Old mare never had a name. Mommy found her when she was an emaciated foal who could no longer stand. My mother paid 50 dollars to save her, which was fifty times what the dying foal was worth in 1960. With no horse trailer, Mommy put the filly in the bed of her pickup truck and drove slowly towards her two acre ranch in Simi Valley, California. Bottle fed and hand raised, the filly grew up eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while she watch TV from behind the sofa.
Filly became Mare and Mare became Old Mare. The first time I sat on her back was the week I learned to sit-up. Now I’m just tall enough to push my little English saddle onto her back, synching it loosely because I am too small to really pull it tight. Getting the bridal on is easy because old Mare always drops her head for the bit. Yet for some reason, I can never get the reigns over her head the first try.
In the dark isle of Blaine Carr’s boarding stable, I haul myself onto her back. Old Mare turns her head and watches me, her expression one of amusement. I ride her to Mommy who scolds me for riding a horse with a loose girth and reigns on only one side of my horses head.
“Why don’t you put the reigns over her head when you put the bridal on,” she says, her thin lips pursed in disapproval. “This is a dangerous way to ride.”
“Because then I wouldn’t have a reign to lead her to the mounting block.” And so it goes week after week. I groom, tack and mount my little Old Mare and Mommy adjusts, teaches, and scolds me into becoming the horse woman we both dream I will be.
The sun bounces off the white sand of our arena as I ride in large circles looking up at the Wasatch Mountains that loom so large to the East. My sister plays in the shallow creek with Blaine’s grandson while mother saddles up Flashy Cookie, a friend’s sensitive thoroughbred. I ride around the arena a few more times, picking Old Mare up into an easy trot until Mommy and Cookie walk in.
When my mother rides I have to stay in the middle or leave the arena. Cookie is huge and emotional and I can’t be where he is. When they come in I ride towards the barn, making a small loop around three of the things I love most about the Carr boarding stable. One is a black covered buggy from around 1900. Another is a buckboard whose wooden sides are so bleached by time and weather that they gleam a greyish white. The third is a sleigh that Blaine built himself. He’s rustled mustangs from the prairie and once rode the west when it was still wild. He’s a true cowboy and a real gentleman.
“Don’t get too close to those buggies,” Mommy says. She looks beautiful on Cookies back.
I look down at my tiny fat mare and wonder what it would be like to ride Cookie, a horse that seems to float more than stand. Cookie is like a rushing wind poured into a horse shape. Everything about him is a potential reaction, so everything we do with him has to be slow, soft and quiet.
I step Old Mare back a few steps to make Mommy happy and then gaze down at the sleigh. Blaine hitched his old gelding up to it last winter and took us all for a ride. My mom, my sister and I sat in the back under a blanket while Blaine drove the horse through the snow. We moved so silently and with such speed that it was like flying. I’ll never forget the whooshing sound the runners made or the way the snow flew up behind us. That was one of the best days of my life. Gazing up at the Wasatch Mountains I feel that deep sense of connection, of belonging to a place. Like the avenues and my little house at 86 M Street, this place and these mountains are home.
I see a movement in the dark isle of Blaine’s little barn, the place where he keeps his horses and tack away from the big barn where the boarders are. Blain walks out into the light, his thinning reddish hair combed and parted neatly to the side.
“Do your girls have bonnets and calico dresses?” Mommy answers his question with a puzzled look. “It’s the Days of 47 parade next Saturday,” he adds. “I’m going to drive a team. Your girls can ride in the buggy if they like.”
As a Salt Lake City girl, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t own a bonnet. There are pictures of me toddling through the garden wearing nothing but a diaper and a blue bonnet.
“I have a bonnet.” I say, walking Old Mare over to Blaine. “And I have a calico dress. I’ll ride in the buggy.” And turning to look at Mommy I add, “I can ride in a parade just like you did in L.A. mommy.” Mommy looks at me and then over to Ali who is still playing in the trickling stream.
“I’ll have them ready.” Mommy answers after some thought. Blaine nodes to her before disappearing back into the darkened isle of the little barn. Swallows swoop in and out of the shadows while Mommy picks Cookie up into a rolling canter, his beautiful neck arching as he moves into my mother’s gentle hands and onto the bit. Mommy used to ride side saddle in big California parades wearing a Spanish ladies dress with a Mantilla comb and a lace veil. She represented California’s heritage the way I will get to represent Utah’s.
Watching her ride, I remember that when the pioneers arrived in the place that would become Salt Lake City they looked around and said, “This is the place.” Mommy says the women wept because they were standing in a desert where nothing could grow and life would be hard. She never sees Utah the way I see Utah. How can she when her heart lives in old California, in Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley and Topanga Canyon. She remembers a land of sunlight and orange blossoms, of Spanish stucco missions and movie stars. What she doesn’t understand is that for me, right now, this…is the place.