When I was 11, a family moved in next door that had riding horses. It was only a matter of time before I was allowed to ride with them on their trail rides, when there was a horse to spare. Not surprisingly, it was something this ol’ farm boy really enjoyed. So, the spring before I turned 14, my dad helped me plow up some extra ground by the garden and plant potatoes, the plan being to use those funds to buy my own horse. Those who’ve raised potatoes know that there’s some hoeing and cultivating needed to get a good crop, so I took as good of care of my crop as I could and that fall, I had sixty bushels of potatoes. I saved back ten bushels for us and managed to sell the other 50 for $3 a bushel, which was a decent price in those days.
I checked around a little and found that horses weren’t selling all that high for grade stock, so my $150 got me a coarse-legged dark bay gelding that stood 15-3* and seemed pretty well trained. The horse-trader even threw in a saddle for that price. I had to borrow $10 off Dad to get a headstall, though. The gelding was seven years old and went by the name of “Dan.” I saw no need to confuse him, so Dan it stayed. He neck-reined well and minded pretty well in general. As it turned out, he was the perfect horse for a rider of moderate skill, for he was just ornery enough to keep me on my toes, but calm enough not to get me hurt. I rode with the neighbors a little more often after that. I also rode a lot alone.
I couldn’t leave him loose in the pasture, because he liked to pester the cattle. So during those times of the year when the cattle were using the barn, I had to keep him in his 14 foot square stall and take him out and exercise him every evening. In mid-winter, that sometimes meant riding him after dark, but that was okay. The farm looked different in the moonlight, and if there was snow falling, my whistling would make an echo in the back meadow. The deer and the night creatures didn’t spook so easily at a horse with a big lump on its back as they did with me walking the area. During the summer, the cattle would be put in the main pasture and Dan had the run of a one acre paddock by the barn. Still, I had to check his water every day, if the rain barrel got down a little and he got a can of corn and oats chop morning and evening.
I put a lot of miles on that horse over the next seven years and he was a true blue friend. He’d go anywhere that I pointed him, so I had to be careful. One day, he would have gladly climbed over a Volkswagen when a smart-alec kid was trying to be funny. I remember sitting atop him at the brink of a cliff once also, realizing that I didn’t dare make a move that he’d interpret as “forward,” or we both would be airborne. More than once, he tried too hard to plow through greenbriers where I shouldn’t have taken him and he got entangled. At those times, I had to climb off and cut him free with the penknife in my pocket. Such experiences taught me to be a little more considerate of my faithful steed.
I rode him a little less when I started dating my future wife and things began looking a little bit serious. I was 21 at the time and didn’t think it was responsible to let him grow old and die in my care and me be out the money. As a result, I spoke to a local horse-trader and he agreed to trade even for a little 14-2, two-year-old dark bay stallion he had that was untrained in every way. I figured ol’ Dan would make a good horse for some teenage girl and the trader would be able to find him a good home. I also figured that I’d ridden horses long enough that I could train the young horse with no problem. The trader didn’t show up until after dark, and as I led Dan from the barn to his trailer, it hit me that I was parting with a loyal friend. Tears rolled down my cheeks in the darkness and it was tempting to call it off, but that didn’t seem fair to the trader, considering that he’d loaded up a horse and brought it to, my home. My guts were in a real twist as the trailer went over the hill with my old friend in it.
It should have told me something that the guy was willing to trade even. He apparently thought he could sell Dan easily, I reasoned. It wasn’t until afterwards that I remembered hearing that the Japanese were paying big money for horse meat. I imagine the trader at least made an effort to sell ol’ Dan, but I doubt if he tried very hard. The fact that I’d probably sold my old friend for slaughter has tormented me ever since. The girl I was dating only stayed with me for five years of marriage, so I would have had more years of friendship remaining with ol’ Dan than I did her. If I’d known that at the time, I’d have kept the horse and dumped the girl. Oh well, hindsight’s 20-20, they say.
I still think of ol’ Dan sometimes. When I do, it’s always with a mixture of pleasure and sadness…….and still a little shame. © 2017