Lily’s Song

I first saw her in a pho­to­graph post­ed on a web­site about hors­es for sale in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. I had bought a lit­tle sor­rel mare, Marge, and I was in the mar­ket for a sta­ble­mate when my train­er and good friend, Janet, saw an adver­tise­ment on the inter­net and sent me the link.

“Gray Azteca mare. 8 years old. Ranch/trail horse. Sound. Takes her leads. Good with chil­dren. Loca­tion: Lan­cast­er.” In the pho­to­graph, she stared at the cam­era with big, soul­ful eyes, her ears pricked for­ward, a dark gray fore­lock falling over her face. 

Janet arranged a meet­ing with the sell­er. Lan­cast­er, pop­u­la­tion 170,000, sits sev­en­ty miles north of Los Ange­les at the hub of the Ante­lope Val­ley in the Cal­i­for­nia High Desert. On a hot dry Sun­day after­noon, I pulled off a paved street into a res­i­den­tial neigh­bor­hood with sandy dirt roads and small Span­ish-style hous­es on wind-blown, dusty lots. 

I parked in front of a pale yel­low, tile-roofed home. A short guy in his late thir­ties wear­ing a cow­boy hat, jeans, and boots, stood on the front stoop. We talked while we wait­ed for Janet. His name was Miguel. He worked as a lead­man on an assem­bly line in one of the aero­space fac­to­ries that form the back­bone of Lancaster’s econ­o­my. He bought the horse from a friend when she was two years old. He didn’t have time to work with her any­more because he was busy coach­ing his sons’ Lit­tle League teams. He seemed like a nice guy, a good father try­ing to raise his kids right.

When Janet got there, we walked around behind the house. A sad­dled and bri­dled gray horse stood under a big shady ash tree next to a cor­ral. A chain hooked to her hal­ter and tied to a branch high above her head was pulled taut, forc­ing her to hold her head tilt­ed upward. Her big eyes watched us as we approached. The look in her eyes and the ten­sion in her stance made me uneasy. 

Miguel unhooked the chain and led the horse to the cor­ral. When he placed his foot in the stir­rup, she crow-hopped and pulled away. The nice guy I’d met on the front stoop dis­ap­peared to be replaced by a harsh tyrant, indif­fer­ent to the feel­ings of the horse. He yanked her reins bru­tal­ly and man­han­dled her to a stand­still to climb in the sad­dle. In the cor­ral, he forced her through short chop­py zig-zag pat­terns, jerk­ing her head rough­ly back and forth.

“You don’t need to do that!” Janet shout­ed. “We’re only look­ing for a trail horse.”

Pay­ing no heed to her, Miguel spurred the horse into a top-speed gal­lop to the corral’s far end, pulled back on her reins so sav­age­ly she sat down on her haunch­es and slid over the sand to come to a stop, then whipped her around, sprint­ed her back toward us, and vicious­ly mus­cled her into anoth­er sit-down stop, almost rip­ping her head off in the process.

It was hard to watch.

“You shouldn’t buy this horse,” Janet said to me while Miguel was still out of earshot. “He’s ruined her. She won’t be a safe ride.”

When Miguel dis­mount­ed and walked over to us, the nice guy returned. “So, what do you think?” he said, smil­ing amiably.

The split per­son­al­i­ty con­fused me at the time, but since then, I’ve met many horse­men like Miguel, nice peo­ple in most aspects of their lives, but with a blind spot about hors­es. They treat them like inan­i­mate tools with no thoughts, feel­ings, or emo­tions, like a trac­tor or some oth­er type of farm machin­ery. They expect hors­es to fol­low the dic­tates of their will with­out the slight­est devi­a­tion. When a horse resists, they beat her into sub­mis­sion, and when she can no longer per­form, they don’t hes­i­tate to put her down.

Miguel was such a per­son. I looked at the horse stand­ing behind him, her head down, trem­bling, blow­ing hard. I felt bad for her. “I’d like you to test ride her,” I said to Janet.

