I knew it was a lot to ask for, even though my father was rich and even though I was used to lavish vacations and a constant stream of new clothes. Like every young girl whose dreams begin and end with hoof beats, however, I kept asking for that horse. There were good reasons it would not, could not happen. No one in my family rode or knew a thing about horse care or training. We lived in the cookie-cutter suburbs and there was only one house in town with a small horse barn in the yard. My father, who liked extravagant gestures, wasn’t so keen on on-going expenses. And I’d only been taking riding lessons sporadically when Aunt Louise had time to round up the cousins on the occasional Saturday afternoon and drive 30 miles to her friend’s stable.
Little girl dreams, however, persist—even when the girl is not so little anymore.
I was 14 when a carefully planned summer attending theater camp dramatically ended the day it began. Let’s just say opening day did not live up to its advance billing. Let’s also say Robert Redford was not actually on hand to direct, let’s say the show closed on opening night. Perhaps my father couldn’t bear my crumpled face and sagging spirit, and let’s say we learned that the family stable a half-mile from our house was taking on boarders. And let’s suppose that I took advantage of my parents’ guilt and dismay over my ruined drama dream.
Let’s say I got my horse.
Let’s say that reality surpassed the dream. For a while.
A small white sign with black lettering swung like an invitation from a post at the top of the gravel drive: White Oak Stable. My father’s Cadillac crunched over the grey stones, and he parked it next to a towering oak whose trunk was only inches from the heavy sliding stable doors. Inside the small white barn with maroon trim: nirvana. Or rather, horses. About eight of them. A bulky chestnut Quarter Horse with a white stripe down his nose. A smoky bay Thoroughbred with legs up to his ears. A dowdy brown mare of questionable breeding and a sweet disposition. An adorably squat grey pony sprung from the pages of Thelwell.
And that day, the newest arrival, mine: Poco. We’d found him through my Uncle Silvio who knew where and how to buy anything. While he was probably too young, too untrained, and certainly too expensive, he was mine.
The chestnut, Hank, belonged to Nora, 20-something, who had other jobs but also managed the stable for the resident Mitchell family (whose grown children had outgrown horses). The Thoroughbred, Firestarter, was Melanie’s. She worked as a scientist for a nearby pharmaceutical company and rode every evening. Penny, a senior in high school, owned the reliable old mare, Tillie, and her 12-year-old sister Kate was the proud, if too-big, owner of Speckles the pony.
Until then, my closest friends had always been girls a few years older than I, but Kate and I were immediately inseparable. A good thing too, because my best friend had recently acquired her first real boyfriend.
Later on, Kate would tell me she glued herself to my side at first because she was astounded at my stunning ignorance of even the most basic rules of horse care and she was afraid I’d do something disastrous. Kate had practically grown up at White Oak since she lived two blocks away and the Mitchells had always let her and Penny keep a pony or horse there in exchange for a bit of barn work.
Soon, I was proud of my membership in this ragtag group at a rather rundown place. The spread in ages, backgrounds, and equestrian experience fell away, unimportant in the shadow of the more important shared equine love. I quickly learned they called the barn the “Dead Oak” because the stable itself looked old and tired, even though it was also true that the glowering oak tree bore no leaves and we held our collective breaths each time lightning loomed in the sky, or the wind raged. The building itself, from the cracked concrete floors to sagging planked stall floors, to the rock-riddled riding ring, seemed in danger of extinction: makeshift, jerry-rigged, half-broken.
There was nothing half-baked, however, about Nora’s insistence that we do everything properly. Everyone was expected to keep floors freshly swept, hayloft neatly stacked, the tack room tidy, and our horses’ stalls picked free of manure twice daily. Saddles and bridles were to be cleaned after each use; the feed bin always securely locked; the vet and blacksmith were kept to strict schedules. There was no goofing off allowed while we were mounted, or working anywhere around the horses: their well-being came first, always. Beyond that, however, we could all do as we pleased.
That first summer, Kate and I spent nearly every daylight hour at the Dead Oak and left only when hunger overcame us. We were constantly busy and utterly enthralled with anything we’d dream up to keep ourselves occupied so long as it involved being near our gorgeous creatures. The shine I learned to coax from Poco’s deep chocolate coat matched the way my insides felt every day, that I was allowed the great privilege of a dream no longer deferred.
