For seven years Ana, my Belgium-Quarter Horse-cross, and I explored the fields, woods, and country roads around our home. Her great chestnut-white spotted body was familiar to neighbors up and down the area.
One day her usually calm demeanor seriously unraveled. During that afternoon trot down our gravel road, locally known as Tilly Willy Road, we were both surprised by a life-sized fiberglass replica of a horse, head up, standing square with ears pricked. The fellow that owned the little clapboard house had placed that statue at the edge of his yard near the public road. Ana slammed to a stop. She stood trembling at this interloper, snorted several gunshots, and whirled to race home. Unless you have ridden a powerhouse horse intent on going back to the barn, you can only imagine the centrifugal force and terror involved in such a feat. Like Lee Marvin leaving town on his grey horse in the movie Cat Ballou, I hung on desperately. Marvin had more form than I had, but my screams and “whoa horse” certainly rivaled his.
To my credit and Ana’s everlasting usually gentle nature, I managed to curb the headlong flight from the monster a quarter mile down the road. Keep in mind, horses think and engage the world much like autistic children. They take great interest in the details, the minutiae of their world, and are routine-dependent. When something unusual happens, they exhibit everything from mild curiosity to great distress.
I circled Ana back down the road and tried again to pass the creepy presence. She would have none of it and flatly refused. After several more attempts, and, with a nod to the adage ‘discretion is the better part of valor,’ I cut the ride short.
For four consecutive days, I tried to ride Ana closer to the fiberglass beast, and to her credit, each time we managed to creep a few feet closer to the interloper.
Thankfully, Ana loved (really LOVED) food, her fatal flaw. On my fifth attempt, with a sliced apple in my pocket, I cajoled and sweet-talked her closer, petting and soothing her with treats. Broken bones, sore muscles, and skinned body parts hung in the balance as I leaned slightly down from the saddle pommel and offered her a slice. Then, gently, patiently, I requested a few steps, gave a treat, requested a few steps, and then another treat until we were mere yards of the statue.
At that point, she trotted past the monster, stopped when out of danger and turned her huge head around, nudged my stirrup, and demanded a treat. I could almost see her grin.
Thereafter, when cajoled, Ana trotted past the statue, stopping at her chosen spot clear of any danger, and waited for her treat. With time, Ana included the immobile thing in her world without a treat. After all, the equine monster never changed position.
Months later, when the neighbor moved, taking his stature with him, Ana snorted and minced carefully pass the spot where her nemesis once stood. For weeks afterward, she would execute a dressage dream side-pass down that section of the road, ears pricked in case the critter had snuck back.
From her broad back, she and I lead an old mare needing exercise but no longer able to tolerate weight-bearing rides. Together we ponied a young filly recovering from a shoulder injury and later a high-strung gelding learning the ropes. Her workman-like behavior and her interest in always being included never wavered.
Ana, with her coarse head and knight’s charger profile, served as model for Lady Spot in my short story “A Pound of Flesh” in the book If the Creek Don’t Rise. Lady Spot works track horses and is favored for her ability to tolerate the more unruly ones. Most of her life is spent on shed row, working behind the scenes as a necessary tool. When her owner Jim realizes she is getting too old and worn to continue working, he considers selling her to the hackers. Several of the track staff object but Jim needs the money to buy another pony-horse.
The story offers a loving, accurate tribute to an honest, gentle mare. Ana and Lady Spot handle their work lives as they lived, with honesty. I’m honored to have known both horses.