A Good Voice for Horses

1027

By Sarah Blanchard

“That old horse doesn’t look like much, does he? Old and shaggy, he wouldn’t even get hired as a poor man’s scarecrow now. But that’s Harry. He was pretty famous in his day. A world-class jumper. Even had his own fan club.”

Jennie Holstrom propped her cane against a post and held the top rail of the paddock fence with stiff hands. She shifted a little left, to ease the ache in her bad hip. Eight in the morning, and she should have taken her ibuprofen an hour ago. Instead, she’d come down to the barn early to feed the donkey and wait for Harry’s arrival. She had to get her old horse settled first, then she’d take her meds.

“You don’t have any idea what I’m talking about, do you?” Jennie looked at the small, thin boy peering through the fence a dozen feet away.

The solemn-faced boy shook his head slowly, not taking his eyes off the tall pinto gelding. The boy was maybe eight or nine, though Jennie knew she wasn’t good at guessing kids’ ages, not having had any of her own.

She didn’t know the boy’s name, but she thought she’d seen him once or twice, waiting for the yellow school bus at the end of the new neighbors’ driveway. On this early autumn Sunday, he’d simply materialized beside her as she watched Harry nibble grass in his paddock.

The old horse wandered beneath a large oak tree, his mottled coat moving through patches of sun and shadow. In the next paddock, a small donkey watched them, twitching her thin tail and swiveling long, furry ears.

“That’s Houdini’s Apprentice,” Jennie continued. “The horse, not the donkey. Harry, for short. He was a champion and he won big prizes. Blue ribbons, trophies, lots of money. Harry could jump six feet high and twenty feet wide. He traveled all over the world, he was shortlisted for the Pan Am Games. That’s almost like the Olympics. You’ve seen the Olympics? On TV maybe?”

The boy kept his dark, serious eyes on Harry. He nodded, just a little.

“Do you like horses?”

A more vigorous nod.

“Harry’s a pinto. In England, they’d call him a piebald, but here it’s a black-and-white pinto. Kind of funny looking, isn’t he, with one black ear and one white ear? His big white face, and those blue eyes. After Harry’s settled in, you can give him an apple. I’ll come with you. Would you like to help me take care of him? No riding, though. Harry’s retired. He’s twenty-eight. That’s pretty old for a horse, like maybe eighty-five for a human.”

The boy’s eyes opened wider, staring at the horse. He leaned against the fence and crouched forward on the toes of dirty sneakers, pushing his head and shoulders through the space between the top and middle rails.

He’ll topple into the paddock, Jennie thought, if he tips forward any farther. And he hasn’t said a single word. Is he shy? Or maybe a little, what do I call it, developmentally different?

“Here, get back on this side! Before you fall in and scare Harry.” Jennie didn’t mean to be sharp, but she was worried the boy might not understand. She pointed a crooked finger at him for emphasis. “Don’t go climbing on the fence, or the gates, either. This old place, something’s likely to break. Then you’ll get hurt, and your mother’s gonna come over here and give me hell.”

The boy scrambled back off the fence and stared at her. Black hair flopped over his forehead, and his dark eyes welled with tears. He spun away, stumbled, and fled, sprinting across the yard and into the pine woods beyond her house.

“Hey,” Jennie called after him. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to frighten you. What’s your name?” Too late, he was gone.

She felt bad about scaring him. He reminded her of a startled colt, frightened by loud voices and quick movements. Just the way Harry had been, when he’d first arrived here as a half-wild yearling, nearly three decades ago.

Jennie had been in her late thirties then, working hard to create a successful training business. She’d coached many young riders, trained many good horses for the local shows—mostly amateur hunters, some jumpers. A few foxhunters. The mild climate in North Carolina’s sandhills had served her well, giving her the opportunity to do what she loved for thirty years. And how many people get to say that about their life?