Kate showed me how—mounted tentatively on my new horse—to cross the semi-busy street at the head of the stable driveway, then walk a quarter mile down a hidden road that connected to miles of trails. We’d gallop, breakneck, then dismount to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and feed Poco and Speckles salty pretzels or carrots. On Halloween, we attached antlers fashioned from twigs to their bridles, tied sleigh bells to their manes, dressed ourselves in green from head to toe, and clip-clopped from driveway to driveway in her neighborhood.
The Dead Oak, this new world of people who loved horses and the horses who seemed to love them back, was a place where the bullying that had always trailed me at school—I was too brainy, too chunky, too goody-two-shoes—could not intrude. I’d found a tiny new world that felt expansive, and unlike dancing class, piano lessons, or even acting school, I never wanted to leave. I was no longer jealous of my best friend’s boyfriend. I had my own new love.
Nora occasionally attached an old trailer to her rusted orange pick-up truck and lugged Kate and I and our freshly washed mounts to tiny 4-H club horse shows, where we slowly accumulated a handful of not-blue ribbons. Once, we ventured to an “open” show where for the first time I glimpsed riders from larger commercial stables—girls whose new black boots gleamed and came all the way up to their knees like they were supposed to, who had grooms hand them their neatly braided horses, and trainers chattering last-minute instructions at the in-gate.
I secretly yearned for that—the trainers and grooms and clean new breeches—even while Kate and Nora and I mocked them, those girls and their helplessness. We bet they never had to clean out a stall (or even knew how), didn’t hose down their own horses when they were sweaty, couldn’t even keep their own horses quiet at ringside. They were just riders. We were horse people.
We pitched hay, scrubbed our own tack, spent hours bent over picking rocks out of the riding ring. We were at the stable all day, not just for an hour’s ride. We went with Nora to buy hay and feed, then inched the 50-pound bags across the stable floor to the feed room, and used baling hooks to grab the hay cubes and heft them into the loft. We chased mice from the hayloft, gave our own horses baths on humid days, drenching each other with the hose, and swinging precariously from a rope slung over the hayloft rafters. But we also took our horses for lead line walks in the adjacent field beneath the skeletal power lines, then lay on our backs in the long grass, contemplating clouds, and returned to the barn sure we were in the best place on earth.
My first winter as a horse-owner, I learned to punch holes in frozen water buckets and pick ice balls from Poco’s hooves after a chilling hack round the slick ring. I pretended I wasn’t cold when my toes turned to icicles inside the sensible paddock boots Nora had insisted my parents buy me. They got hours of use every day, through sleet, snow, and muck. Kate and I made fun of the spoiled riders at big fancy stables where we’d heard rumors there were heated lounges and hot chocolate machines.
When Poco’s two extra heavy winter blankets grew grungy, Kate told me to run them through the heavy-duty cycle on the washing machine at home. After my mother scooped golf-ball-sized hair and dirt balls from the machine, and finished screaming about a clogged drain and how next time she’d take me to a Laundromat, I explained that Kate’s mother once allowed her to bring Speckles through the kitchen and den of their house in order to take a hearthside family Christmas card photo. Mom studied me for a moment and shook her head.
As that first winter’s cold began to recede, Kate and I hatched plans for spring and summer. We told one another we were already both much better riders and would soon be drowning in blue ribbons. We’d take longer trail rides and eat better sandwiches; put the jumps up higher in the ring; ride bareback more often and try to swing out from the hayloft rope right onto Poco’s back. And so much more. I’d convinced my mother to drop piano and dance from my schedule, but kept the weekly acting lessons. As it turned out, I’d need them soon enough when everything changed, and I’d have to smile and say it was all okay.
The Mitchells decided to move to Florida, and their realtor felt the house would fetch a higher price and quicker sale if the smelly barn, with the eclectic assortment of horses and humans, stood empty. She spoke of possibilities like a tennis court, an in-law cottage conversion, a sub-dividable lot.
