When I was 19, I had the great fortune of becoming the horse buddy of the mom of my younger sister’s friend. Diane bred Peruvian Pasos and shared her enthusiasm for the breed. “They’re so gentle, you can even ride the stallions like in other breeds you ride geldings,” she said.
I was allowed to go out there and play with the horses, even ride them, any time I wanted, even if Diane wasn’t home. When she was traveling, I stayed at the house and took care of the horses and cats. (She bred Abyssinians. With two simultaneous litters of kittens in the house, the furniture always looked like it was moving; I got motion-sick at times and had to close my eyes.)
At Diane’s, I wasn’t sure what to do. She mostly spent time with one of her two stallions, whose name was Nacho, or her pregnant mare, whose name I forget but she was palomino.
She had a four-year-old gelding named Jardinero who was my favorite. I sat with him a lot, just watching him and petting him when he came over, and wishing I knew what to do, not always feeling confident about riding him. Then I would feel guilty that he got all the attention and I would go pet the other four horses who allowed it, and talk through the fence to the other stallion, Bayo, who didn’t.
I had never spent undemanding time with a horse. It never entered my mind that such a thing existed. I felt embarrassed to be “just” being near him, not knowing what to do after exhausting the potential of brushes, curry combs, and hoof picks. Until that point, my horse contact had been through riding lessons, which involved haltering, grooming, tacking up, riding, untacking, grooming, unhaltering. You weren’t allowed to just hang out with the horse.
I rode Jardinero sometimes. We were both green and I was nervous, but I loved it, too.
One time, a crop-duster pilot must have thought it would be funny to buzz us and see what happened. What happened was, Jardinero bolted in fear and I was okay until my foot caught on a bucket someone had hung inside the arena, which flipped me out of the saddle and over his rump and somehow I landed with my ankle under his hind foot. I had a deep cut on my leg just above the rim of my ankle-high boots, but no sprain or break. The hard ground must have supported the joint perfectly, because I did feel the full hoof on my ankle and thought “oh god my bones are dust” and then nothing bad happened to them. The wind was knocked out of me so my crying was breathless and silent, and Jardinero came back and put his nose down by me and looked confused and, to my untrained eye, sad.
After that, I think I was afraid to ride for some time. I spent more time on Jardinero’s fence or in his pen, feeling inadequate for not riding but also grateful that I could at least be around horses. I had a full course load at the University of California, Davis, plus a job, plus a long-distance boyfriend whom everyone expected and hoped I would marry. A lot to think about. A lot of pressure that simply could not follow me onto Diane’s 10 acres.
Diane said to me one day, “Jardinero really likes you.” I said “Really? How can you tell?” and she looked startled. It was so obvious to her, she couldn’t find the words to explain. She said, finally, “he watches you all of the time, and his eyes are soft.” It was the first time I thought about being able to see horse language with my normal senses and not some magical “I don’t know, I just know” extra sense like real horse people had.
I felt good about him and became more confident after that, to the point where I could take him into the arena and let him loose while I sat on mounting block, and he would run around a little bit and then come over and rest by me.
A couple of weeks later — I got out there twice a week — I showed up and he was gone. Diane was home that day and I asked about him. She said, “Oh, he went back to his owners, in Missouri.” I had not known that she didn’t own him and had even fantasized about leasing or buying him outright one day.
After that, I didn’t drive the 16 miles out there for about a month. I regretted that I had always tried to dole out my attention evenly, instead of focusing on him, instead of realizing that the others got more attention from Diane and didn’t need mine. Instead of following my own heart and bonding with the one horse I was not afraid of, the one I actually loved. I had sometimes felt guilty for having a preference and made up for it with extra attention or treats for the others.
My next visit, I rode Nacho bareback. I was whooping “I’m doing it! I’m doing it!” and nobody saw or cared, but Nacho got impatient and I slipped off before something scary could happen. It was the first time I’d ever ridden bareback, and the first time I’d ever swung myself up by mane and momentum. I wished I had been brave enough to try it with Jardinero. I wasn’t sure that any horses I had ever been around had actually liked me. I didn’t know how to tell.
Sometimes I think of him and wonder where he is and what his life has been like. He would be 25 years old now. I hope he has had undemanding time and a special bond with someone who could hear him, see him, feel him clearly and confidently, like I could not back then.
I still have a numb spot on my leg, the diameter of a dime, where Jardinero’s hoof severed my nerve. It has been 21 years since the incident and the numb spot started out about the size of of a silver dollar. I have thought from time to time that I should have gotten a tattoo of a horseshoe on it while I still couldn’t feel it. A tribute to The Horse Who Liked Me.
Gracias, Jardinero. Te amo.