair for him.

On the cusp of any significant milestone, it seems that our store of memories becomes so vivid and alive. Watching my daughter head to the security line at LaGuardia to board her plane for college, I harken back to the day in our Manhattan apartment when she took her first walking steps without any help–a smile of sheer joy on her face. Flash forward to first day of Sara riding the school bus as she steps on board, no need for reassurance from her nervous mother. It’s all so photographically clear as the images cascade gracefully, gloriously in my mind.

Bill and his granddaughter, Sara. Photo courtesy of Mary Woods

Memories are central in this chapter of my life as I watch my father’s autobiography disappear into a fog. Alzheimer’s is stealing him daily bit by bit. One day he can’t remember the answer to a question he had asked. The next, he can’t remember the question. Now, he cannot remember how to move. 

As Dad’s history dissolves into silence, it feels almost dutiful to resurrect a story of a man who was the quiet sentinel in our family, more comfortable among the four-legged than the two. He found joy in all of us, to be sure. But I believe his true connection was with the animals in his barn. 

Perhaps growing up post-Depression on a working dairy farm played a role in Dad’s parsimonious views of wonder and emotion. There was always work to be done, with sleep the only necessity before another day where everything might just slip from a farmer’s calloused grip. I grew up in a home enshrouded by his worry that we were on the verge of losing everything. And under these circumstances, I somehow fell in love with horses. 

I had saved my weekly allowance along with any holiday money from my doting grandmothers and watched as the quarters topped the Lucite bank on my bookcase. In a glance, I knew when I had collected ten dollars-worth of quarters and I’d tidily wrap them in the stiff paper sleeves. 

As a ten-year-old who passed for fifteen, in a time when neither age nor inexperience was an impediment to the job, I babysat steadily on the weekends. On the drives home to my house, I would clutch the money in my hand, hoping for the parent’s magic invitation to return to babysit again. Racing up to my bedroom, I’d carefully stash my dollars in an oak jewelry box on my dresser. Between the Lucite bank and this box, I planned for my future in the saddle. 

I had done my research, nervously calling the local riding academy and finding out that hour lessons were $7.50. They offered four-lesson packages and I knew that I had saved far more than thirty dollars. But I still needed my parents to agree to this lofty proposal. Although a sports-minded family, equestrian pursuits seemed out of reach – something very Jackie Onassis, with glamour and abundant dollar signs. Our family had neither.

Dad felt that if you didn’t have the money in hand, you shouldn’t consider buying something. However, I had diligently squirreled away my quarters and bills and took pride in my weekly babysitting jobs. That summer’s block of four lessons flashed by me. I still recall the glorious Nickie with his shiny black coat and perfect star and my first lesson on a lunge line, learning to post at the walk.  My trainer, Donna, heaped praise on me, telling me that my heels were good and deep and I would be trotting before I knew it. Off the lunge line, trying to post, the trot was a mystery of rhythm that I could not solve. The pony’s legs moved too quickly. 

And so, that summer’s introduction to riding ended with a sense that I was a horse-crazy girl who had no idea what she was doing, deep heels notwithstanding. I replayed in my mind the total lack of grace and control – that concussive feeling of my body bouncing into the saddle while the pony dutifully jogged down the side of the ring – and I knew that I had to save my dollars for the next summer. I would trot. I would canter.   

During the following school year, I delved into any library book about horses and would feverishly read and study the photographs. With a jump rope and two chairs, I secretly designed my substitute lesson pony. Astride one chair, I tied the jump rope to the other and fashioned them into reins. Then, in front of the long dressing mirror in my bedroom, I’d check my heels and my hands, and try to figure out the up-down motion of posting. When springtime arrived, I would be prepared to master trotting on a real pony.

As the school year wound down, Mom arranged for some afternoon lessons and I could scarcely contain my excitement on the drive to the barn. Several inches taller than that last summer, I headed to the stalls to tack up a patient buckskin horse named Cheyenne. Having spent the last nine months riding a wooden chair, the prospect of trying out my skills on a real horse was thrilling and terrifying all at once. 

Within two weeks of meeting Cheyenne, the trot made sense. I would still pick up the wrong diagonal, but knew how to sit that beat with control and confidence. Chey’s long legs covered the ground smoothly in a rhythm that made sense and it seemed that I could trot blissfully forever. When I arrived for my lesson that following week, Donna casually mentioned while I was taking a walk break that we were going to do something different. More leg. Lots of clucking from Donna. I felt like my mastery of the trot had evaporated. It was fast and jolting and so confusing to me. But then Cheyenne stepped into the canter. Those first few steps down the long side of the ring were exhilarating, miraculous, breathtaking. I did it and I stayed in the saddle. 

