January 11, 2010
“That mare has a bowed cannon.”
I tried to take a step back to see for myself, but Fancy stepped with me and kept her muzzle buried under my arm. I leaned against her large head and smelled her alfalfa-sweet aroma. Fancy’s huge eye was inches from mine, our eyelashes touching. We butterfly-kissed.
For somewhere behind me, my father asked, “How’s she holding up? At her age, with that bowed leg…”
“She’s stove up most of the winter,” the breeder answered. “She can’t stand any weight on it if the temperature drops. That’s why she’s no good as a brood mare any more. Can’t handle the foal weight.”
I felt my father’s hand on my shoulder. “She’s not a fit riding horse.”
I nodded. Fancy and I continued to lean into each other. “I have other riding horses.”
“She’s going to take a lot of care.”
I nodded again. “I know.”
The breeder said, “Let me show you the filly you called about. Fifteen-point-four hands, good size for an Arab, with legs as straight as steel and deep through the chest. That’s the proper horse for your girl.”
My father’s hand was still on my shoulder. His light squeeze was a question, of course. “Fancy needs me,” I answered.
He asked the breeder, “How does she trailer?”
“Not worth a shit. You’re making a big mistake. A horseman like you ought to know better, not that I’m telling you your business. Not only is this mare half-cripple, she’s skittish. She’ll bolt and the only saving grace is that there’s no chance your daughter will be on her when she does. I was going to have her put down before winter.”
My dad pulled the breeder aside, but I could still hear him. “Just tell me how much you want for the mare and don’t ever say ‘cripple’ in front of my girl again.”
I led Fancy to the trailer. It was awkward at first because the cerebral palsy made me limp on my right leg and Fancy limped on her left, and we kept bumping each other. But we figured it out and got a rhythm going. When we reached the trailer, I walked through it and out the side hatch, and Fancy walked right in behind me.
The breeder sounded disgusted. “I’ve never seen her load without a butt strap.”
We gave Fancy the stall closest to the house. I layered her run with more straw than my dad was happy about buying, but he didn’t say much. He watched as I ended every morning’s feed chores with a rubdown of her bad leg. He bought a set of red leg wraps for her. “These match the dappled-gray,” he said, placing them on the table one night.
Despite the breeder’s prediction, I rode Fancy. Her leg gave her less trouble after a few months with our herd, but unfortunately the breeder was right – she was the most skittish horse I’d ever seen. A piece of fluttering paper sent her thundering through the neighbor’s barbed-wire fence; luckily, she’d throw me off yards before she reached it. When the stitches over her expressive eyes came out, I had a long talk with her about proper horse behavior and we tried again. She flung herself backwards down an embankment when one of our dogs unexpectedly crossed the trail, with me on her. That time it was me who had stitches.
“She’s going to get killed on that damned horse,” my mother protested.
My father shrugged. “What do you want me to do? It’s her horse.”
“I don’t know why you bought that mare in the first place.”
I grew taller and the extra weight of muscle in my teenage body bore down on my Achilles tendon. By the time I graduated high school my limp was hardly noticeable. My bad leg improved as I got older; Fancy’s did not.
The morning came when she couldn’t get up. I got my father from the hay barn and he followed me into Fancy’s stall. He took one look at her and shook his head. “It’s time.”
I didn’t want to cry in front of him. Death was as much a part of being a rancher as birth and I wanted him to see I was strong that way. The vet came a few hours later. I lay on the straw beside Fancy, my face just inches from hers. Our eyelashes touched and we butterfly-kissed.
We’d had to do this before with injured or old animals, and usually we had the disposal people take the carcass away. That day, my father fired up the backhoe and dug a huge trench. He sent me inside to get him a beer and when I came back, Fancy was in the hole. I watched as he pushed the rich soil over her.
I went back to her stall to get the red leg wraps. I planned to wash them and put them in the tack room. They’d look good on any of the bay mares. Somehow I ended up on the straw; it was still warm with Fancy’s body heat.
A shadow fell across me. I didn’t want my father to see my tears, but when he knelt on the straw beside me, I turned and found shelter in his arms.
He let me carry on for I don’t know how long. When I’d cried myself into something like composure, he helped me to my feet and dusted the straw off my back. We both set our hats straight and went out to feed the other horses who danced and pranced and capered on their strong, straight legs.