River of Ponies

Exactly how I became known as “the pony lady”, I’ll never know.  It was never my intention.  I considered my enterprising twenty-something self a serious trainer of horses. Horses. When I flung open my barn doors for business, I posted professionally designed, informative flyers advertising nationally certified riding lessons, coaching and schooling at all county feed and tack stores. I handed out handsomely printed business cards with an embossed HORSE logo (certainly not a pony) to contacts across the region. I proudly nailed an attractive wooden sign to the front gate of my small north Texas farm, featuring a full-sized graphic of a horse. Not a pony. To my dismay, ponies appeared. They came at first as an occasional dribble, then a steady stream. Finally, like a river, a regular flood, of ponies….

With The Sandman, 1984

With The Sandman, 1984

All sizes, types, ages and temperaments trooped solemnly down my driveway, past the full-sized horse sign, possessing unique, unforgettable traits. There were sway-backed, eagle-eyed broodmares who kicked so swiftly and accurately they could smash two by fours like toothpicks while placidly chewing a mouthful of hay. In crept exquisitely refined ponies with royal pedigrees and sad, doe-soft eyes, cringing in mortal terror at normal daily use of barn rakes, shovels and wheelbarrows. Up trotted the tiniest of ponies with trusting souls, manes ensnarled in mud and blood-stiffened nylon clothesline, wearing old rope halters that scarred deep grooves in their kindly faces. Cresty-necked palominos with jolly round bellies, curly manes and painfully foundered hooves limped on eggshells down the lane. High-stepping blood bays with four white matching socks and blazed faces with profuse, jet-black tails floating gracefully behind them paraded in. Ancient ponies with barbed wire scars crisscrossing their stubby legs and shoulders shuffled by, wise eyes beneath furrowed brows missing nothing. I welcomed them all as temporary residents, en route to humane, use-appropriate homes. Included in the wealth of beautiful, sad, heart-wrenching cases descending upon my “horse ranch” plodded a few incorrigible rogues, ponies who seemed impossible to “fix” and place. Invisible horrors carved deep grooves on their hearts.  Among the latter was Surprise.
A stocky black and white pinto, coarse muscled, thick necked, with a mangy, matted tail and unruly bristle of mane, Surprise sauntered placidly out of a long-neglected, open-topped single horse rig and into my life one sun-washed, wisteria fragrant late spring day. He surveyed the serene farm scene with unruffled reserve, one long ear swiveling casually back and forth. North Texas’ tornado season had already come and gone; this short, fat equine whirlwind slipped as an unassuming afterthought, sans warning.
“This here good-lookin’ pony, he’s too much for ma’ grandkids to handle, needs a firm hand an’ a world of sweaty saddle blankets—I heard you’re the one to fix him real good, little lady. So I brung him.” The elderly gent grinned broadly while scratching his scruffy beard stubble. Before I could change my mind he stuffed my proffered three hundred dollars in cash (negotiated down from five hundred) into his sweaty hatband and lumbered back into his rusty Ford pick up. As I watched him disappear down the lane, empty trailer banging and clanging along behind, I could just make out his parting words over the whine of stiffly shifting gears.  “Sometimes he bucks.”
Surprise’s ground manners proved to be impeccable. He led like on military parade, tied like a statue, reveled in a bath and politely offered his hooves for picking out. He didn’t hog his food or fight with pasture mates. He accepted a snaffle bit in his mouth gladly and obeyed verbal cues while circling me at the end of a schooling rope like any model trustworthy lesson pony. After several days of easing him into the work routine, I decided it was time to check out his behavior under saddle.
One morning soon after Surprise’s arrival I invited a neighbor colleague over for coffee with her nephew in tow. A gangly, athletic teen-ager, Gary helped his aunt with barn chores and routinely climbed up on “green” Quarter horse two year olds for the first few unsteady rides.  My friend had agreed it would be amusing to watch him ride Surprise the first time. Gary was humiliated. He was used to climbing up on full-sized Quarter horses with hot racehorse and champion roping blood coursing through their veins. What could possibly challenge him in riding one sleepy-looking black and white fatso who didn’t even reach as high as his waist? Gary slouched sullenly out to my round riding pen next to the main barn, where a saddled and bridled Surprise waited, snoozing in the sun, a back hoof cocked, tail swishing lazily in the breeze. I handed Gary the reins, instructing him to walk and trot both directions in the small pen, check out gait smoothness and responsiveness to standard cues, see how reliable Surprise’s ‘whoa” was. The basics. No need to canter.  Gary rolled his eyes and grunted assent. His aunt and I retreated indoors to my kitchen, where we could observe the trial ride from a large picture window and sip coffee out of earshot. As I stirred milk into my steaming cup, I recalled the pony’s previous owner’s parting words. ” Sometimes he bucks.”