The rest of the summer of 1977 went by in a haze of early-evening lessons every Tuesday and Thursday. I graduated from Cheyenne to a small grullo mare named Sandra, whose effortless canter gave me stability and control. My confidence bloomed and by late-August we were finding our way around a course of cross-rails. But the school year was starting and there would be no time for riding until springtime. I’d need to tack up the chair horse in my bedroom for the next few months.

• • •

Dear Mom and Dad,
For my birthday and Christmas present this year, I just want one thing. And I won’t need anything for other birthdays ever again. I know about a horse for sale and he is $300. We could keep him at the barn where Stephanie keeps her pony. This is all I want.

Love, Mary

• • •

Before I went to bed one October night, I took out a spiral-bound notebook and nervously wrote this plea to my parents. Tiptoeing down the hallway to their bedroom, I placed the note on their pillow and went to bed with a knot in my stomach. At breakfast the next morning, I quietly ate my cereal and mentioned nothing. Mom silently packed my lunchbox. Clearly, I had made a spectacular error and would need to cast aside this foolish idea.

Two weeks before my twelfth birthday while getting dressed for school, I overheard my parents murmuring in their bedroom about numbers and calculations. Eavesdropping at the top of the stairs, I heard Dad mention his friend, Mr. Brehm, who raised Standardbreds. “Well Don says we should safely estimate board at two dollars per day.” It had been a week since I delivered my note and not one word had been uttered about it. My mother said gently, “Two dollars per day? Well, Bill, board is sixty dollars a month. So that’s correct.” I went to school feeling nervously hopeful. 

On Veterans Day, Mom informed me that we needed to run errands. Instead of the usual route to the grocery store, Mom headed out of town and turned down a long, uphill drive. There was a small red barn. There was a very friendly man greeting us. I felt dizzy.

Behind the stall door was a stout horse of uncertain breeding whose shaggy coat was fully encrusted in autumn mud. The only clean part of him was his black face. And it had a perfect white star, just like Nickie, my very first lesson horse. I didn’t care if he hadn’t been ridden for a year. I didn’t care that he looked more bovine than equine. 

His name was Cocoa and he had been a rookie horse at the Pennsylvania State Police Academy but didn’t make the cut because of his small size. Mr. Nelson assured me that he did anything you asked. Not that I needed convincing. I was in the stall petting Cocoa’s soft nose and he was searching gently, eagerly for a carrot. Nothing else mattered. 

• • •

Cocoa and I grew together in that first year, with his metamorphosis from scruffy beast plastered in mud and tangled burrs to a dappled dark bay who was first in command in the rolling paddock. Unfazed by deer leaping out on the trails, Cocoa was stolid and patient. He stopped on a dime. His canter’s gentle tempo swept me across fields with ease. I didn’t know much about horses except that this one was smart, kind, and – most important – mine.

Mary and Cocoa after winning an English Pleasure class in 1979. Photo courtesy of Mary Woods

I spent every day after school grooming, mucking, riding. The barn was no-frills, but the horses were happy. Board included a roomy box stall and turnout. The barn owner fed and watered. We did all the rest. Although I had only one horse, I could easily fill the hours at the barn. For two years, this was my routine. It seemed golden and limitless.

The story of a young teenage girl is incomplete without a dash of turmoil. My consistency had been a true gift and I had grand ideas about what I could do with Cocoa. Yet, one evening at the dinner table, it all changed quickly and completely. Dad announced we would be moving to my grandmother’s farm in another town. I had six weeks to prepare for this new world.

• • •

My horse and I were inseparable. Oddly, though, when we moved and Cocoa lived in the barn across the road from my house, our bond changed. An early school bus in the morning and an afternoon slate of activities at a new school kept me away from the barn. My father, meanwhile, had purchased two pregnant Suffolk sheep. He was a farmer once again in the barn where he had spent his childhood. Dad took on the care of the sheep and Cocoa during the week. I would take over my responsibilities on the weekend. 

From Dad’s two ewes, he soon became a bona fide shepherd to a flock of sheep. Cocoa became a watchdog of sorts, keeping an eye on the sheep in his pasture. At feeding time, I would find Cocoa stretching his neck over the top of his stall, nibbling bits of stray hay from the backs of the ewes. Occasionally, a newborn lamb would slip into Cocoa’s stall and the horse would stand carefully to the side until Dad would return the lamb to its anxious mother.

At nighttime, the lights in the barn blazed as Dad did the evening chores. Mom would send me over to tell him it was dinnertime and Dad would say with quiet annoyance, “I’ll be there. Start without me.” When he would finally return to the house, Dad would eat quickly, solemnly, and then snooze in his rocking chair with a newspaper on his lap. His life revolved entirely around the animals in his care.

