`OH look, Daddy -- the horsies.''
Whenever my five-year-old son, Tony, and I drove past the riding stable on the outskirts of town, his eyes would light up and he would point a stubby finger toward the horses. And each time he would turn his bright little face to me for confirmation. The look in his eyes was pure ecstacy.
But it was my opinion that he was still much too young to ride the ''real'' horses. It was much safer for him to ride the merry-go-round. And so we would eventually end up in an amusement park where Tony could soon lose himself in an imaginary game of cowboys and Indians with the other children riding the carousel.
Looking back on it, I guess I was just being a typical father trying to protect a very small boy from overextending himself. I think I did practically everything to distract him from riding the ''real'' horses.
''Look, Honey,'' I pointed toward the lake we were passing. ''See the ducks and the swans. Do you want to feed them?''
He nodded eagerly. My distraction worked over and over. We fed the swans in the park. We rode the tiny toy train around and around. We did all the things a father and son can do together. We did everything but ride the horses.
It just seemed out of the question to allow such a little boy to ride such a big horse. But each time we rode past the riding stable, Tony's interest grew stronger. And it seemed to me that we were passing the stable more frequently than usual. Tony had no concept of what I felt was the danger of riding a horse. That was why it was easy for me to work so hard to distract him and discourage him.
LATER, when I thought his interest in the horses had waned, we happened to drive by the stables again. Tony became so excited that I thought it might help calm him down if we just took a close-up look at the horses. We parked the car, and Tony tucked his tiny hand into mine as we walked slowly toward the tethered animals. A wrinkled old cowboy looked up from mending a saddle.
''Want to ride today?'' He jerked his head toward the row of waiting horses.
''No. We're just looking,'' I answered. ''My son loves to watch your horses.''
''Help yourself,'' he shot back, returning his attention to his work.
''Want a closer look at the horsies, Honey?'' I asked Tony. He seemed delighted. As we approached the nearest horse, a large brown animal, Tony tensed up. He pulled back in fear when we neared the horse. I put my free hand on the sleepy old nag's neck.
''Want to pet him, Honey?'' I asked. Tony nodded his head. But he held back.
I lifted him closer to the horse, and he looked captivated as he finally summoned up enough courage to actually rub the old horse's head. His brown eyes sparkled with the delight of a small boy's discovery.
Tony looked deep into my eyes to reassure himself that he was doing a manly thing. I grinned my approval. Sensing a great inner victory, Tony shouted, ''Daddy, I touched the horsy.''
I was proud of him. ''You sure did, Honey.'' I placed him back on the ground.
The old cowboy just sat squatting in the dust working on the saddle as we walked toward him. I didn't know that he had been studying us and listening to our conversation. It was a quiet midweek day and there wasn't much business to keep the wrangler busy.
His voice startled me. ''Want to let the cowboy ride today?'' he asked, pointing at Tony.
''I don't think he's ready for the big horses yet,'' I replied.
''Smaller kids than him ride here, mister,'' he said.
Tony had eyes only for the ''real horsy,'' and he was tugging at my hand, jumping up and down, eyeing the old brown horse he had petted. It seemed that the horse was actually beckoning him to ride.
''Daddy, can I ride the horsy?'' he asked suddenly. And then, sensing that he had ventured into a new and untried area, he looked shyly at me with a mixture of apprehension and excitement. It seemed that he expected me to say no to protect him from his own overeager impulses.
But then he suddenly broke away from me and ran toward the corral. He stood near the fence looking up expectantly at the old horse. His hands were entwined in anxious suspense as he eyed the towering animal. The old cowboy noticed Tony's rapture.
With Tony out of earshot, the old cowboy threw his bombshell at me.
''Say mister,'' he offered apologetically. ''It's none of my business -- but don't you think that kid's too old to be called Honey?''
His directness stunned me. My first impulse was to grab my son and get out of there. But something held me back. I guess I recognized the truth in what the cowboy was saying. That must have been when I decided to prove that Tony and I had a real man-to-man relationship.
''How much do you charge?''
The old man gave a wide appreciative grin. ''We don't charge for first-time kids his age. He won't ride that much this time anyhow. Just give him a few minutes in the saddle this first time. But for goodness sakes, don't call him Honey.''
I started to call my son ''Ho....'' but I checked myself. And then I called, ''Tony, want to ride a real horse?''
Tony jumped up and down like an animated jumping jack.
''Can I ride that horsy over there?'' He pointed to the old horse he had been petting.
It seemed to be ''his'' horse now. The old cowboy nodded and grinned.
''Susie was made for small kids. Gentle as she can be, she is. That little feller won't even take her up. You can lead her around the yard yourself.''
WITH that the cowboy picked Tony up and placed him in the saddle. ''Tony,'' the wrangler said, ''you hold on good and tight to this here.'' He placed Tony's small hands on the saddle horn. He handed me the reins and walked away without looking back.
Slowly and nervously I led the ancient horse in a small circle around the yard. Tony didn't even notice. He was in another world. He was a real cowboy.
This was something he was doing for himself. I led the old nag in an ever-widening circle until Tony seemed at home in the saddle.
Soon Tony began to rub his eyes. The experience had overwhelmed him. The cowboy looked up from his work and nodded his head in silent understanding. He walked over to Susie and lifted Tony from the saddle.
''OK cowboy, let's go,'' he said as he placed Tony gently on the ground.
Tony was tired and happy. Perhaps I was happier. I reached for my wallet to pay the cowboy something.
''He didn't ride long enough to cost nuthin','' said the wrangler. ''Besides, you paid me plenty just treatin' him like a man.''