When I was twelve years old I bought an appaloosa mare named Flicka for $400. I'd sold my my outgrown little pony Dragon and I had sky-high hopes: trail riding, jumping and showing at the 4H fair. After looking at more reasonable mounts, I tried this rangy, half-broke six-year-old I could barely ride. I fell in love. I'd been devouring horse books since I could read--now I was the heroine in my own story. We bought Flicka.
She was red roan--a mottled chestnut and white appaloosa pattern--and had a star and stripe on her face, and a silver-dollar white spot on the left side of her barrel. She was fifteen hands one inches of power, strength and freedom. I was willing to take on training her because she was the horse I planned to own for the rest of her life. My horse.
Flicka was impossible. She charged at me and my friends in the pasture. She bucked and plunged, bolted and once sat down on a trail ride. She was defensive at feed time, spinning around to bare her teeth at anyone looking over her stall door. Other times she was playful; she'd lean over the door, tip her head sideways and dangle her tonge out her mouth. To gallop her bareback was to catch a ride on the wind. If I fell, I brushed off my jeans, wiped my tears and went to catch her again.
I kept her at the barn down the road from my house on Wood Street in Lexington, Massachusetts. After six months I found a woman to help me. Her advice, a stronger bit, and the ride-the-legs-off'em approach gave me an intense summer of progress. I rode Flicka all over Lexington and Bedford, jumped her, and started a small collection of show ribbons on my curtain rod. We were on our way.
Everything changed that November when I was thirteen. One Saturday I rode Flicka and later biked to a friend's house. We ran in the woods, revelling in the mild day. That night my left knee swelled and grew hot and painful. Two weeks later I was in too much pain to go to school. Within another month my leg was draining pus. I couldn't get out of bed. I didn't put my hands on Flicka for eighteen months.
When I did, I was almost fifteen and a half. It was spring 1977. I'd missed most of eighth and ninth grades. I'd lost track of my friends. I'd glimpsed Flicka on the occasions when my mother led her down the road to our house so I could see her out the window when I couldn't get out of bed. Now I swayed on crutches, shaken from the half-mile car ride, my first in a year and a half. I wobbled, balancing carefully to keep all weight off my wrecked left leg. I hooked my hands onto the woven wire pasture fence and called. Flicka stared at me. She saw me. She knew me. She walked to the fence and nuzzled my fingers.
It was never the same. A few months later I rode her although I didn't walk without crutches for another year. But Flicka was sour and spoiled. She'd been fed and watered, had her stall cleaned and her feet trimmed, but without the dialogue of riding and discipline with me, her human, she'd grown irritable and skeptical. She'd become as alien and frightening as my own body. I tried to find the way back to the relationship I'd had with my horse but after a year I gave up. I could get on Flicka as a passenger, or I could sell her and buy a quieter horse that could help me find my confidence. I could be Flicka's owner or I could be a rider. But not both. I sold her in the fall of 1978 when I was sixteen.
I did find my riding seat and confidence on other horses, so much that at eighteen I went to England to be certified as a riding instructor. Back in the USA, I trained freelance and exercised racehorses. But I was conscious that when I coached someone trying to ride a snotty mare down a trail it was a form of time travel for me. I was still training Flicka so our story would have a happy ending.
To this day I have a weakness for red roan appaloosa mares. I've owned a few. As I write this, two are standing fifty feet from me. It all started with Flicka.