With Dad fully immersed in his farming, I found myself spending more time in high school corridors than in the barn. An “easy keeper,” Cocoa lived well. He spent summer evenings turned out in a large field and I’d wake in the morning to hear him nickering at Dad as he approached to bring him inside. My summertime was filled with long waitressing shifts and nighttime gatherings with friends. Cocoa was still mine on the weekends but my saddle was dusty. 

• • •

When I left for college, Cocoa was sixteen. My mind couldn’t shake the thought of my friend’s quarter horse who died when he was twenty. His death was devastating for her and, by extension, I feared that something would befall my horse while I was away. 

On school breaks, I would spend my time in the barn with Dad. To my delight and relief, Cocoa seemed exactly as I had left him. There were more grey hairs streaking his face but his coat was shiny and his eye gleamed with a hint of mischief. I would tack him up for long walks through the fields and Cocoa stepped out like we hadn’t missed a day together.

During the summer of my sophomore year, I moved to Pittsburgh for a school internship. In the days when long distance phone calls were an extravagance, I rarely called my parents. Mom would send letters and clippings from the local newspaper and she assured me in her no-nonsense manner that all was well in the barn. One weekend, I was able to steal away and visit. 

I arrived on a hot, dusty July afternoon. Mom was in the kitchen baking one of her weekend pies. My father allowed himself few real pleasures, but reveled in the cherry, rhubarb, and strawberry confections that Mom created. As Mom slid the pie into the oven, she chuckled and said casually, “Your father rode the horse.” In our years together, Dad had never once expressed an interest in riding. His relationship was purely on the ground. I was stunned. “Well? How did it go?” Mom recounted that she was in the kitchen during the event itself so her only report was what she heard. “I knew he had taken Cocoa for a walk up the road. I saw Bill leading him up and didn’t think anything of it.” Indeed, there was no reason to wonder. Dad would often find patches of good grazing for Cocoa when the pasture wasn’t as green as he’d like so they traveled up and down the road. But what Mom said next has become the stuff of family lore. 

“I heard this yelling! And then I stopped what I was doing and realized it was your father. Screaming at your horse! All he was saying was, “WHOOOOOOOAAAAAA!” again and again. Mom said she dropped her dishtowel and raced outside to make sense of what she was hearing. Alas, my father’s bellowed pleas to Cocoa continued out of sight. Mom shook her head at me in mock exasperation, and said, “You know what he did? He decided to jump up on Cocoa and ride across the upper field! No bridle. No saddle. Your dad kicked him and off Cocoa went! When I stopped hearing him yelling, I thought the worst. And then I see them walking back down the road together. Your father was grinning like the Cheshire cat!”

The image of this stoic, no-nonsense man racing across a field on a small black horse was impossible to square in my mind. Dad has always been a deliberate, measured person. Wild impulses were not a part of his being. As we sat down for dinner that night, I looked across the table at Dad and led with, “So I hear you went for a ride. What did you think?” He looked up from his plate and, with a twinkle in his eye, “Well, as I told your mother, I think the issue was that I was saying ‘whoa’ and you say ‘ho’. If I do it again, I’ll say ‘ho’ and it will be just fine.” He grinned slyly. I chuckled quietly and kept eating.

• • •

Cocoa and the sheep were a constant in my father’s life. Dad’s gentle daily kindnesses were a hidden treasure underneath his serious exterior. During one late-autumn visit home, Dad asked me to help unload the back of his truck. Inexplicably, it was filled with pumpkins. He explained that the local farm stands after Halloween would save their unsold pumpkins for him. With a hatchet, Dad chopped them up and added the orange flesh into the sheep’s mangers. Of course, Cocoa also got his autumn treat, too. “That horse just loves pumpkin,” Dad noted quietly. 

On another day, Dad muttered that the vet did acupuncture on the sheep. “Well, would you believe it? They don’t seem to mind the needles and everyone is healthy so, why not?” He added, “And your horse…he just stands there with those needles in his back. He loves that little vet!” He would never be the one to admit his fondness for something. But it was so clear that Dad’s bond with the animals was easier, more natural than any others in his world. 

Cocoa and Sara, 2002. Photo courtesy of Mary Woods

Each time I’d visit the farm, I found I was ritually saying goodbye to Cocoa. Now living five hours from home, with a husband and baby daughter on the way, I worried that every visit would be my last. Cocoa was still cossetted in my father’s country style. He’d tell me that the pasture had been too wet with rain so he found a hidden swath of “real good clover” for Cocoa to enjoy. If Cocoa had a short time left on the earth, it was going to be a good one.

• • •

If I do the math, my time living at the farm was just a mere six years, with two of those punctuated by college. Cocoa, however, carried on there for twenty-six years. Every morning started the same for him. My father’s flashlight guided Dad to the creaky barn gate. The minute the sheep and Cocoa heard his footsteps, the barn was engulfed in the joyful morning noise of hungry animals. Every morning, the same. Except for one.

