Thirsty for a Horse
Thirsty for a Horse
By Tonja Evetts Weimer
As a kid, I never knew that all horses didn’t neck rein, turn on a dime, stand still when you got on and off them, and weren’t gentle as dogs. I never knew because we had American Quarter Horses. You could ride them any day or any week, and they’d be the same dependable horse. They were more reliable than a Ford pickup. That’s the only kind of horse my dad, Hoke Evetts, would buy: a solid, working cow horse. If I saw a horse that was acting crazy, well, that was somebody else’s horse. We didn’t get near one like that. Dad said that’s how you get hurt.
After I left home for college, grad school and moved away, I just assumed I’d never again have a horse in my life. I thought you had to have a ranch or be a champion rodeo competitor like the rest of my family.
But in my mind, I never forgot every horse I ever knew. I’d visit them in daydreams, like a close neighbor or relative I’d grown up with but didn’t see anymore. Old Bob, our big sorrel gelding that Dad learned to rope on, was my first solo ride. I can feel his steady clopping as we rode bareback, slowly, into Pumpkin Center, California, when I was 5. He took his time. He stood where you left him, untied, until once he didn’t. I couldn’t believe it when he took off trotting home without me. I ran the half mile after him, a skinny stick in a sunsuit and cowboy boots, crying all the way.
A few years after Old Bob, Dad drove back to Oklahoma looking for a “special” horse. This was in the late 1940s, before he went to future American Quarter Horse Hall of Famer Walter Merrick in Sayre, Oklahoma, for horses. He found a palomino gold nugget, Cloudy Boy. He was a 1944 stallion by Rock, whose dam was known as the Bill Driggers Mare. Dad used him for roping, racing and showing. He won grand champion in halter at the Pomona Horse Show in Southern California. And in our small world, he soon became the horse to beat at the track. Finally, he was matched against a Thoroughbred for a race that drew national news cameras, for a reel to be shown in movie theaters. This was before TV.
The betting and the hearts of people from California to Oklahoma were on “Cloudy.” Dad paced the fairgrounds before the race, so wound up he was walking and talking nonstop. When Cloudy crossed the finish line, he was running as hard as he always did, but starting to fall behind, foaming at the mouth, his tongue hanging out dark. The cowboys said he’d been drugged. I was too young then to understand, and I’m too old now to unravel the whole story. But I remember how much Dad loved the horse, how Cloudy’s coat glittered in the sun, how Dad would lend him to other cowboys to rope on if they needed a good horse. The newsreels of the race soon came to town. It was the only time in my life I saw Dad go to the movies. When the horse race was shown, he stood up in the Fox Theater in downtown Bakersfield and shouted, “Come on, Cloudy! Come on, Cloudy!” I wanted to say, “Dad, he already lost.” But he knew that.
Cloudy never recovered. Dad was through with racing horses. He put Cloudy out to pasture, his color fading to a muted beige. We didn’t ride him again. Dad said he’d lost his mind.
Before long, we had a rounded, deep red mare named Cupcake, and she was a sweetheart. She helped us heal from losing Cloudy. She was gentle enough to bring to the dinner table. I can feel her wide, soft back and her lope that was as light as fluff flying from a down comforter. Cupcake stayed a few years until Dad transitioned to something faster.
That was Old Roanie. He was tall, quick and bony. He didn’t have any papers and wasn’t much to look at, but he got the job done. The cowboy Dad bought him from didn’t know Roanie’s history, other than he’d bought him from another cowboy in Paso Robles. One day, out at the trailers at a rodeo, a lady sprang from nowhere and called out to the horse, “Diablo! Diablo!” She told us Old Roanie was a Hancock roan that had been stolen as a colt. She identified him by a small missing chunk of his lower lip. We’d never noticed it.
We had two mutt dogs back then, Brownie and Cookie. Brownie was a shepherd combo and followed me on the horse wherever I went. Cookie, the Chihuahua mix, had to go along, too. He couldn’t keep up, so I carried him on top of Roanie as I rode bareback. Cookie’s nails resting on Roanie’s withers sometimes caused the horse to shiver from shoulder to hoof. Roanie lasted through my high school years, solid as a post. When I think of all I asked of him, jumping over logs, swimming across deep canals, galloping for miles with a kid and a dog on his back, I wish I’d thought to say, “Thank you.”
And then Dad found his amazing stallion, Lotta Dollar, a 1951 grandson of the Hall of Fame stallion Joe Reed. He became the everything horse, including the one my sister, Charlene Jespersen, rode to win the California barrel racing championship several times in the ’70s and rode at the National Rodeo Finals in Oklahoma. Dad hadn’t had a great horse since Cloudy. He was so thrilled with “Dollar,” he had a life-sized statue made of him and put it on the front lawn. They moved it later to the Overland Stockyards, which Dad co-owned, in Hanford, California. I can’t say I had a bond with this horse other than I was impressed with him. The word “power” comes to mind. As a stallion, he was not one you'd get on and go running off over the countryside. Once he started running, he might not stop.
I went to my Bakersfield High School 40th class reunion one year. I walked back to the bar to get a Diet Coke and saw a guy I didn’t recognize standing there alone. I said, “So, how has your life been?” He said, “It has been good. Good. I had a pretty good job, a nice family, but the best part was, I had a horse by Lotta Dollar.” As he said it, his eyes stared off into space, he was so caught up in the memory. And that was pretty much the end of the conversation.
