First Love: The Horse That Got Away

As a young girl I passionately longed for a horse, and imagined myself flying free through the countryside on horseback. Although my blond hair was short, still I could almost feel my hair flying behind me like a mane. The summer I was 7, Dad packed the four of us kids and the neighbor girl into our blue station wagon bound for the Blossom Time Fair in nearby Chagrin Falls, Ohio. After an afternoon of fair rides, peanuts, and cotton candy, the raffle of the Shetland pony was announced with great fanfare.

I clung desperately to my entry ticket. Sweat trickled down my chest as the announcer read off first one, and then four matching numbers. As the last number was called, to my horror and dumb rage, the neighbor girl we had invited won the pony, just one number away from my own ticket. My own father had betrayed me by buying the winning ticket for my sister’s friend. Day after day, I watched from my side of the fence as the neighbor girl fed apples and carrots to my horse. She was oblivious of the cruel injustice of the fates as I simmered in impotent rage. Soon after, the family moved away and “my” pony was forever gone.

Years later, in talking with my parents about the pony, they were embarrassed: the neighbor girl who won the pony could not afford its care, and her family had to find another home for him. Indeed, some rescue horses start their journey out in the care of a well-intended and horse-infatuated young girl whose fantasy of having a horse does not match the day-to-day reality of caring for one. Yet adult practicalities of the cost and responsibilities of horse care did not diminish my passionate righteousness that I had been wronged. I was angry because I felt betrayed by the man who was most important to me.

Trigger and Horse Drawings

I subverted, or in psychological terms, sublimated my desire for a horse. I never rode horses as a girl, nor filled my room with horse models. After school and on Saturdays, Marnie and Betty went for horse riding lessons, but not me. The closest I came to horses was watching them in the television shows of the day. Each week, I waited expectantly for the Roy Rogers Show. I was enamored with the intelligence, beauty, and grace of the famous golden palomino Trigger. The other outlet for my horse love was in my furtive and devotional scribblings. I doodled hundreds of pictures of horses by first making a series of circles. A medium circle and a smaller circle formed the head, while large circles formed the chest and hindquarters. Like pearls on a necklace, smaller circles formed the legs and hooves, and then long graceful connecting lines magically revealed stallions and mares.

Caddie Woodlawn

As a shy kid whose family moved a lot, I was afraid of horses and associated them with danger, daring, and freedom. One of my favorite books was Caddie Woodlawn [1], which features an important scene with the young heroine on horseback. The main character’s tomboy antics shocked her mother, yet were supported by her father, who urged Caddie to take risks and maintain her spirit against the stifling expectations for girls and women. The book begins:

In 1864 Caddie Woodlawn was eleven, and as wild a little tomboy as ever ran the woods of western Wisconsin. She was the despair of her mother and her elder sister, Clara. But her father watched her with a shine of pride in his eyes, and her brothers accepted her as one of themselves without a question. (p.1)

Unlike Caddie, I was quite introverted and shy at home, spending my time reading books and painting watercolor pictures. Although I sometimes snuck into my brothers’ forbidden tree fort, I was not a big part of their boy world, and brave only in my imagination. I did enjoy poking around the Creek, below the steep ravine behind the Merriman’s house. I had a pretend Palomino companion that shared my secrets. Sometimes I dug out clay from the banks and imagined I was an Indian girl, making pottery for my tribe. Like Caddie’s mother, my own mom spent many hours doing beautiful needlework, and had many rules about ladylike behavior. Dad spent a lot of time with my two brothers as a scout leader and softball coach, but didn’t quite know what to make of his bookish and artistic daughter.

In a pivotal scene in the book, Caddie takes a dangerous horseback ride through the Wisconsin woods to warn a small group of Native Americans that they are in danger from white settlers bent on violence against them. Dozens of neighbors had gathered at Caddie’s home, afraid of being massacred. Caddie overhears a few men talking about attacking the small group which had befriended her family. She overcomes her own fears to warn the Indians.  

White and trembling, Caddie slipped past them. The men paid no attention to the little girl who had left her basket of turnips standing on the cellar steps. They went on talking angrily among themselves, enjoying the sound of their boastful words. Caddie went to the barn and into the stalls. There she hesitated a moment. Pete was faster than Betsy, but he was not so trustworthy. When he didn’t want to go, he would run under a shed or low branch and scrape off his rider. Nothing must delay her today. Caddie slipped a bridle over Betsy’s head. She was trembling all over. There was something she must do now, and she was afraid. She must warn John and his Indians. She was certain in her heart that they meant the whites no harm, and the whites were going to kill them.” (pp.126-128)

As a child, I thrilled to Caddie’s adventures (many of which were on horseback), her bravery, and ability to push the limits of her culture’s image of how young girls should act. Caddie had the spunk and courage that seemed so lacking in my own character.  

Dream Horses

Later I forgot my childhood fascination with horses, though when I left home for college, I bought myself a pair of cowgirl boots that I wore constantly. When I was in my 30’s, I painted a picture of those well-worn boots, when my art teacher asked us to choose an object for an autobiographical portrait. My first marriage was to a man who grew up in the country and had the rugged good looks of the Marlboro man advertisements. When he died, he left behind not children, but Smokey, an untrained two-year old horse.  

Up until five years ago, my experience with live horses was limited to a few vacation rides with small, tired horses anxious to get back to the stable. Yet, dream horses have been with me throughout the years. They have visited me in my dreams, my artwork, and my visionary experiences. Individual horses have accompanied me on imaginary journeys, and sometimes I have experienced myself in a herd of wild horses that I know as the Horse Ancestors. Like Caddie’s trusty Betsy, horses have appeared as faithful and trusted companions in my greatest times of need: divorce, illness, death, and loss. Horses have lent their broad shoulders to cry on, the absolute knowledge that we are never alone in our times of trial and transition, and helped me to heal. It is only as a grown woman that I have felt a horse’s sweet breath on mine, and inhaled her wonderful equine scent. In future articles, I will describe some of my dream horses as well as the findings of my research on women and horses and how they dance in our imagination.


[1] Brink, Carol Ryrie, Caddie Woodlawn. 1973. New York: Scholastic. (Originally published 1935).

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