Shining groomed horses, brushed manes flaring, tails streaming behind, rushing along the paths at Gateway Park, topped by smiling children reveling in the sense of flight fueled by the sturdy hoofs of their steeds. Watching them ride I try to imagine their young sensations of freedom and weightlessness. When I was a child I too rode a horse, but not one of lightness and speed like those I see at Gateway.
As the afternoon crept up to chores time on the farm my dad prepared to leave the corn field after a long day sitting on the iron seat of the plow while directing Bay and Lady back and forth across the black earth. The next year after my dad bought his first used Farmall tractor the horses would move to new homes, but on this day at the end of a furrow—and the end of a long day—my dad slid from the seat of the plow, patted a thank-you on each horse’s forehead, and then unhooked the leather leads attached to the plow and tossed them over the buttocks of the horses ready to go to the barnyard.
By that time, after racing along the end row of the field, I had reached my tall dad and the even taller horses. Hanging tight to his hand, we talked about new kittens, the neighbor’s unfriendly dog, and the new experiences I’d be having in a few weeks when I started the second grade in my one-room school down the road a mile or so.
When I stumbled over clods in the newly plowed field my dad said, “I think you could use some help.”
Afraid that he would tell me not to come to meet him in the field again, I said, “I’m really big now.” He smiled.
Dad said, “Whoa,” and Bay and Lady stood still. “I don’t think Lady would mind giving you a lift. Would you like that?”
Of course I would like that. Dad swung me onto Lady’s broad back, so wide that my legs dangled almost straight out to the right and left. “Hang onto the harness or the collar so you don’t fall off,” he advised.
On Lady’s back I was taller than my dad. I looked at the dusty top of his beat-up straw hat, at his sunburned neck, at the sweaty stains around his shirt collar and under his arms. The leather harness that shifted over Lady’s brown body as she moved was damp with her sweat, and as she walked the leather fly fringe hanging around her lower body danced and swayed. I could see the chickens in the orchard; I could see the Martens’ farmstead; I had never before been so free, so wild, and still so safe on Lady with my dad holding her harness.
When we reached the barnyard my dad lifted me off Lady before she and Bay lumbered to the big metal water tank to drink their fill, ignoring the algae-eating goldfish in the tank. Inside the barn, Dad slid the harnesses off the horses and hung them on wooden pegs on the barn wall, carefully smoothing the leather strips to make certain there were no ripples that might irritate the skin of the horses the next day. I poured oats into their feed troughs and patted their velvet noses while they ate, and then they were turned out to pasture for the evening.
After Dad herded the five milk cows, Daisy, Jersey, Molly, Guernsey and the one that never got a name, into their stanchions and washed his hands in the water tank, he brought out the milk pails, and I found the bent-up old cake pan for him to fill with milk for the barn cats.
No galloping horse with a flaring mane, but another glorious day for a child.
Phyllis Henry lives and writes from a hill overlooking Burley Lagoon.
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