In Horse Opera, I told how a silver dun (also called grulla) mare helped protect and nurture a colt born this spring to another mare in my neighbor’s small herd. As I witnessed the social dynamics of the herd shift with the colt’s arrival, the grulla emerged to my awareness as an intelligent, loyal, and brave soul, frequently placing herself between the foal and his aggressive yellow dun father, at times driving the stallion out of the herd to stop his bullying the mare-foal pair. The grulla helped raise the baby, forming such a close bond with him that my youngest daughter took to calling her €œNanny Horse. €
Earlier in the spring, I began walking on our back porch for three hour-long stretches every day, pushing my special needs child back and forth in her wheelchair along the porch’s forty-foot long, second story vantage point for her pleasure €”one of the few she has. The herd’s pasture bounds our property on three sides, so this year I’ve been privy to more equine social dynamics than I’ve ever witnessed. Watching a herd with a stallion in it has been especially interesting. But of the herd’s five members, Nanny Horse has shown herself to be by far the most alert and responsive of the bunch.
Like many girls, I grew up wanting a horse and fancied the standard chestnut coloration €”that bright red coat sparking with copper or golden highlights. I liked big, leggy chestnuts of long, graceful bodyline. I remember riding in the family station wagon, in my usual place in the middle seat next to the right-side window, scanning the rural Virginia pastures streaming past for glimpses of such an animal. I fantasized about finding €œThe Horse € and shouting to my parents, €œStop! That one €”that’s the one I want! €
But alas, in spite of the fact five wonderful acres surrounded our house, half an acre of which was planted in Kentucky bluegrass so luscious horse-owner neighbors asked to graze their animals on it, my chestnut dreams never came true. My parents weren’t inclined to take on domesticated animals beyond cats and the occasional dog. Who could blame them? They had six kids, with me channeling a constant stream of turtles, snakes, lizards, field mice, praying mantises and other creatures into the household. It was always fun, however, waking up to discover neighbors’ escaped horses running free on our acreage, kicking up their heels, grazing contentedly on the yard grasses, and otherwise making themselves at home.
Moving into rural San Juan County and its horse culture sort-of kind-of aroused again my desire for the companionship of a horse. Watching Nanny Horse demonstrate her at times surprising levels of social consciousness and foresight, seeing her smarts twinkle in a dozen ways every day, I found myself thinking, €œIf I were to buy a horse, it would be that horse. €
When the foal reached about a month old, the stallion began copulating with the mother. Usually, he initiated his mating ritual with a throaty, emphatic call that bordered at times on a roar. Then he’d trot a tight circle around the mare, neck arched, leaning in toward her, seeming to weave a circle of influence to bring her to a standstill. She’d come to a halt, or if grazing, lift her head and devote attention. Assured of her receptivity, he consummated their mutual interest. Often, I observed Nanny Horse watching the proceedings from a distance, but she made no move to interfere or present herself for breeding, nor did I witness the stallion direct any of his sexual posturing toward her. For whatever reason, he preferred the foal’s long-torsoed, short-legged mother, her body form vaguely reminiscent of a dachshund’s.
I don’t know enough about horses to understand what the stallion’s lack of interest in Nanny Horse means, or, for that matter, what her seemingly deliberately maintained sexual distance from him might imply. The grulla did disappear suddenly and mysteriously for a couple of months, and I wondered if her owners had either sold her or pastured her elsewhere for reasons related to breeding. The evening that she was returned to the herd our household erupted in excitement. €œNanny Horse is back! € my daughter announced happily. We went out to see. The silver dun assumed her position in the little herd with her usual aplomb. After a day, it was as if she’d never left.
A little over two weeks ago, setting out for the canyon, I walked out our back door. I noticed the herd in one of the pastures nearest my neighbors’ house but didn’t pay attention. Walking around the house’s west side, I was surprised to find Nanny Horse in the pasture bounding that portion of our yard, well away from the herd wherein she has maintained her social role conscientiously. She stood broadside to the barbed wire fence line running parallel to the street. Next to her, outside the fence, as near to Nanny Horse as he could get through the barbed wire barrier, stood a rangy chestnut stallion.
It took me a moment to recognize this animal as being from the corral down the road. I don’t see him often, but a few years back he broke loose with two or three other horses. He trotted up and down the road past our house, bugling his challenges and displaying unabashed interest in the palomino mare pastured alone across the street. He bickered with the big buckskin that was head of the herd our neighbors kept at that time. They snapped and boxed through the fence. I walked the other loose horses back to their corral, to which they readily returned. But the stallion liked his freedom. He had things to do and he meant to do them. Concerned that someone might be injured €”including motorists driving too fast around the bend €”I told my neighbors their stallion was raising a ruckus in the neighborhood. Immediately, they set out to drive him home €”a challenging job.
Now here he was again. In unison, he and Nanny Horse bent their necks around and looked at me. It was a stunning sight €”the tall, sharp red chestnut and the graceful silver dun €”but their steadfast gazes, fixed on me, drew my attention more directly. They gave an impression not only that I was intruding but also that they thought me a threat to their tÃªte-Ã -tÃªte. As I walked toward our gate, I wondered what the stallion would do. The nearer I moved to the road, the more agitated he became €˜til he drifted away into an open pasture. Nanny Horse stood watching his retreat anxiously, attention fixed upon him. I closed our gate to prevent his trampling our garden in search of easier access to Nanny Horse. For a moment or two I wondered if I ought to alert my neighbors that their stallion was loose again. I glanced at Nanny Horse. It didn’t take a horse whisperer to interpret her look: She wanted to follow the stallion. I decided against saying a word to anyone. Feeling unhappy about disrupting their tryst, I went on my way.
