For the Love of Horses

Wil­son and Me

We were horse­back rid­ing on a shady trail. Janet, my train­er, rode her horse and ponied Mar­garine, a lit­tle sor­rel mare. I fol­lowed, rid­ing Wil­son, a tall bay geld­ing. A half-mile into the ride, Wil­son and I moved up close to Marge. He tensed up and began toss­ing his head, then sud­den­ly crow-hopped and reared. I leaned for­ward and held on. He came down, reared again, and came down again.

“Get off of him,” Janet said in a calm voice.

In the emer­gency dis­mount tech­nique, you free your boots from the stir­rups, lean for­ward, swing your right leg over the horse’s hindquar­ters, and push away to land on your feet, but I wasn’t con­fi­dent my knees could with­stand a hard, awk­ward fall. So I stayed put.

After pranc­ing around ner­vous­ly for a while, Wil­son set­tled in one place for a split sec­ond, and I was able to dis­mount in the nor­mal way. Cri­sis averted.


Although we didn’t know it when we left the barn, Marge was in sea­son (at the point in her estrus cycle when she was ready to mate). Sur­pris­ing­ly, one-third of all ful­ly cas­trat­ed geld­ings can still become aroused. When Wil­son came with­in range of Marge’s sexy vibes, we found out he was one of them.

I was for­tu­nate to be rid­ing Wil­son when this hap­pened. A gen­tle giant, he didn’t try to buck me off, and when he reared, he only went up about halfway, but it was still a dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion for some­one like me, a begin­ning rid­er in his sev­en­ties with tita­ni­um knees. If my knee sur­geon had found out about it, he would have filed com­mit­ment proceedings.

Two years ear­li­er he’d warned me that my deci­sion to become a horse­man posed an unrea­son­able risk of seri­ous injury to a man my age in my con­di­tion. “Don’t do it,” he said. “Keep your feet on the ground.”

His advice was rea­son­able giv­en my his­to­ry. I’d enjoyed good health most of my life, but as I neared the end of my sev­enth decade, my body seemed to be wear­ing out. I’d come through five surg­eries to repair or replace fail­ing body parts, and arthri­tis had eat­en away all the car­ti­lage in my knees. Bent over and list­ing to one side, I could only walk fifty yards before the pain broke me down. I felt old. Real­ly old.

Paris, Ken­tucky

At that least oppor­tune moment in my life, when I was star­ing down the gun bar­rel of dou­ble knee replace­ment surgery, a sud­den ambi­tion to ride hors­es came to me out of nowhere and grabbed me by the throat. It made no sense to me, and I didn’t under­stand it.

My only expe­ri­ences with hors­es were min­i­mal and so far back in my past I had for­got­ten about them. There’s a pho­to of my dad steady­ing me in the sad­dle on a paint horse in 1948 when I was fif­teen months old. My moth­er wrote on the back of it, “You fell in love with hors­es on this vis­it to Paris, Ken­tucky.” I don’t remem­ber the hors­es or the trip.

Pony Ride

There’s a lat­er pho­to of me at a pony ride. I was four years old the day Dad pulled our Hud­son off Route 60 into a dirt lot beside a field of tall grass where an old man lift­ed me onto the back of a tired pony and led us around a well-worn quar­ter-mile loop. Mom’s cap­tion on that pho­to says, “You had to ride this pony every time we went near Rich­mond.” I rode that pony four times, all told.

In my teen years, we moved to White Hall, Vir­ginia, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Moun­tains, big-time horse coun­try, hunters and show jumpers. While we lived there, I nev­er rode and had almost no con­tact with hors­es, but a vivid mem­o­ry of a par­tic­u­lar horse and rid­er from those years stayed with me.

I worked a few week­ends one sum­mer as a handy­man for Pete and Phyl­lis Jones, who owned Small­wood Farm where Phyl­lis trained hors­es and rid­ers. On a hot day I was stand­ing on the roof of the main house replac­ing worn-out tiles when a pick­up truck pulled a horse trail­er into the barn­yard. Pete helped an elder­ly man back a big, high-spir­it­ed, roan stal­lion out of the trail­er. When the stal­lion cleared the ramp, he screamed, bucked, and reared.

“I know you said your wife would train him,” the old man yelled to Pete as he strained to hold on to the wild stallion’s lead rope, “but he’s too much for a woman to handle!”

Small­wood Farm

“She’ll ride him,” Pete said.

“But look at him, Mis­ter Jones! Ain’t no woman alive can ride him! He needs a man’s strong hand!”

