Monday, April 23, 2012

Brewster Blazes the Trail

I was sixteen in 1978, still using a crutch to walk. I'd been riding my fractious mare Flicka since I'd climbed out of my wheel chair the year before. Flicka had been out to pasture the months I was sick; now she was spoiled. I'd climb onto her bare back from one of the New England stone walls near the barn and cling to her mane, but I was afraid to really push her. She pinned her ears and snapped at my leg when I tried to ride her down the trail. As my leg grew stronger I could use my saddle and put weight on my foot in the stirrup. Now I wanted the horse shows and trail rides I'd had with Flicka before the bone disease attacked my leg. I wanted to ride in the Lexington Patriot's Day parade and the Middlesex County 4H fair. Flicka had been the horse I was going to do these things with, and much more. I was supposed to own her forever. But at sixteen, I knew I needed a steadier horse if I wanted to be a rider.

I steeled myself. I sold my dream, my spirited frosty mare. And I bought a little gelding I named Brewster.

His papers said he was twelve years old. He had a fancy name too long for a funny silver-gray horse with a mane like a donkey's and an excess of spots. He wasn't particularly schooled but I liked his hardheadedness. He fit my criteria: a user-friendly mount that could handle suburban traffic, gallops on trails by the highway and jumping rock walls in the woods. He was no plug; one time he reared and cracked me in the face with his head and I chipped a tooth. But usually he was mellow enough for pony rides at local fundraisers, and he was sound, sturdy and solid.

The next summer we launched into local horse shows. Determined and nervous, I was self-conscious about being that girl with the limp. But mounted, my limp didn't show. I'd abandoned my last crutch on my seventeenth birthday and wrestled down the despair that still dogged me. I rode Brewster every single day that year. An energetic 4H leader named Ginnie volunteered to coach me. She was young and fresh out of 4H herself, part drill sergeant, part big sister. Ginnie trucked Brewster to empty show rings so I could practice; she directed me to ride the small circles she claimed were the key to success, and incorporated telephone poles on the ground for us to jump.

She was benevolent enough to not be disappointed with my performance in the show ring. The county had a dozen 4H clubs and competition was fierce in classes of two or three dozen entries. Brewster was a tad lazy inside a ring; he'd rather trot down a long shady road. We only snagged the occasional ribbon that summer. I was just thrilled to be part of the scene, one of the riders again.

The county fair in August was a 3-day affair with a crowded schedule and a hundred horses stabled or camped out on the grounds. Ginnie and I slept in her van with Brewster in a makeshift stall between the pines overlooking the rings. Brewster and I only managed a single sixth-place rosette for the whole show. Our neighbors in the pines were a club of rich girls whining and complaining about their flashy thoroughbreds. They ignored me and my humble pony; we were no threat whatsoever. Ginnie was still a fierce enough 4H competitor to growl about spoiled girls, expensive tack and horses that impressed the judges. I  turned my back on the girls' shrieks and laughter to hug Brewster's neck. He was perfect. He even had an E made of spots on his rump, like a backwards 3, exactly the way I signed my name Elisabeth. He was monogrammed.

Ginnie called me later that fall when the show season was ending. "There's a twenty-mile competitive trail ride this weekend."

"OK," I said uncertainly. "Do you think Brewster's fit enough for twenty miles?"

"Of course he is. You'll probably win."

It seemed unlikely. But some friends and I had just captured an armload of trophies and ribbons at a gymkhana (games on horseback). I was feeling more confident. I signed myself up, got directions and found someone to trailer us since Ginnie was busy.

Lo and behold, when I saddled Brewster for the start, there were all those pesky squealing  girls on thoroughbreds; their 4H club was running the ride. And here were Brewster and I, looking shaggy in the crisp October day, not slick like show horses. But this time, the advantage was decidedly on rugged.

We rode several hours in the morning and a bit more after a lunch break. Brewster stayed fresh at the trot. I loosened his girth when we walked so his sweaty chest would dry. He splashed through the streams and chugged up and down hill. The judges monitored heartbeats and breathing rates at the checkpoints but it wasn't strenuous. It was a blast. And Brewster and I aced it. When the ribbons were handed out at the end of the day, we were first in horsemanship, second in overall condition. I wished Ginnie had been there. The thoroughbred girls peered down, probably wondering where they'd seen us before.

Brewster gave me back my riding confidence after Flicka. He was one reason I went to England the next year to become an instructor. He turns up in my dreams sometimes. And I think about him every April, especially on the twenty-third, the birthday Shakespeare shared with a sweet spotted horse registered as Scott's Gallant Lad. 

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