Everything—horses, tack, hay, feed, jumps, people, friendships, safe havens, all of it—had to go. My first summer, fall, and winter at Dead Oak were also my last, and spring was spent watching friends, two- and four-footed, move out and away. Melanie had always wanted her own horse property, and moved Firestarter to a friend’s barn in western New Jersey while she and her new fiancé shopped for a house on land where they could build a barn. Nora decided to return to college, and sent Hank to live on a relative’s farm for a while. Penny found a temporary home for Tillie until she started college and could move her into the college’s stabling facility. Though she’d known she’d be parting with the outgrown Speckles soon anyway, Kate was inconsolable when she handed her pony to a younger, shorter girl. Eventually, she’d have a new horse that would live at a friend’s backyard stable a few towns away.
My family, however, didn’t have friends with farms or stables, with spare stalls and fenced in rings. They didn’t have any interest in a new house with a stable in back.
What my family had, was money. New money. First generation money.
On a Saturday afternoon, my father and I visited two stables, each about six miles away from home. First, the fancy equestrian center where more than 100 horses—with names I’d heard announced at the top of the ribbon order at large, competitive horse shows—lived in spotless roomy stalls arranged on both sides of multiple brightly lit aisles in a barn half the size of a football field. There was an attached indoor ring with a viewing gallery, a store, snack bar, indoor horse showers, and a tack room larger than the entire footprint of the Dead Oak. Large blackboards listed the lesson order for the day. Riders (girls, mostly) moved smoothly through the riders’ lounge as grooms—grown men babbling in Spanish—scurried about, brushing and saddling up horses.
The manager explained that I need only show up 10 minutes before my lesson time, and my horse would be ready—clean, curried, saddled, and, if I wanted, already ridden earlier that day by an exacting trainer so that Poco would provide me with a calmer, less spirited, more obedient ride. “Push-button” horses, the crowd from the Dead Oak had called these kind of mounts, schooled by trainers so they’d flawlessly carry their riders around show rings like passengers.
Everything was clean, shiny, and orderly. Nothing appeared even slightly broken or old or careworn. I watched, amazed and then sad and disillusioned, remembering how I’d once secretly wanted this, and how little I wanted to do with it now. Everything about it repelled me: too many horses, too impersonal, too much like a scheduled activity that might look good on my college application, and too little like love.
I was wondered about our next stop, hoping it was aptly named: Pleasant Valley Stable. Here was an unfancy place, larger than Dead Oak, sheltering about two dozen or so horses in four small drafty barns scattered around a broken-pavement courtyard. In the three odd-shaped practice rings, serious lessons were underway, though no one appeared to be pushing easy buttons. There were no grooms, no indoor ring; instead there was a brook, a mixed group of horses, riders of varying ages in breeches and paddock boots, and an overgrown field the manager grumbled needed to be cleared of rocks that summer so it might one day become a safer turn-out pasture. The “riders’ lounge” was a tiny room made of scrap lumber with a balky wood burning stove.
Yes, it was certainly a step up from the Dead Oak in size, purposefulness, and activity level, and while I wouldn’t be expected (or really even allowed) to help with stable chores, the general atmosphere was one of people who loved their horses and knew exactly how to take care of them. Nora drove Poco over for me a few days later.
I came to like Pleasant Valley very much, made friends there, and developed into a better, stronger, even slightly elegant rider. It was there that I nursed Poco through a serious hoof injury, and then later parted with him, heeding the manager’s correct advice that I was ready for something more challenging, which came in the form of a fiery Thoroughbred mare named Tara. It was there that I discovered horsemen and horsewoman come in all forms and that personally shoveling manure wasn’t the litmus test of a horse owner’s commitment or deep respect for the animal.
I came to love several of the horses and many of the people at this new stable, even had my first rider romance there, with a tall, handsome older boy. But I never loved the place, not the way I had the Dead Oak, which in memory gained more luster as I moved further from it. Eventually I began to understand that it wasn’t so much the place or even the sweat I left behind that made it formative for me, but the experience of first-time horse ownership, and the people who were there to witness that and to midwife.
Lisa Romeo competed in hunter/jumper shows for 15 years, on east and west coast circuits. The co-founder of the Syracuse University Equestrian Team, she also worked as a horse show judge, publicist, and equestrian journalist. Today, Lisa writes all kinds of nonfiction, edits manuscripts, and teaches in several university writing programs. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and sons. Lisa has completed a memoir of the continuing relationship between a midlife daughter and her misunderstood father, after his death.