A brown and white stuffed animal, a pony, was beneath the Christmas tree. It had a red ribbon tied around its neck. I was seven years old. Puzzled, I hurried to the tree where I knelt and took the stuffed pony in my hands. There was a gaily colored card tied to the red ribbon. Turning the card over, I read my mother’s handwriting. “There’s a special surprise waiting for you in the dog pen.”
Could it be? Still wearing my pajamas and blue quilted bathrobe I dashed out the glass door of the den, hung a left and ran down the brick sidewalk. At the top of the steps I froze. A brown and white pony with long luxuriant mane and tail stood in the dog pen, looking at me over the gate. I slowed down and approached my pony. By now, my mother had caught up with me.
“Her name is Tony,” she said.
“Tony the pony,” I whispered. Then, more loudly, “Tony the pony!”
With this magical gift, I learned to ride, yes. But I learned so much more. I learned responsibility. At the age of seven, I learned what it is to take full responsibility for another creature. We converted the small building used by contractors during our house renovation into a barn. We added another part to the building and that’s where hay, oats, and sweet feed were kept. We enclosed about an acre of land as a pasture, half open and half woods.
I fed Tony twice a day, sweet feed and hay in the winter, oats and hay in the summer. I’d spear a section of a hay bail on a pitchfork and, with the pitchfork over my shoulder I’d carry it from the barn to the pasture. As I walked across the yard, I’d look down at the ground. I discovered a talent for spotting four leaf clovers and almost always found at least one on each trip.
I learned to groom Tony, beginning with a curry comb and soft brush, combing out her long white mane and tail, and ending with caring for her hooves.
I would eventually have riding lessons, but I learned to ride, simply by riding.
In those days, all I had to do to get to endless miles of trails through the woods and fields beyond our house was to go out the back gate, go to the end of Abingdon Lane, and so, into the woods. My mother’s dear friend, Vernon, a horsewoman herself, bought a horse named Lady and kept her at our house. At first, Vernon rode with me. Eventually, when everyone was convinced I knew my way around, I was secure in my abilities as a horsewoman, I continued my adventures alone.
One day I’d be a knight in shining armor mounted on a war horse. Sometimes I’d be King Arthur, leading his knights on a mission to save some damsel in distress or other. The next time, I’d be a cowgirl, Annie Oakley maybe. Or I’d be the maiden mounted on a white horse pictured in one of the stained glass windows of St. Mary on the Highlands episcopal Church. My imagination had no limits.
I named the rocks and trees on the trails. As I passed, I’d say, “Hello bell rock. Hello bell ball rock. Hello twisty old oak, just look at all your mistletoe!”
And it all started on that Christmas day almost fifty years ago.