Janet gave me a dou­ble-take, but she did as I asked, and after­ward, when she inspect­ed the horse for sound­ness, she found that Miguel had bri­dled her with a spade bit. A spade bit has a wide flat plate that goes over the horse’s tongue and pro­trudes way up inside its mouth. A skilled rid­er can use it for max­i­mum con­trol with­out inflict­ing pain, but in Miguel’s hands it was an instru­ment of torture.

Janet explod­ed and bawled Miguel out. I thought he’d get mad, but his blind spot about hors­es left him puz­zled, rather than offend­ed. He shrugged off her anger and turned to me. “So how about it? Do you want to buy the horse?”

Janet took me aside. She feels even more strong­ly about hors­es than I do, but her job is to pro­tect me and my inter­ests. “He’s abused this horse,” she said. “She may have old injuries we can’t see that didn’t heal prop­er­ly, and she’s so fear­ful she won’t be a safe ride for you or your grandchildren.”

I looked over at the horse. Her soul­ful eyes stared back at me. Some­thing stirred inside my chest. I agreed with Janet’s assess­ment, but I couldn’t leave her there. “I’d pay dou­ble the ask­ing price,” I said, “just to get her away from this guy.”

I bought her. 

We named her Lily.

Janet was right about old injuries. There are deep scars on her legs. She favors her left shoul­der and walks with an incon­sis­tent gait. Janet thinks Miguel showed her in a char­rea­da, or Mex­i­can Rodeo. It’s com­prised of nine events, includ­ing the man­ganas, or horse trip­ping, where a rid­er on horse­back chas­es a horse around an are­na, las­soes her legs, and makes her trip and fall. 

Lily’s psy­cho­log­i­cal scars run deep, too. When she arrived in Hid­den Hills, she was afraid of me. She shrank from my raised hand and wouldn’t let me touch her. I kept try­ing, and after a few days, she calmed down enough to let me stroke her neck and rub her back.

On one of my vis­its with her, I found a small hard knot low on her shoul­der and anoth­er one high­er up. The vet found more of them under her tail. “She has melanoma,” he said. Melanoma tumors are com­mon among gray hors­es, he told me. Many of them live nor­mal lives with­out adverse effects, but the tumors can some­times be fatal, spread­ing to vital organs, swelling up, and burst­ing open. “There’s no cure,” he said, “but there’s a vac­cine that can slow the tumors’ growth. It’s expen­sive, and it often doesn’t work. Most peo­ple just ignore the con­di­tion and hope the horse out­lives it.”

We start­ed Lily on the vac­cine and sched­uled her for injec­tions every six months. 

Mean­while, Janet trained Lily in Hid­den Hills’ are­nas and on its trails to ease her fears and smooth out her skit­tish­ness. Six months passed before she gave me the green light to climb on Lily’s back, and even then, we had to be ponied off a calm, steady geld­ing for three more months before I could ride her independently.

After all the train­ing, she still gave me some good scares on solo rides. She calmed down over time and I feel safe now when I ride her, but I know fear was burned into her soul with a hot brand­ing iron leav­ing a scar that can’t ever heal entire­ly. So, I ride her with vig­i­lance and care, and I’ll nev­er put my grand­chil­dren on her back. 

Lily’s four­teen now. She’s been with me for six years. The vac­cine seems to have helped. Her tumors have grown, but not much, and they haven’t affect­ed her over­all health. Psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly, she’s much bet­ter. She accepts affec­tion and gives it in return. 

I love my hors­es and a lot of hors­es that aren’t mine. They all tug at my heart, but some­times Lily tugs a lit­tle hard­er. She still star­tles when I approach her too quick­ly or raise my hand too sud­den­ly. In those moments, she looks at me the way she did that first time I saw her tied to the tree in Miguel’s back­yard, and I know she still remem­bers Miguel, the char­rea­da, and the magnanas.

I wish I could purge the night­mares of Lily’s past from her mind, but I can not. All I can do is keep her safe. And when I see that fear­ful look in her eyes, I stay longer with her and touch her more gen­tly and try hard­er to make her feel what’s in my heart.