Harry had been an accidental acquisition, a feral colt she’d reluctantly accepted in trade for an unpaid training bill. With his blue eyes, bald face, and a habit of rearing when something startled him, she knew he wouldn’t be a hunter prospect. The result of someone’s what-were-they-thinking, backyard breeding, he arrived with unknown parentage and a deep suspicion of humans, and he was the most challenging horse she’d ever owned. But he also displayed a natural athleticism and quick, catlike reflexes. By the time he was three years old and nudging seventeen hands, Harry was turning heads—and not just because of his coloring. He could jump out of every paddock and unlatch every stall door on her farm. Jennie knew that anyone who could gain Harry’s trust would have a very smart, very talented jumper.

It had taken her six months of groundwork and another six months of slow trail rides to get his basic training sorted out. Harry was hyper-sensitive, a highly reactive horse who took offense at the slightest mistake. Not an amateur’s ride, not a steady-eddy for the hunt field, and definitely not the horse for a timid or heavy-handed rider.

But oh, how he could jump!  Harry’s talents went far beyond Jennie’s own, so she’d offered him to a skilled younger rider with the resources and endless patience to develop his natural ability. And Harry became a star. The flashy pinto with the blue eyes became a showring phenomenon. Fans took selfies with Harry and brought him buckets of carrots at every show. Harry competed in Europe, Australia, South America.

When he could no longer jump the really big fences, Harry became the much-loved partner at lower levels for his rider’s younger sister, and then a younger brother. Through all those years, Jennie followed his career closely.

Now Harry had come home. This was her deal with the family who’d bought him: When Harry grew old and tired, he would come back to Jennie. She was getting old, too. Now in her late sixties, she hadn’t ridden in three years, not since the car accident that broke her ankle and messed up her hip. She’d sold most of the farm, but she’d kept a few acres with two paddocks, a small barn, and Poppy the donkey for companionship.

Then, she waited for Harry.

He’d spent a few months out to pasture, at his owners’ farm. After a few months of retirement, though, with no adoring fans and no job, he began losing weight. So, Jennie told them, it’s time, he needs to come home.

To be honest, she was also feeling a bit selfish. She wanted to have her time with Harry, a few months at least, so she could say a proper goodbye when he was ready to go.

Jennie pulled a carrot out of her jeans pocket and wiggled it in Harry’s direction, hoping to catch his attention. But the gelding ignored her, choosing instead to cock a hip and settle into a nap under the oak tree.

She stuck the carrot back in her pocket, retrieved her cane, and made her way back to the farmhouse.

Maybe the boy would come back tomorrow, after school. Jennie could manage the chores, but it would be nice to have someone else around. She hoped she hadn’t scared him off for good. Maybe he’d decided he didn’t like horses, after all. That would be a real shame.

———-

Late the same day, the boy was back.

When Jennie walked to the barn for evening chores, she spotted him at the edge of the woods, standing very still beneath a pine tree.

“Hello again.” She smiled, keeping her voice friendly. “I’m sorry I yelled, earlier. I just didn’t want you to get hurt. Would you like to help me feed Harry and Poppy? Poppy’s the donkey. But,” she added as he came closer, “I do need to know your name. And how old are you?”

He looked down and twisted a sneaker toe in the gravel. His mouth moved, but she couldn’t hear anything.

“Sorry, can you speak up? I can’t bend down so good.” She leaned on her good leg, tucked a lock of gray hair behind an ear, and cocked her head toward him.

He stepped closer and whispered. “Travis. Travis Williams.” He took a shaky breath. “I’m nine.” He stepped back quickly and dropped his head again.

“Well, Travis, it’s nice to meet you. My name is Jennie Holstrom. You can call me Miz Jennie, if you like. Or just Jennie, that works too.”

She watched him try out her name, mouthing the words: “Miz Jennie.”

“Okay, Travis. Let’s go feed the equines. You can measure out the grain and carry some hay, okay?” She paused. “I’ll need to talk with your parents before I let you do anything more than that. Your parents do know you’re here, right? Where do you live?”

He nodded and pointed toward the woods.

“The red house on the corner or the gray one next door?”

Another whisper. “The gray one.”

If she watched his face, she could make out what he was saying. She might have to brush up on her lip-reading skills, though.

They were in the feed room, measuring grain, when she heard a man’s voice.

“Hello, anyone here? Travis, are you here?”

Travis set the grain scoop in the feed bin and ran into the barn aisle. He reappeared a moment later, tugging the hand of a square-built, dark-haired man. Jennie smiled.

