Chapter 5 Horses
c2008 B. Greene
I figured when I first set out for Texas that horses might be easier to come by. I was right. In Houston, it was not uncommon to see horse trailers in parking lots, at gas stations, or on occasion, right in front of your house. So it was that one afternoon when Julie and I volunteered to take everyone’s laundry down to the local washateria, we chanced to see a pair of Appaloosas in a trailer parked nearby. Since Alun, her boyfriend had departed for Wales, Julie and another VISTA, Nancy Hite had moved into 1506 Rosewood. Both were second year Vistas waiting for rooms in the newly opened Project House on Rosedale St. Nancy had spent a rough first year in the 6th Ward and after surviving an attempted rape decided to move to another area. She’d taken a liking to David and he was doing his best to make her feel comfortable.
With Kim gone, Julie and I commiserated and kept busy. She too loved horses and had extensive experience riding hunters and jumpers growing up in Virginia. After a back injury, her riding days were cut short and she hoped to one day just be able to ride for pleasure.
“I’ve always wanted to own a horse,” I said as we passed the two Appys in the trailer.
“You know,” she said, “It wouldn’t be all that difficult around here.”
The following week we were sitting at an auction entertaining the fantasy. When a timid gelding entered the ring and drew very little attention we decided to bid a hundred dollars. Ten minutes and two bids later he was ours. Fortunately Julie had done some research and knew there was a stable about 20 minutes out of town where we could board our new friend for a reasonable monthly fee. With six people now living at the Communications Center, lower rent made even this luxury possible. The problem was getting our bay gelding to the stables. Reading the puzzled look on our faces an older Black man in overalls approached and made an offer.
“For twenty dollars I’ll carry that horse anywhere within an hour of here.”
Just when I thought our problem had been solved, I realized this man didn’t have a horse trailer; he was intending to use an old pick-up with stakes. He’d purchased a horse himself at the auction and he proceeded to load both with ease. I was dumbfounded. My amazement turned to anxiety as we followed behind the truck on the freeway. The two horses were merely tied to one of the stakes and kept shifting their weight throughout the ride. The bed of the old pick-up bent like a rowboat on choppy water. On the ride over, Julie and I named our horse Albion, after Kenneth Patchen’s Journal of Albion Moonlight. It seemed an elegant name for a cheap horse just shipped in from the Texas panhandle. Within the hour Albion was in a pasture and we were on our way to Sears to buy grooming brushes, a hoof pick and a bridle. Getting a saddle would have to wait another month.
With Albion came a warm friendship with stables owner Willard Smith. An excellent horseman, Willard ran the operation with help from his wife and children. About 50 horses grazed in a wide expanse of scrub brush loosely called a pasture. Another 35 or so were boarded in stalls in both a main barn and some outside pens scrabbled together from plywood and sheet metal. Willard loved horses and sensed that we did too. While we never discussed politics, he knew by the government cars we drove that we were VISTAS.
Sensing that our love of horses was disproportionate to our income, Willard quietly helped us along. Once when Albion caught a bad cold he graciously helped us by providing antibiotics for no charge. There was Albion head down with streams of green snot streaming form his nose. Grabbing what appeared to be an oversize chrome hypodermic syringe and a needle about four inches long. Willard showed me how to inject a horse. I would hold Albion’s head while he would tap three times on the neck with his left hand. On the fourth tap, he’d throw the needle like a dart sticking it into the horse’s neck and then screw in the syringe. I assisted Willard as he went through the barn inoculating any horse that seemed to be experiencing similar symptoms. Afterwards, we shared a snort of whiskey.
As genuine a person as you'll ever meet.
Willard was always about finding good homes for horses. In the process he could introduce his own children to horsemanship and keep a few head for himself. Willard and Mrs. Smith were in their late 40s or early 50s. Their youngest son, about 11 or 12 was a special needs kid who also had his own horse, a huge gelded Palomino. The two were inseparable, but not in the usual way. The boy would grab a hold of the horse’s tail from directly behind and “water ski” as the horse pulled him along. This was all the more remarkable because, according to Willard, the animal had once been so wild he was considered unrideable. Willard also explained that horses have very little feeling in their manes or tails because they contain no nerve endings. What looked painful to the outsider was not.