“It has been nice talking to you,” I said, shook his hand and walked away. I could have told him Lotta Dollar was my dad’s horse, but the guy wasn’t Earth-bound anymore. He couldn’t have heard me.
I was gone during the Dollar years. My brother, H.P. Evetts, was roping his way to a pro rodeo world championship in team roping. My mother, Alma Evetts, was getting on a horse for the first time at the age of 50 and starting to barrel race. In her 80s, she was known as the barrel racing grandma, winning the California State Rodeo in Salinas one year. And my dad built an arena with stadium lights so he and the cowboys could team rope at night when the weather was hot.
During that time, living and working in distant places, my own particular horse disease began, though I couldn’t name it, nor did I have a cure. I had an ache deep down, a craving that never left. I would go through miseries and spells where I missed horses, wished I had a horse, yearned for one, but could see no possible solution. Conversations with friends or writing about horses in my past would have to be enough – until sometimes, it just wasn’t.
I’d wander over to Central Park when I lived in New York City and look at the horses hitched up to the carriages. If no one was renting one, I’d ask the driver if I could pet the horse. I’d sink my nose in his neck and with that familiar smell, I’d reel back in time. I’d be happy for a few minutes and homesick for the rest of the day. Or I’d visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and stand and stare at the Frederick Remington sculpture of the cowboys “Comin’ Through the Rye.” I didn’t just see the horses as much as I could smell them, hear them and feel them. I was groaning to be on a galloping horse. When I was in Holland, England, Germany, France or India, when I’d see someone on a horse, I’d fight the urge to run up to them and say, “I used to ride horses!” But then I’d realize, that’s kind of stupid. Why would a stranger care what I used to do? And when I lived in Washington, D.C., I was so crazed for the scent and rhythm and familiarity of a horse, I drove to a stable in Virginia and rented a horse for the day. That was when I discovered that all horses do not neck rein, behave, trust you or can be trusted. That was a horrible experience.
In the coming years, I rode different people’s horses once in a while but never did find that easy rockabye Quarter Horse magic that I knew as a child. If I wanted to find a horse of my own, I had to learn some of the truths that my father obviously knew, but I didn’t have him around anymore to ask. I’d waited too long before he was gone forever. Surely, he would have said: Don’t buy a young, green horse (because you’re not a horse trainer); disposition and sound training are everything; read up on the pedigree; buy from a reputable person; and always get a horse that’s so gentle you can put your grandma and your grandbaby on it.
After my husband and I moved to South Carolina, it was no secret I had horses in my past and in my dreams, since I had a weekly newspaper column where I’d referred to them often. Our friends, the Callaways, told me one day, “Tonja, there’s a lady out in Donalds, at J&A Stables, advertising Quarter Horses for sale. You ought to check that out.” Hmmm, I thought. I don’t know where or how I’d keep one. But the pull was stronger than rational thought.
|Bunnys Hickory Acre, owned by the author. Photo by Joanne Johnk|
I drove out in the country and got lost on the coldest day of the year, definitely not a good beginning. There was a group of people ready to ride the trail, irritated with me for being late. “Sorry. Sorry. My GPS is broken.” I was too busy apologizing to notice the buckskin saddled up for me. I put my foot in the stirrup, slung my leg over his back, took the reins and rode about 10 steps in line with the other horses. Suddenly, I drew in my breath. Ten more steps, and I looked at the nice lady riding next to me. “Oh, no,” I said, feeling a catch in my throat, “Where did this horse come from?” With racing emotions, I had a sense that I had always known him, or that I’d always been waiting to meet him, or that we were about to have a long, close association. I looked at him as I rode. He had a beautiful head and neck, solid back and well-rounded strong hindquarters. As we ambled along with the other horses, he melted down the path like butter on a hot biscuit. Smooth.
Neck reining? Perfection.
The lady next to me smiled. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “That’s ‘Nerd.’ He’s really special.”
We were 50 yards along the trail when I said to her, “Is he really called Nerd? He will always be a ‘Pretty Boy’ in my mind.” But it didn’t matter. Whatever he was called, within five minutes I was deeply in love with a horse. The kind of love that doesn’t end.
I leased him for two years. And then, gradually, I talked the reluctant owner into selling him to me. His registered name is Bunnys Hickory Acre.
He still lives on the farm where he was raised. He’s a 16-year-old honey-colored buckskin Quarter Horse. He has some of the same Doc Bar bloodlines that a few of my parents’ horses had. He was beautifully trained. I ride him through the woods every week, every chance I get. He never disappoints.
It came to me slowly. I hadn’t understood the deeper meaning of what I was searching for. It has been only on my rides that I’ve discovered how the rhythm and gait of a Quarter Horse have an uncommon effect on me. I’m not carried to any particular destination, but to the place where my memories are stored, where all old stories are suddenly fresh and immediate, and all people and creatures ever loved come alive. They’re here, at this moment. What was lost has been found, and what was old is new again. A great horse knows how to take you home – all the way home.
Tonja Weimer lives in Greenville, South Carolina, and is an author and master certified relationship and life coach. She can be contacted by email at email@example.com.