“I’m Jennie Holstrom. You’re Travis’s father. You look just like him.”

“Jeff Williams, glad to meet you.” His voice was thin and tired. “So he told you his name. That’s good. Travis can be very shy. He’s just started third grade, and meeting new people is tough for him. I’m sorry he came over by himself. I told him I’d call, we’d come visit after I got off work—I manage the muffler shop and, yes, we work Sundays—but he couldn’t wait. He saw the horse trailer arrive, early, while we were having breakfast. At noon, I heard all about Harry and Poppy.”

So, Jennie thought, Travis can talk. And he’s not disabled, or disadvantaged, or whatever you call it. Just shy.

“I’m happy to have him around,” she said, “with your approval, of course. As long as he listens carefully and wants to work.” She saw Travis smile. “We could do a trade, work for riding lessons. Not on Harry,” she added quickly. “On Poppy, the donkey. Bareback.” 

Travis smiled, then put on his serious face and picked up the grain scoop, awaiting instructions.

“Great, he’ll love it.” Jeff removed his watch and strapped it onto his son’s thin wrist. “Be home by five-thirty, right?” Then, to Jennie, “Can I speak with you a moment, outside?”

“Sure.” Jennie followed him to the end of the barn aisle.

Jeff shoved his hands in his back pockets and sighed. “I really appreciate this. You should know that my wife—” He paused and began again. “You need to know that Travis’s mom is very sick. It’s cancer, a brain tumor. We moved here to be close to the hospital. Marianne had surgery in July, and now she’s got chemo every two weeks. Travis is our only child, and he’s taking it very hard. I’ve got this new job and—well, he’s a really sweet kid, very quiet. He gets lost in the shuffle, sometimes. This will be good for him. So, thank you.”

Such a burden, Jennie thought. He’s too young to carry all that. They are both too young. She touched his arm. “I’m so sorry. This must be so difficult, for both of you. Whatever I can do, please, let me know. And I really can use Travis’s help with the chores.

“But,” she added, “how can I get him to speak up? It’s a safety issue. We need to communicate with the animals, and with each other.”

“He’ll get better about that as he gets to know you. And he finds it easier to talk outdoors, than when he’s inside. That habit of his, the whispering? That’s—that’s my fault.” He rubbed his face with one hand. “Before the surgery, Marianne got these horrible headaches, and I told Travis he needed to whisper because loud noise made her headaches worse. I told him, he could help her get better by being very quiet.”

“Ah,” Jennie said. There was nothing to say, nothing to take away the anguish in his face. All she could think was, What if Travis wasn’t perfectly quiet? What if he was quiet, and Marianne still didn’t get better?

Jeff Williams turned to leave. “Can you send him home at five-thirty? He gets caught up and forgets the time. Any problems, please call my cell.” He handed her a card with a phone number circled in red, and left.

Back in the feed room with Travis, Jennie explained how to feed Harry and Poppy.

“Harry’s old and missing a few teeth, so we’ll add water to his grain and these chopped-up hay cubes to make it easy for him to eat. So it’s mushy, like oatmeal. Poppy gets only a teeny handful of grain, and one flake of real hay. Can you get that for her? When Harry’s food is soaked, we’ll open the stall doors and let them in.”

Poppy ate quickly. Harry covered his muzzle with moist slop, but ate very little, and Jennie tried to hide her dismay. “He might have ulcers,” she told Travis, “or a toothache. Horses can get those things, just like people. Or maybe he’s just sad. At the big shows, there was always excitement, and music, and crowds of people. Now his life is very quiet.” She added, “My veterinarian is coming tomorrow morning, so we’ll figure it out.” We’d better figure it out, she thought. I don’t want Travis to have someone else in his life get sick.

“Would you like to give him an apple? That’s always been his favorite treat. Let’s see if he has enough teeth left to chew a bit of apple.”

Jennie produced a plastic bag of apple slices from her jacket pocket. She handed a piece to Travis, and showed him how to hold it so his fingers wouldn’t disappear inside Harry’s mouth. Standing on tiptoes and reaching above the stall door, the boy held his breath and offered the apple in a trembling hand. The big horse raised his head, swiveled his ears forward, and swung his head over the stall door. The nostrils fluttered as the wide pink and white muzzle explored the boy’s hand. Then, with great care, Harry took the apple and chewed slowly.