Aside from the fact that Gary’s legs hung down so long they almost scraped the ground with his boot toes, the first try-out proceeded in perfectly ordinary fashion, reflecting Surprise’s excellent ground attitude. The pony meandered along at a snail’s pace walk, halted obediently, neck-reined in figure-eight loops, even backed up without fussing, gaping his mouth or tossing his head.  He looked bored. Gary glanced up at his aunt and me standing in the kitchen window and stuck out his tongue. I yelled, “Wake him up! He’s half-asleep! Pick up a trot!” Gary shrugged and curled his knees up and kicked the pony’s flanks with his heels. Gently.  Surprise swiveled an over-sized ear in response and continued to plod, plod, plod.  Gary kicked him again, more emphatically.  The pony pricked both ears decidedly forward.
My coffee cup halted halfway to my mouth. With the speed and efficiency of a high-powered slingshot, Surprise ducked his head and launched the unsuspecting Gary far across the riding pen. His aunt and I whooped in unison. It was a “surprising” feat. Surprise then halted and waited, unflappably gazing past the barn. Gary crawled slowly to his feet, dusting off his brand new Levis and muttering a few choice words to cover his acute embarrassment. He hardly ever got tossed off his aunt’s high-spirited Quarter Horse colts…. He glanced up at us standing at the window bug-eyed and stuck out his tongue again when we both gave him the ‘thumbs up” to remount. “Ride ‘em, cowboy!” his aunt snickered.  I took another sip of coffee and said with a straight face, “I guess he does buck sometimes.”
Over the next half-hour my friend and I polished off a large pot of coffee, while we observed Surprise demolishing any hope of his ever becoming a trustworthy child’s mount. He tossed the now sweaty, despondent and dust-coated Gary no fewer than twenty times. No matter how hard Gary worked to stay astride, Surprise’s calculated skill at unseating him persevered whenever Gary asked him to pick up a trot. When Gary finally dragged his beaten, bruised ego out of the round pen, Surprise had barely broken a sweat under the saddle blanket. I had to hand it to the pony. What he did, he did to perfection. But what could I do with him if he wasn’t safe to ride beyond a walk? He’d make a high maintenance lawnmower.
Surprise’s impeccable ground manners continued to make him a delightful pony to handle on the ground. I invited Gary back several times for a re-match. On each occasion Surprise ditched him with the same determined gusto when encouraged to move out of a walk. It foreshadowed a dim future for one incorrigible, fat black and white pony.
Then I got a phone call from a recent Dallas transplant to my rural corner of Collin County. Mark McMillan, congenial and earnest, inquired about riding lessons for his adopted special needs son Tyler, who was developmentally disabled. Tyler did not fit the profile of my average riding student—he was male, highly excitable, and possessed the physical coordination of a six-year-old child (in an eleven year old body), and worse, the emotional maturity of someone considerably younger. I was neither trained for nor particularly interested in providing riding instruction for the developmentally disabled.  But Mark McMillan insisted. He hoped to introduce his adopted son to as many elements of the natural, country life as possible. Including horses. Reluctantly, I agreed to allow the man to bring Tyler for a trial visit.  If all went well, I would agree to let the boy pet and brush a horse a short while, up close. Maybe.