He called it “water-skiing”
Having a horse to ride was a most welcome stress reliever. When things in the city got overwhelming or depressing, a couple of hours grooming and riding a horse seemed the perfect antidote. Albion, however, wasn’t always cooperative. Willard figured he’d been traumatized in his early years and the result was a most high-strung disposition. He seldom walked. His two gears were a brisk trot and a gallop. Proof of his mistreatment came in he form of a large scab right at the base of his tail. We realized that when he was brought in from Amarillo his rear end was flush against a rough wooden stake. The scab was the result of a raw patch of flesh that finally healed. Willard told me we’d have to get it off after a while because other horses would nip at him in the pasture and there would definitely be trouble. Horses kick and bite. It’s not uncommon for them to cause serious injury to one another or even take out an eye. About a month after Albion joined the herd his scab was beginning to peal off. It resembled an enormous bay colored potato chip ripe for the picking.
“We got to get it off him, and there’s only one way,” Willard announced late one afternoon. He instructed me to watch carefully because he wanted to make sure I learned the proper procedure. We lured Albion near with a bucket of feed and Willard told me to hold his head while he circled behind the unsuspecting horse. In much the same way one would lower a fly swatter over a perched fly, Willard moved one had near the scab. Before I could blink he grabbed that crusty flap of skin firmly and ripped it off!
“Run like hell,” he yelled. We both took off and Albion bucked and kicked, and snorted and bolted. Out of breath and numb from laughter, Willard offered me a snort of whiskey. That scab never bothered Albion again.
By late autumn, it was apparent that Albion was a head case. He never calmed down completely. When a few other VISTAS teamed up to buy horses that Willard recommended, (I’m sure he dropped the prices to make them affordable) it was possible to go riding with friends. Although I rode Albion frequently, he never seemed comfortable around other horses. Willard sensed this and called Julie aside one afternoon. He told her of a six-year-old mare soon to be up for sale. Amber was a barrel racing champ and owned by the soon to be ex-wife of a Houston cop.
“She just wants to get rid of the horse,” Willard said. “The mare was a gift from her husband and she wants to return everything and move on. I think I can get you a good deal.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, and I certainly couldn’t see how we could afford to upgrade. One look at Amber changed all that. She was a big buckskin quarter horse mare who moved with speed and agility. If Albion was a Model T, Amber was a Lamborghini. All buckskin horses have a black mane and black tails. This just enhanced her beauty. The price would be $500. Julie and I knew trading Albion and the cash was out of the question. Unless…unless…I sold my car. I had a ’59 VW bug sitting in my garage in L.A. I’d resisted all offers from my friends, but I didn’t know when or if I’d ever get back there. Somehow this seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity. Cars would come and go; Amber would not. I sold my car within a week, and Amber was ours and soon joined the other grazers in Willard’s pasture.
Having a horse like Amber gave Julie and me opportunities to introduce neighborhood kids to the magic of riding a horse. One morning we placed our saddles on saw horses in the front yard for a little cleaning. As we worked the conditioners and soap deep into the leather, a gang of kids formed.
“We’re workin’ on our saddles?”
“Them your saddles? You got horses too?”
“Yeah, you like horses? Ever ride a horse?”
“Naw. But I sure would like to. Hey Mista, can we ride your horses?”
Because she was well trained and fairly gentle, a little horseback riding field trip soon took shape.
I was trying to balance my own self-interest with my work in the Third ward, so bringing kids to the stables offered a solution. I could easily place two kids on the saddle in front of me and give them the thrill of a gallop. I wondered if Willard would ever say something because all the kids were Black. The borders of race were held firmly in place in Houston, but he never said a word. He never changed his attitude or his willingness to help or teach us about our horses. In his own way, he’d become an important part of the project. The horse always came first for Willard.
A beautiful buckskin mare
Despite Willard’s help, having a horse proved taxing to our limited income. There were grooming implements, feed supplements, hoof picks and other unforeseen expenses. It was not unlike having a child. When the Texas summer turned icy Julie began to worry about Amber’s health. She had long fantasized about breeding her and seemed to have turned her own maternal instincts toward our mare. We had recently bought a blanket and secured a stall for the winter months.