Travis exhaled and grinned with delight. “He has whiskers! They tickle!” He spoke in a stage-whisper voice, louder than anything he’d said earlier.

She handed Travis another piece of apple and, a minute later, Harry’s harlequin head appeared again over the stall door. When Harry finished the second slice, he turned to his feed tub and began eating.

Jennie found she’d been holding her breath, too. She smiled, relieved.

“Okay, time to go home,” she announced. “Tomorrow, I’ll show you how to put on a halter, and how to lead a horse. Or a donkey. You can practice with Poppy, she’s just your size.”

Travis followed her outside. Quietly but clearly, he whispered, “Thank you, Miz Jennie. See you tomorrow, right after school.”

———

On Monday, Jennie was relieved to hear that Harry appeared to be in reasonably good condition. “He’s got a little arthritis,” Dr. Nickerson explained. “A few molars are missing. The shaggy coat tells us he’s got Cushing’s, and you’ve got him on a low-starch diet, so that’s good. We’ll get his blood checked, see what else turns up. And we’ll treat for ulcers. Otherwise, he seems okay. He’s just, well, old.”

“And depressed? Maybe he needs a job.”

“We all need a reason to get up in the morning.”

She stroked the big gelding’s broad white forehead and thought, yes, we all need a reason.

When Travis arrived that afternoon, Jennie was sitting in a lawn chair in the shade of the barn, next to Harry’s paddock. The boy sat in a second chair nearby and looked at her, a question on his face.

“What am I doing? I’m watching Harry,” she answered. “That’s all. You can learn a lot by just watching.”

Travis turned his gaze to the horse, and settled into a position that copied Jennie’s—leaning back a little, hands relaxed on the arms of the chair, legs crossed at the ankles—though his feet didn’t quite reach the ground.

“So,” she said, “here’s what I see. He looks a little more interested in everything today. He’s walked over several times to say hi to Poppy. Did you notice yesterday, he didn’t even swish his tail at the flies? Today, his tail is working. He’s had a good roll in the dirt, to scratch his back. All those things tell me he’s feeling better.”

Travis nodded solemnly. Then, “Do horses get headaches, Miz Jennie?”

She had to lean in to hear him. Then she had to think for a moment, because this was an important question.

“Maybe. If Harry bumped his head on something, I’m sure it would hurt. You learn to tell when a horse is in pain. He’ll tense up around the nose and mouth, the skin over his eyes will get wrinkly. He might hold his head to one side. But Harry’s not telling me he’s in serious pain, maybe just a little stiff. Like me.”

“If he had a headache, we’d have to be real quiet, right? No music?”

“Right. But I don’t think he has a headache. And he always seemed to enjoy the music and people at the big shows.”

“Maybe,” Travis whispered, “Harry would like music.”

“That’s a good idea. You can help me set it up and choose some music. But no heavy metal.”

“What’s that?”

“Too loud, you don’t need to know.”

Jennie told Travis about Dr. Nickerson’s visit. Overall, Harry is in good shape, she said. The boy listened very carefully.

“So the doctor says Harry won’t—die?” His voice struggled, faltered.

“No, of course not—” Jennie began. “Well, not anytime soon, and not if I can help it. Harry is old, so he needs special attention. That’s why I had the vet come, give him a checkup and help me figure out the best way to make him feel his best.”

“I’m glad you can fix Harry,” he said. “I hope my mom’s doctors can fix her. She gets a lot of headaches, and she’s really sick.”

“Oh, honey,” Jennie said gently. “I hope they can too.” She stood awkwardly and turned toward the barn. “Time for your first lesson with Poppy.”

Travis, she discovered, was a quick learner. He managed to halter the patient donkey on the second try, and then he went to work with a curry comb, brush and hoof pick. He practiced leading her back and forth across the paddock, and had almost mastered tying a quick release knot when Jennie called to him.

“I know Harry is really tall and you’re not, but if you can help me get his halter on and lead him into the stall, we can brush him and get this mud off him.”