The risk of the challenge I’d agreed to hit me hard. Whatever horse I selected to allow Tyler near had to be utterly dependable and unflappable. It couldn’t make one false move to frighten or injure this fragile young boy. McMillan had mentioned that Tyler was easily intimidated and hypersensitive. I worried that a full sized horse might frighten him badly. As I walked through my small herd of normal-sized lesson horses, I realized not one of them was the right size. My gaze fell upon Surprise, dreamily munching his grass hay in the last stall in the barn, ears just visible over the stall door.  I slid the door back and stood beside him tugging my fingers through his unruly mane. “Looks like you’re it, buddy, it’s your turn to shine.“ Surprise sneezed and rubbed a bony eye socket vigorously on my leg. “Don’t you dare let me down.“
The next day Tyler and his father arrived right after lunch and immediately confirmed my concerns. Tyler was slight, awkward, gestured oddly with his hands and uttered random grunts and whoops as he got out of the car. He shook like a leaf, hooted and clung to his dad as we slowly approached horses sunning themselves behind a pasture fence. Any sudden movement or sound—a stamped hoof or casual head shake or swished tail— elicited a piercing shriek from the boy, and he buried his face on his dad’s pant-leg. The idea of trying to introduce Tyler to a horse up close, hands-on, any horse, seemed ill conceived. I expressed my concern to Mr. McMillan, who looked mournful and patted Tyler’s head.  Then I noticed Surprise observing us intently, nostrils flared, over the rim of his stall door, ears pricked tautly forward.
I motioned them to follow me down the barn aisle and carefully rolled the door open partway. Mr. McMillan managed to pry Tyler’s face away from his pant leg long enough for the boy to glimpse the pony watching him intently just inside the stall door. I knelt next to the opening and whispered, “Here’s someone who wants to be your friend. This is Surprise.” Tyler blinked timidly at the hairy black and white muzzle looming over him, ready to bolt. Surprise didn’t budge but softly blew into Tyler’s hair with a gentle “whoosh”. Two or three tense seconds passed. A delighted grin spread across Tyler’s face. He cautiously reached out a hand, stiff and quaking, flapping it in the general direction of the pony’s face. Then Tyler whistled, crammed his fist in his mouth, and hid his face on his dad’s leg again. Surprise’s gaze never left the boy as I haltered and stepped him back a few paces so we could all enter the stall.
From a small red bucket I pulled out a child-sized red rubber curry brush and started rubbing it in wide, overly slow circles on Surprise’s neck and shoulders. Tyler watched the process intently, then let go of his dad and tried to grab the curry and stuff it in his mouth. I guided his hand towards Surprise, helping him brush the pony’s neck. Tyler grinned again and gurgled, seemed fascinated by the physical contact.  I repeated the procedure with a soft brush on Surprise’s face and handed it to Tyler. When he inadvertently poked Surprise in the eye with the brush, I firmly caught his hand and said “No-no, OUCH!”  I stroked Tyler’s face with the brush to show him how it felt and worked. He made a face, chortled, and turned back to the pony, ignoring his dad completely for the first time. Tentatively, he brushed a few more strokes on the pony’s cheek, repeating, “No-no ouch” to himself, then brushed his own cheek again and giggled. I felt we had made enormous strides, even as I rescued the brush from Tyler’s mouth yet again. It seemed enough for a first visit.
When I announced it was time to go, Tyler whimpered. He stared at the pony, astonished, when I told him Surprise was very, very tired and needed a nap. I asked him to give Surprise a kiss good-bye so the pony would feel loved. He stared at Surprise, serious and still. In a flash Tyler puckered his lips and smacked loudly on Surprise’s nose. The pony’s eyes opened full wide, and the two misfits held each other’s gaze for several seconds. The connection was clear. Suddenly embarrassed, Tyler buried his face once more on his dad’s leg. I asked quietly if he’d like to come back to visit Surprise again. Tyler’s response was muffled and unintelligible but definitely affirmative. At their car, I breathed a huge sigh of relief as Mr. McMillan and I congratulated each other on a successful first session. “What a marvelous pony you have, so well-behaved!” he exclaimed. I nodded, straight-faced, and thanked him. I watched their car retreat down the lane, chewing on my lower lip, and returned to the stall to gather Surprise and turn him loose in the nearby pasture with the other lesson stock. The pony was dozing again, wearing his usual droopy-lidded, bored expression. During the short, intense visit, he never took his then wide-open eyes off Tyler. It made me wonder.
Surprise’s sessions with Tyler continued to delight and amaze all involved. Tyler became bolder and more engaged, more at ease around Surprise, with each short lesson. Surprise perked up whenever Tyler appeared, when he heard the boy’s voice. Something clearly remarkable was happening. A skeptical realist, Tyler’s mother came to witness the nascent, unique relationship she’d heard described in glowing terms by her husband. She was as equally impressed with the obvious attachment growing between the boy and pony as she was with Tyler’s increasing dexterity and improved skill retention elsewhere. She gave us her blessings (and permission), and Tyler’s grooming sessions with Surprise lengthened.