“Bruce, the weather report said it might get down below freezing tonight,” Julie said one early November evening. “Ill see if I can get out to the stables and put a blanket on Amber this afternoon when she comes in from the pasture. If I can’t, do you think you could get out there? I’ll call you later.”
“Sure, I’ll be home early afternoon, just try to call me before it gets dark.”
By sundown the sky looked like tarnished silver. We turned on every working gas heater we could find and wore layers for the first time. Since I hadn’t heard from Julie all day I assumed Amber had been blanketed. At ten o’clock the phone jerked me from premature sleep.
“Bruce,” Julie said near panic. “I never got to the stables; I must have fallen asleep. Can you get down there and put a blanket on Amber, it’s 30 degrees out there.”
I agreed and set out for the stables. What I neglected to tell Julie or anyone else for that matter was that I had broken my glasses. All I had was a pair of prescription sunglasses. Hoping to go unnoticed, I emerged looking more like John Lennon going to the beach than a concerned horse owner. I needed these glasses to drive. Fortunately the moonlight lasted and no officer from the Texas Department of Public Safety saw me behind the wheel. Amber was pleasantly surprised at my appearance and, as usual, very cooperative as I got the blanket firmly in place. The other horses seemed envious. When Julie asked me the next morning how everything went, I reported Amber’s cooperative disposition and how uncommonly dark the freezing night had been. It seems to me we never used that blanket much after that. Or maybe Julie made certain the task was completed well before sundown.
Throughout my time in Texas, being able to drive out to the stables, call Amber in with a bucket of “sweet feed,” and then saddle and bridle her up for a ride was a fantasy come true. Sometimes I’d ride in a section of the pasture near the highway and wave to the truckers beginning another 24 hour run. Sometimes it was children in the backseats of station wagons who enjoyed flashing their fingers in a peace sign oblivious to their parents. People don’t ignore someone on horseback, even in Texas. Just when I thought it couldn’t get better, one final horse dream came true.
In the spring of 1970, the Grand National Rodeo came to Houston. The Grand Marshall was Elvis Presley. This was a very big deal for Texans. The Rodeo was held in the enormous Astrodome and featured a parade down Main Street that culminated at the stadium. All Houstonians who owned horsed could ride in the parade. A city ordinance allowed horses within the confines of the city for a 24-hour period. In short, people could tie up their horses in front of their houses overnight. My childhood fantasy of riding down my street and dismounting in front of my own home was about to come true. At the allotted time we drove the ten miles out to the stable and brought in Amber and another horse. It took a few hours, but it was well worth the time. We made stops at a corner grocery store for cold drinks. We cleaned up an occasional load of manure, and finally we tied up our horses on the front porch railing. I awoke several times during the night to check on the horses. By the next morning, I found Amber standing quietly, but her companion, a gelding named Apple had managed to untie himself and was munching contentedly on a neighbor’s lawn. Fortunately he cooperated with my urging and no one was any the wiser. We did not ride in the rodeo parade. That was never our intention.
Before long, there were four horses owned by a variety of VISTA combinations. Julie still had aspirations to ride again and purchased a young gelding she named Braun. She felt he’d make an excellent jumper because of his size. The bay horse was aptly named and must have stood 16 hands easily. Except for one time when I agreed to sit on his back just to see if he was broken, I stayed away from Braun.
Julie and Braun
Amber was my baby and I fell deeply in love. On warm afternoons I’d sometimes sneak away just to spend a few minutes with her. She knew my car, and recognized my face. All I had to do is throw a few cups of “sweet feed” into a plastic bucket and shake the molasses laced mixture. The sound of the oats and grain quickly caught her attention. In she’d gambol eager to get her nose in the bucket. This was a game we played; a tradeoff we made. While Amber gobbled her snack, I’d slip the bridle over her head, clean her feet with a hoof pick and get ready to ride. Sometimes, I loved to just drape myself over her neck and look at the Texas horizon through her ears.
The soft fuzz reminded me of tiny wheat fields in the sun.