My older sister was the horse nut, and naturally I teetered along after her, she being nine years my senior and my hero with all her trophies and ribbons. Her horse was named Angel, an albino mare with the patience of job in equine form. All beauty and spirit, she was solid as a rock and 16 hands high, which, in non-horse language, means pretty darn tall.
We lived on a three-acre farm on Atlantic Avenue in Penfield, New York, where there are still lots of open spaces. We had trails to ride, and although it was a busy road for the country (which it still was in 1966), we could ride all the way down to the Penfield town hall, which for some reason I felt compelled to look up this evening. It looks just the same to me.
There are at least a hundred stories to tell about this farm, my life lessons of life and death there. I think I'll come back to some of those. Tonight is about the horses.
After pestering my parents long enough for everyone to believe I was actually interested in horses--I was four or five--they bought me my own Pony, which I named Cha-Cha. She was a Shetland and as rank as they come. If you find a good Shetland, they're usually your trusted companion for decades. Cha-Cha wasn't one of the good ones. She was ornery and spirited and down right mean. She looked a little like this:
I sure hope Paul had better luck with his pony than I did with "Cha."
I remember the last time my mother let me ride Cha-Cha, I took one of my many dives off of her back end, but this time she was kind enough to dump me into poison ivy. I was in oatmeal baths for days. No one could handle this cranky pony. Not my sister. Not her friends. My parents finally had to hire a female Jockey from the nearby racetrack to come exercise her every couple of weeks. She was the only one who could ride Cha-Cha into the pasture and come back in the saddle.
My sister probably could have worked with Cha-Cha long enough to turn her into a fair pony. But she had her horse and didn't have much time for my silly pony. I didn't much mind. I had Bessy the Cow to pester back then.
TAKEN FOR A RIDE
I didn't get to ride the big mare, Angel, very often. She was my sisters' pride and joy, but my sister did start giving me riding lessons on Angel when I was about 4. My feet didn't even reach the stirrups--I had to put them in the loop of the stirrup leathers instead. Amazing how fearless I was back then. Life breeds that fearlessness out of us. Maybe it's a good thing.
But by 5, I could get Angel to walk, trot, and once in a great while I was allowed to canter her. Jumps were strictly off limits though. I can't tell you how hard it was pounded into my head, "Do NOT, ever ever ever, take Angel near the jumps because she likes to jump and you won't be able to stop her." The jumps were taller than I was, and looking up at them didn't give me any huge urge to take Angel over the jumps.
And then there was he day when my sister was giving me a lesson, standing in the middle of the ring with her crop. Stop and think. How must it have felt for that 14-year-old teenage horse lover girl to have such power over her bratty little sister. The stunts she used to make me do. All in the name of learning to ride. Anyway...
This day I remember well. It was cold. The ground was hard, and in the cracks and hoofprints were circles of ice, left over from the snow that had melted and froze again. I can see myself trotting along in the ring, my breath visible in front of my face. My reins were down on Angel's neck. I was riding no-handed, one of the favorite teaching methods of horse terrorists everywhere. This day I was learning how to post. I was concentrating pretty hard on "Up, Down, Up, Down" when I felt Angel start to turn. I wondered what she was doing. But I keep my arms obediently out to either side of me and focused on "Up, Down, Up, Down."
It wasn't until Angel rounded the far corner that I could see where she was headed. The jumps. THE JUMPS!
She broke into a slow canter while I fumbled for the reins. Starting to cry, I yelled to my sister for help. The amazing thing is, I wasn't afraid of going over the jumps. I was afraid disobeying what my parents and sister had told me: Do NOT take Angel over the jumps. The terror of screwing up this direct order was far deeper than the fear of Angel taking me over the jumps. I was screwing up. Big time. I was in trouble.
Little did I know.
As Angel approached the first jump and her front legs left the ground, I swear to this day, and I will swear until I can't swear anymore, my sister said, "Let Go! I'll Catch You." These words have stayed with me for 35 years and I maintain each and every letter: LET GO! I'LL CATCH YOU!
And so I did.
My sister says, to this day, that she in fact yelled, "Hold On! Hold On!"
Two distinctly different versions of the event.
I remember leaving the saddle--literally pushing myself out into mid-air so that I would clear Angel's feet. Expecting my sister to catch me in her welcoming arms.
But no one caught me.
WHAT GOES UP MUST COME DOWN--HARD
16 hands, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. smack. crack.
The smack was my face hitting and cracking the icy-hard ground. My wind gone, my head electric. I stayed there on the ground. I don't know how long. I remember hearing Angel stop after clearing the last jump. I remember wishing I would have stayed on. I remember thinking I wasn't that afraid, why did she tell me to let go? I remember thinking, "MAAAAAAMAAAA!" Oh wait, I actually screamed that. I remember thinking I would get in trouble for taking Angel near the jumps. I remember my lip hurting very badly.
My sister lugged me all the way up to the driveway, no small distance, and put me on the hood of the car while she yelled for my mother. She was asking, "Why did you let go?" But in her mind I'm sure was panic over the repercussions of letting this happen to sweet baby Jeneane.
Off to the doctor's we raced, and to not drag this out any longer than necessary, the grand tally of my injuries were two badly blackened eyes, a smashed and bloody (but not broken!) nose, and two fat purple lips. Four days off of school. And a face in the mirror I never forgot.
As for my sister, I'm not sure what punishment was dolled out if any.
But I do know that to this day she says, "I told you to hold on!"
And I tell her, "You told me to let go!"
Angel's the only one who knew for sure, and she took that secret to her grave.