“If he can be rode,” Pete said in a steady voice, “she’ll ride him.”

And ride him she did. The next Sat­ur­day, I looked down from the roof to see the big roan prance out of the barn with five-feet-three-inch Phyl­lis Jones in the sad­dle. She guid­ed him on a tight rein through the yard into the pas­ture. He broke into a trot and then a can­ter. About halfway across the field, Phyl­lis urged the roan into a con­trolled gal­lop, mov­ing with his action seam­less­ly, as if she was part of him. It was a vision of spec­tac­u­lar beau­ty, grace, and grandeur.

For a while after that I dreamed about rid­ing, but when I went back to school in the fall, I for­got about it.

Maybe it was those three long-ago mem­o­ries step­ping for­ward out of the dark mist of the past that inspired me to turn to hors­es more than a half-cen­tu­ry lat­er. Maybe it was the lit­tle boy at the pony ride knock­ing on the door of my con­scious­ness. “Hey! Remem­ber me? Remem­ber that time before you had to grow up when we loved horses?”

Or maybe it was the teenag­er on Small­wood Farm call­ing out to me from way back before all the years at UVA, teach­ing, law school, Lath­am and Watkins, and Safe­way piled up on top of his dream and buried it.


Or maybe the past had noth­ing at all to do with it. Maybe it was the unhap­py present, a rebel­lion against my advanc­ing age and all the phys­i­cal prob­lems I’d come through. Maybe it was an attempt to reverse the clock, to rewrite the lat­er chap­ters of my life to replace pain and frus­tra­tion with vibran­cy and vigor.

I don’t know, but what­ev­er my moti­va­tion, I didn’t heed my doctor’s warning.

In my six­ty-ninth win­ter, I broke ground on the con­struc­tion of a horse barn. The fol­low­ing June, the sur­geon replaced my left knee. My sev­en­ti­eth birth­day rolled by in July. In August, I got a new right knee. For the next four months, I worked hard in rehab, focus­ing on leg strength, core devel­op­ment, and balance.


In Jan­u­ary, on a cold crisp morn­ing, I climbed a mount­ing block and threw my leg over the sad­dle while Janet held Marge in place. Sit­ting astride a thou­sand-pound ani­mal, the ground looked hard, unfor­giv­ing, and a long way down. For a few dis­con­cert­ing moments I thought I might be as crazy as my osteopath claimed. Light-head­ed and dizzy, I swal­lowed hard.

“You okay?” Janet said.

I touched Marge’s mane and stroked her neck. The dizzi­ness passed. “I’m okay,” I said.

Janet ponied Marge and me away from her barn, and we rode the trails in Hid­den Hills for an hour. We rode again the next day. And the next.

Grad­u­al­ly, my strength came back and my mood lift­ed. For the first time in years, I felt good. Real­ly good.


I bought Marge from Janet. A month lat­er, we found Lily, a speck­led gray mare. Wil­son, a thor­ough­bred now twen­ty years old, came next. Jack­son, a pedi­greed Amer­i­can Paint quar­ter horse, round­ed out the herd.

I’ve been rid­ing for four years, four to five days a week. I’m not a great rid­er, but I do okay. I go easy, at a walk or a trot, some­times a can­ter. I play it safe, but no horse is bomb-proof. Hors­es think any­thing they don’t under­stand is a preda­tor and they run from it. Large­ly because Janet’s pri­or­i­ty is safe­ty, close calls have been rare for me, the most dan­ger­ous being Wilson’s “Hi Ho Sil­ver” imi­ta­tion. So far, I’ve nev­er been thrown or injured.

But the thrill of rid­ing is not the main rea­son my mind and body healed. It’s the horses.

A poster hangs in the tack room of my barn. Beside an artis­tic ren­der­ing of Secretariat’s pro­file etched in hand­writ­ten script are the words, “God made the horse from the breath of the wind, the beau­ty of the earth, and the soul of an angel.”

The Love of a Horse

This is true.

A horse’s heart is about twen­ty times the size of a human heart. Some peo­ple claim hors­es can feel your heart­beat when you approach them, and they syn­chro­nize the beat of their heart with yours. I’m not sure about that, but this much I know. There’s a benign sym­bio­sis between each of my hors­es and me. When I’m stressed, they calm me down. When I’m trou­bled, they soothe my soul. Always.

I can point to a basis in log­ic and rea­son for all the big deci­sions I’ve made in my long life. Except for this one. This one time I closed my eyes and took a blind step for­ward. And to my great sur­prise, I stum­bled upon a mirac­u­lous gift, the love of horses.