A&E Columns

This must be the place: ‘A horse is a horse, of course, of course’

Maggie is a horse at the Tryon Center.  Garret K. Woodward photo Maggie is a horse at the Tryon Center. Garret K. Woodward photo

The alarm on my smart phone echoed throughout the small cabin. It was 7:30 a.m. Saturday and I had to be somewhere in an hour — hopping onto a saddle for an early morning horse ride. 

While my girlfriend rolled out of bed excited at the chance to go riding, I was slow to emerge from my slumber, more so questioning why I signed up for an 8:30 a.m. ride after a wild Friday night at a music festival.

But, there we were, at the Earl Scruggs Music Festival. Located on the grounds of the Tryon International Equestrian Center, the melodic gathering was this past weekend, our cabin onsite at the center. Rows of cabins surrounded by rows of RVs and primitive camping sites under a hot early September sun.

Park the truck near the General Store at the TIEC. Wait outside with a handful of other folks who were eager to ride. Sign the liability waivers. Hop into the transport van and head out down a dirt road into the isolated woods surrounding the facility. Eventually, we stopped at a small barn with several horses lined up.

It was in that moment when it dawned on me that I had not ridden a horse probably since sometime in high school. At age 38, I started to contemplate my ability in getting on the big animal and being able to control whatever may happen out on the trail.

Soon, my horse was brought over to me. Maggie. A beautiful grey and white quarter-horse. I then pulled myself onto the leather saddle and got reacquainted with the reins and how it’s all pretty much a steering wheel when it comes to directions. That, and to pull the reins back to stop, a slight kick with your shoes into the sides of the horse to get the beast moving again.

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And so the hour-long trail ride began. Six riders and two leaders/wranglers. Within the first few minutes of being in forest, I started to feel comfortable atop Maggie. All of my muscle memory of riding years ago as a kid and teenager immediately came back to me, this long-lost knowledge, balance and steadiness of self.

I also started to have numerous flashbacks of past rides and interactions with horses those many years ago. Excursions with my family on horse rides in the desolation of the Adirondack Mountains and out west in Wyoming and Montana. Horses were beloved in our household. And always will be. Nothing like a soft horse nose to pet, eh? 

To note, I actually had a horse back in the day. Growing up in the rural depths of Upstate New York, horses were seemingly everywhere in the farming communities of my native North Country. It was just part of daily life in those parts.

My childhood home was an 1820 limestone farmhouse on seven acres on the outskirts of Rouses Point. The property was surrounding by endless corn and hay fields. The smell of manure and the sounds of tractors in the distance was common. It didn’t ever bother me, still doesn’t. Those things still happily remind me of home.

Our house also had a large old barn on the back of the horseshoe driveway. And for many years, we had a horse that lived on the far end of the barn. Aside from numerous cats and dogs roaming the property, Branches was a Morgan quarter-horse.

All told, Branches lived to be 37 years old. He was part of our family for 17. I knew him for a decade until his passing in 1995. Before my little sister and I arrived on the scene in the 1980s, my parents rescued Branches. My father was a U.S. Immigration officer on the nearby Canadian Border. In those days, there were horses being smuggled across the boundary illegally.

Well, in the late 1970s, a herd of smuggled horses were abandoned in a field on the border. The smugglers took off. The U.S. Border Patrol folks now had to figure out what to do with the animals. Always known to rescue animals (cats and dogs), my father randomly stepped up and took one of the male horses (Branches) home, the animal now finding refuge for the better part of the next two decades in our old barn.

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, most of my daily chores were to take care of Branches, especially when my father was working long shifts and overtime on the border. Bring the hay from one side of the barn and drop it in the horse stall. Clean out the stall when it got too dirty. Make sure there are carrots in Branches’ meal bucket, etc. 

As a youngster, I hated doing chores. But, I hated my father yelling at me more. So, grab the shovel and start disposing of the manure from the stall. The barn hot and humid in the summer. My nose runny and allegories flaring up from the hay. Flies zooming around and smashing into me from seemingly every direction.

But, all of those down-n-dirty things in the previous paragraph were worth it, especially with the fond, vivid memories that remain cherished and framed on the walls of my mind this many decades later.

I think of those times coming home from school, Branches’ head popping out of the top of the barn door when my mother’s car pulled into the driveway. I think of those evenings when I would be shooting hoops by myself under the barn floodlight, Branches’ watching me out of curiosity and simple fellowship. 

And, mostly, I recall those lazy summer days, where the neighborhood kids and I would be tinkering around in our treehouse way out in the field behind our house, Branches emerging from the back of the barn, soon trotting along the fence line, eventually wandering by our sacred treehouse, the sounds of his hooves and playful snorting.

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.

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1 comment

  • Beautiful story. Thanks for sharing an idyllic slice from your past.

    posted by Mike Walker

    Monday, 09/11/2023

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