Travis picked up Harry’s halter and followed Jennie as she limped across the paddock toward Harry. He was a little anxious. It was one thing to lean over the stall door and bravely feed Harry an apple, and something entirely different to walk up next to this very big animal and fasten a halter onto that huge head. But if Jennie told him he could do it, then he would try his best.

Jennie rubbed Harry’s dirty white forehead and hugged his thin neck. “Once,” she explained, “I could call him in with a whistle. But I was in a car accident, and a couple of teeth had to be replaced, and now I can’t whistle. Can you whistle?”

“No.” He’d never tried. He used to like hearing his father whistle, before his mom got sick.

“Well, you can teach him to come to your voice, if you can call him loudly enough. He’s got to hear you. And when we put the halter on, he needs to put his head down, so we use a voice command for that, too. Your voice needs to be steady and firm, but never angry or mean.

“Here,” she explained. “Reach way up, put your hand high on his neck and say, ’Head down, Harry.’ I taught him that, years ago. He’s so tall, he has to put his head down to help us.”

Travis tried, but he wasn’t tall enough. He reached up as high as he could, placed a hand on a big black spot on Harry’s neck, and spoke—but his voice was only a whisper. Harry didn’t put his head down.

“Head down, Harry,” Jennie said firmly. Her voice was quiet but, Travis thought, very commanding. She has a good voice for horses. Harry hesitated only a moment. He lowered his head.

Travis fastened Harry’s halter. At least he remembered how to do that.

“You lead him and I’ll follow,” she said.

The boy held the lead rope and walked next to Harry’s head. He wasn’t exactly sure who was leading whom, but together they made their way slowly to the stall.

“Well done,” Jennie said. “Now, I’ll show you something new. You can ask him to step sideways. You can also ask him to take a step backwards. Here’s how.”

Jennie stood at Harry’s left side, placed one hand on his broad ribcage, and pressed gently. She pushed. “Over, Harry,” she said in her clear voice. Harry took two steps to the right. Then she moved forward, poked a finger lightly but firmly into the middle of his chest, and said, “Back, Harry, back.” Harry stepped back two steps, and nodded his head as if he agreed with her request.

Travis nodded also, but his heart sank. He knew Harry wouldn’t step over or back up for him, because Harry wouldn’t be able to hear him. He couldn’t summon that wonderful voice, those magical words that gave instructions to a horse.

He was glad that Jennie didn’t ask him to practice speaking the commands, to move Harry sideways or backwards. Instead, she handed him the rubber curry. “Let’s get that mud off.”

This, he could do. He scrubbed the curry in big arcs over Harry’s shoulder and saw the dried mud peel off. As he worked, the boy’s mouth pursed into an experimental whistle-shape and he blew softly, producing a small, high sound. He saw one of Harry’s ears flick in response.

Dust rose in shafts of late afternoon sunlight that slanted in through the open stall door. It’s like fairy dust, he thought. Or magic glitter. He tried whistling, again.

Harry lowered his massive head, curling his long neck toward Travis.

The boy dropped the curry comb and reached both arms up as high as he could, grasping the ragged mane and pulling himself tightly into the curve of the horse’s chest.

“Don’t move over, don’t go back. Don’t go anywhere,” he whispered into the warm neck. “Please, stay right here with me.”


Sarah Blanchard’s nonfiction equestrian articles have appeared in various publications over the past 45 years (Horse Illustrated, Equus, Horseplay, Dressage & Combined Training, The Horseman’s Yankee Pedlar). While living in Hawaii and teaching at the University of Hawaii-Hilo, she founded and published Malama Lio: the Hawaiian Horse Journal. She is the author of two books on horse training (Positive Horse Training, Jump with Joy), and co-author of Heike Bean’s Carriage Driving. Her articles have also appeared in general-market publications (Yankee, HI Luxury, Hawaiian Airlines’ Hana Hou). Her poetry has appeared in Calyx, Welter and Sixfold. More recently, her short stories have been published in Sixfold, Dreamers, and The Write Launch. She earned a B.A. from the University of Connecticut and an M.B.A. from Nichols College. She currently resides, writes and rides in western North Carolina.