It felt like the right time for Tyler to get on Surprise’s back. After grooming, I showed Tyler how to tack up properly with a youth-sized Western saddle. I demonstrated safe mounting and dismounting technique several times, slowly, and took a deep breath. He watched, but did he really understand? I was treading unfamiliar ground but willing to let the boy and pony explore their growing bond further. As a safety precaution I wrapped a chain attached to a stout leather lead across Surprise’s face, just below his bridle noseband. I frowned at the pony, staring directly into his eye. While Tyler gave his dad an effervescent pre-mounting hug, I growled,” You make one wrong move, Surprise, you’ll regret it.”
I stood directly behind Tyler as we both faced across Surprise’s back.  I curled his hands around the saddle horn. It took several attempts to convince him he needed to hold on tight, not let his hands slide off the horn.  On the count of one-two-three, I boosted him up across the pony’s broad back. Tyler found himself sitting tall and proud on top of Surprise, hands clasped tightly on the horn, huge grin on his face.  Surprise stood like a dignified statue, arching his thick neck and swiveling a mulish ear as if to telegraph reassurance to Tyler. Exhilarated, I remembered to keep breathing. I pried one of his tightly clenched fists off the horn, urging Tyler to stroke Surprise’s neck. He cooperated shakily and whispered, “Good boy! Good S’pwize!”, enthralled. We inched forward a few tentative steps, with my one hand gripping Tyler’s thigh while the other guided Surprise. They looked made for each other, and Tyler’s grin widened. Surprise was completely relaxed, attentive and obedient. We expanded our inching along to strolling several small circles.  Piece of cake. Tyler’s mounted lesson Number One was a major triumph for all involved.
Tyler’s dismount from the pony’s back proved to be a daunting challenge.  His coordination and sense of self-preservation were severely limited. He trusted me and Surprise completely, so when I said, “It’s time to get down now,” Tyler immediately let go of everything, whooped and tumbled in a relaxed heap under Surprise, staring goofily up at the pony’s belly from underneath him in the dirt. He slid off so fast I couldn’t catch him, and Mr. McMillan froze stiff in horror. My heart leaped to my throat. Before I could bark “whoa” and pull the pony up sharp, Surprise showed his true mettle. With utmost care, he stepped well clear of Tyler, disengaging cautiously one hoof at a time. He bent his muzzle down to Tyler’s face and blew a soft “whoosh”, to reassure the prone boy.  Tyler lay there on his back, wiggling, giggling and stroking at Surprise’s muzzle with total delight.  Uncannily, Surprise knew exactly what to do. Mr. McMillan’s eyes met mine. We felt we had witnessed a unique moment: two very different species reached out across the murky chasm of hit and miss communication and found a common language. I got goose bumps. My respect for one incorrigible pony ratcheted up a notch.
The close relationship between Tyler and Surprise continued to blossom. Tyler came to visit and ride more often, even learned to assist some with saddling. I discovered that he paid much better attention when his parents were not in sight, so Mr. McMillan disappeared around the barn regularly. Tyler had moments when the casual observer might not guess he was “different.” Dismounting safely continued to be an issue. I concluded that Tyler enjoyed sliding off Surprise like a rag-doll and landing on his back underneath the pony. Surprise never lost patience, expertly extracted his feet every time and never once stepped on him. If ever a pony adored a child, Surprise loved Tyler. The feeling was deeply and clearly reciprocated.
Sometime during this initial lesson period, I determined that Surprise pulled a cart nicely, even trotting on command, minus any tendencies to buck. Tyler was so taken with the idea of driving Surprise (“I can see him, I can see him!” he crowed), we expanded his lessons to include driving. The three of us wheeled all over the farm and up and down the gravel road in front, sometimes with Surprise at a smart trot. Tyler felt Surprise needed serenading. We must have presented quite a picture as we toured the vicinity with Tyler singing merrily along to his friend, completely off key and unintelligible. Surprise telegraphed his signature ear swivel and continued to maneuver circles and figure eight loops with measured dignity.