Dad left a message on my phone, “Mary, I need you to call.” That’s all he said but I knew immediately what it was about. Mom answered the phone and I blurted, “If it’s Cocoa, please take good care of him!” Mom softly replied, “He went quietly this morning. Your father went over to feed and Cocoa wasn’t at his door. He was lying down in the stall. Your father said that when he walked in, Cocoa lifted his head and nickered.” Dad then sat down with him and stroked his nose. After thirty-four years, there was no need to call a vet for Cocoa. 

A few weeks later, a padded mailing envelope arrived at my apartment. My mother had gathered several photos of Cocoa that she had taken over the years. And there was a Ziploc bag containing a swirled hank of black mane. 

On my visit home at Christmas a few months later, I was back in the barn helping Dad fill the sheep’s pans of grain. We worked quietly, as usual. But then Dad told me quickly, “You know, it was as if Cocoa had waited to see me before he took his last breath.” That was all he said. It was possibly all he could say. Cocoa had started out as my horse. But clearly, he became my father’s.

• • •

“Have we met? You look so familiar to me.” 

This is something I hear with a degree of regularity that leads me to believe my face is common. Throughout my life, strangers approach and say there’s surely some way we’ve met before. I’ve asked friends how frequently this happens to them and am told that I have a certain “Don’t I know you?” quality. Perhaps.

Dad is in his recliner, holding a mug of tea. I approach to greet him but it’s immediately clear that there is nothing familiar about me. His eyebrows arc in worried suspicion and when I say, “Dad, it’s me, your daughter, Mary!” he leans forward to get a better look. Alas, there is no flicker of recognition. His eyes squint, then widen, and Dad stares hollowly at me. I am a complete question mark to him.

Since Dad started to lose his memory, I’ve become a fastidious archivist of mine. I’m doing this with a fair dose of superstition, whistling past the graveyard as it were. Maybe if I recollect and chronicle my past, I won’t readily surrender these things in the future. Yet I’ve also read obsessively about Alzheimer’s and know that my rich card catalog of images and ideas can be seized and destroyed by this disease. There is no bulwark against that outcome. 

I am a stranger to Dad now and my presence crashes into the quiet of his world. From across the living room, I spy him looking at a magazine of bird photographs, captivated by the cheerful goldfinches and cardinals. Thumbing carefully through the pages, he gazes at the photos calmly, almost contemplatively. Perhaps through images, I can cast out a line to Dad.

For Christmas, my daughter, Sara, had given her grandparents a stunning bound album containing photo highlights of her last year as a junior rider. Sara’s riding career had been a mystery to my parents, with neither one able to travel to see her. This album would be the link for them. I approached Dad quietly and asked if he wanted to look at some photos of horses.

We turned the heavy pages slowly, Dad’s eyes moving across the pictures with a spark of wonder. I pointed to Sara and said, “That’s your granddaughter,, Sara.” As if I had been speaking in another language to him, Dad gazed quizzically at me. It was too much information. I needed to just stick to turning the pages.

But I couldn’t stop myself from pointing out a photo from Medal finals. “Dad, this was at the Farm Show! Remember the Farm Show?” As a wrestling coach, my father had spent weeks of his life in Harrisburg for year-end tournaments and I grew up nimbly scaling the treacherous stairs of that arena, long before I knew that horses took center stage in October. Dad asked, “What’s the Farm Show?” 

Bill and a lamb, 2003. Photo courtesy of Mary Woods

• • •

My father lives in the same Pennsylvania farmhouse where his mother was born, the same home where five generations of his family before him lived and toiled. The memories are rich, deep, the very essence of this place. Indeed, we’ve discovered sepia tintypes of unsmiling forebears in hiding places beneath the broad pine floors, utensils and china dolls in the mud of the old walls. A crackled deed to the property from 1805 hangs in the dining room. The blood red wax seal and ornate, looping signatures from the quill pen of my long-ago relatives finalize the transaction. We have been here for a very long time.  And this is where Dad will spend his final days. Even if he cannot recall his daughter’s face or his son’s name, this home is in his bones. His life lived amongst the fields outside–fields where he galloped freely on Cocoa. 

As silence overtakes my father’s world, no one can fathom what he feels or knows. My deepest hope is that somewhere in that thicket of his memories, Dad can recall the taste of a wind-whipped summer’s afternoon so long ago. A man and his horse – or, more aptly – a horse and his man, galloping with abandon along a stand of tall trees. Faster and faster.

Mary Woods lives in the heart of Northern Westchester horse country. When she’s not handling administration duties for a Montessori school, she is ringside, cheering on her daughter, Sara McCloskey, and lots of other equestrian friends. Her father, Bill Woods, passed away on March 21, 2019. Bill’s love for all animals is shared by every member of his family.

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