When I returned home, the truck the stallion’s owner drives sat in front of the pasture where the horse had slunk away from me. The horse was nowhere in sight. But Nanny Horse remained in the paddock where she had encountered the chestnut, looking down the road toward his corral, calling, calling.
For the next three days, the grulla remained in an agitated state, spending more time apart from the herd than with it. She paced the fence line where she had met the chestnut, returning again and again to the spot where I had found them standing together. She looked down the road toward his corral, neighing. Or she separated herself from the herd in other ways, standing alone in one pasture or the other, making herself available.
Watching her part from the herd to open her prospects for joining with another reminded me of when I was fifteen, living on those five acres in Virginia. I used to play basketball €”often H-O-R-S-E €”or baseball, softball, or football, mostly €œcatch € games €” €œ500 € or variations €”with the neighborhood boys, who ranged in age from slightly younger than I was to slightly older. Up €˜til I turned thirteen, I was able to outrun and out-wrestle them. Even when they began surpassing me in strength and skill at sports, they let me in among them, a years-long history of companionship granting me sister status in a rough-and-tumble brotherhood. There might have been little jolts of intrigue here or there, but mostly €”really, it’s true €”we were all just pals.
Except for one boy, Carl, a year older than I. He was a back-of-the-bus boy, a troublemaker, with hell-if-I-care eyes and a dangerous mouth, when he felt like opening it. To break up the back-of-the-bus boys, the bus driver assigned seats, placing Carl next to me. We said not a word but built between us a thick barricade of schoolbooks and their discourses. I remember wondering if he ever cracked his books open. Eventually, Carl drifted back to the bus’s emergency door. Relieved to have the seat to myself, I stayed where I’d been put. I had as little to do with Carl as possible €˜til he started showing up at my friend’s backyard basketball court.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. What began as antagonism became a classic good-girl-bad-boy story. My parents weren’t paying attention €”in this case, a stroke of luck. When we were all together €”me, Carl, Genie, sometimes Mike and Steve, sometimes my brother Paul €”Carl treated me roughly. I stood up to it, refusing to let him to drive me away, especially when the game was being played on my backyard court.
For a while, that’s how it went €”Carl roughing me up, trying to get me to go away, me hanging tough. Then the routine began to shift, moving off-court and off-diamond, onto the thick Kentucky bluegrass. As daylight darkened, the other kids’ parents sent younger siblings or called the boys home by other means. Carl, who never seemed to have to answer anybody’s summons, stayed behind with me. The court cleared, night fell, Carl’s touch softened. We began horsing around in the cool bluegrass, choreographing as we went along a very private, deeply entwining dance spun of good-girl-bad-boy tensions.
Soon, my interest in playing basketball rested on whether or not Carl showed up to join the game. I started separating myself from the boys, from my family €”choosing times to hit the court when I knew the others were unlikely to come, usually after dark when only Carl was free to play. His house stood two fields away from mine, but I knew that the twang of the basketball hitting the hardened dirt court surface carried across the distance. Or sometimes, I’d skip the bouncing basketball call and do something cute, like blow bubbles with homemade €œbubblestuff € beneath the streetlight that stood in front of our house. Watching the bubbles drift through the light and fade into the night sporting baubles of streetlight glare intrigued me. But more satisfying €”the sight of Carl’s lean form materializing out of the darkness in answer to my bubble-invitation, often carrying a basketball we weren’t going to use. Much.
Watching Nanny Horse return to the point of last contact over and over during those three days raised in me these strong memories. As I rolled my daughter’s wheelchair up and down on the porch, I recalled palpably how it felt to step into that irresistible influence clouding the edges of who I was, sweeping me away from familiar relationships into unknown depths of first love. I thought about how if these were wild horses, or even if they weren’t wild but had no fences drawing the lines, the drama would have been more intense. Maybe the yellow dun would have driven Nanny Horse back to the herd or met the chestnut’s challenges to his sovereignty directly. Maybe Nanny Horse would have looked for opportunities to get away, sneaking off her home range under cover of night. But €”at least this time €”a few strands of barbed wire and post-wire or metal gates did three-quarters of the yellow dun’s work for him. After those three days of fruitless searching and calling, the gulla gave up, rejoining the herd without prompting, turning her mind again to the business of finding a few blades of green sprouting from overgrazed ground, clipping them off with her teeth.
A real biting, kicking, screaming fight between stallions would have been an event. As it was, what happened between Nanny Horse and the chestnut stud registered barely a blip on the neighborhood’s screen. They’re horses €”just horses. They’re everywhere. They get loose. Their owners recapture them. Often, they go back to the pasture or corral without much of a protest. When somebody wants to ride a horse, they entice it, sometimes with something as obvious as a nice mix of oats. Folks breed their horses as they wish or according to some strategy that they have in mind, maybe a strategy they’ve used for decades, perhaps refining things a bit here or there as more information on genetics emerges and somebody reads an article. It doesn’t matter to the horses. After all, no stallion bears the slightest interest in whom his daughter marries. And no filly or mare is picky about with whom she chooses to horse around.