Before Christmas, I had a serious discussion with Tyler’s parents. It concluded with them buying Surprise and arranging for him to come home. What an incredible, special day for Tyler when I drove up with my truck and trailer, bearing one black and white Christmas “Surprise”, along with the pony’s brushes, cart and harness. Tyler stood speechless on his driveway, not taking his eyes off Surprise, who began eagerly grazing on the front lawn. Tyler touched me softly on the cheek, then put his hand over his mouth and hurried over to Surprise to stroke his face with the same gentle touch. He went back and forth between us several times, shaking his head, to make sure we were 100% real. He finally stopped and sighed, “MY S’pwize!” I gave Tyler a big hug and answered, “Yes, YOURS….” I could not have imagined a better fate for the pony—he was loved and he knew it. He had a real job, and he loved performing it. No more hopeless and incorrigible. He was home.
I abandoned giving Tyler riding lessons as he neither understood nor respected the need for a safe dismount. I worried that someday Surprise would get distracted and unintentionally hurt his special master. The McMillans accepted Surprise into their family with open arms and took delight in the hours of companionship he provided for Tyler through grooming and driving.  Mr. McMillan took lessons so he could substitute for me in the cart. Tyler enjoyed “showing off” independently for his dad, without me there.  He continued to serenade Surprise, to the dismay of all within earshot.
Tyler had reached his limit in learning, and Surprise doted on the boy in total contentment. I needed to let go. I reminded Mr. McMillan about Surprise’s unfortunate habit of bucking off “normal” riders, warned him against letting anyone else handle or ride Surprise.  Sure enough, several months later I received a sheepish phone call explaining how Dallas relatives with pre-teen children had paid the McMillan family a visit and begged incessantly for rides on ‘that perfect, gentle pony of Tyler’s.” “I was so astonished” Mr. McMillan chuckled, “Surprise launched them across the backyard like he was aiming for Ft. Worth. It won’t happen again.”
I visited Surprise and Tyler occasionally over the next year. Tyler hit a major growth spurt, so it worked out just as well that he drove Surprise instead of riding him. They maintained their intense, loving bond. Mr. McMillan shared with me that he knew Tyler’s increased confidence with tasks and improved communication with his family and peers were a direct result of Surprise being in his life.  I felt so proud of Surprise, honored and thrilled to help discover and develop this worthy niche for the fat little rogue, gratified to know how much of a difference the pony made in Tyler’s life. As for me, his impact was immeasurable. He had opened unexpected, new vistas. I was now very glad to have had such rogue ponies enter my life.
Shortly after, my river of ponies simply dried up and blew away. A few odds-n-ends remained, half-buried in my tack room: a well-worn pair of double ought sized horse shoes rusting on the floor and a petite English bridle with a 4” Kimberwicke bit at the end of my bridle rack. I found myself immersed in the full-blown challenges presented by full-sized horses and their “normal” owners’ interests and needs. The magical promise of professional show barns in California’s expanding horse show scene enticed me away forever from the uncomplicated lifestyle I’d lived as the “pony lady” on a sleepy North Texas horse farm.
I didn’t look back much at the time, or even think to snap photographs of that special duo.  Today, I believe it was no accident that the river of ponies brought Surprise to me, and Tyler to us both. That river led Surprise to a purposeful life he otherwise would have missed, where his latent noble spirit could manifest in spades. Thanks to that river of ponies, I got to witness love’s power in action and to participate in the breathtaking, powerful reality of interspecies communication at its most viable.  I took my fond memories of Surprise and Tyler with me to California, memories that often gave me courage in the face of imposing challenges.  My career in the horse world unfolded, from high desert, iron-gated ranchos outside Riverside in the south to pine and oak-dotted grassy expanses in the Sierra Nevada foothills up north. I will always praise the river of ponies. I still hum a special tune, like Tyler, to honor that one proud, black and white rogue we loved named Surprise.

Short Bio: Alexandra Bonifield spent over thirty years living her life’s passion as a professional horse trainer and nationally certified riding instructor. A former AHSA judge, she was nationally recognized for her work with women and horses on her northern California farm, where she created and ran an arts and equestrian camp for girls. Horses were her life, her one true love. She currently works as a freelance journalist and arts advocate in Dallas, and is an NEA/ Annenberg Fellow in theatre criticism.

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