BOSTON — Grandpa gave me a chestnut mare one summer called Betsy. Her relatives worked out in the west desert as cow ponies, but Betsy hadn't taken a liking to the family business. Grandpa looked doubtful when I talked about riding her. "I thought you might get a good foal from Betsy," he said. "She's not much of a saddle horse." I didn't think that mattered. I wasn't much of a horseback rider, either. We could learn together. It would be fun.
My neighbor Mr. Schow, who owned a number of pure-bred Arabians, walked over to loan me a saddle and bridle. He ran an experienced hand down Betsy's legs, picked up her feet, and clapped her kindly on the withers. Then he offered some good advice. "Think ahead of her," he said. "Make her mind."
I guess Betsy thought the advice was for her, because she took it to heart. While I fumbled with the saddle and bridle, she stood quietly swallowing air and thinking ahead of me, looking intently at the Arabians across the road. Betsy's stomach was as round and hard as a barrel when I finally got the saddle on and cinched it down. I swung aboard, ready to ride. Betsy exhaled deeply, leaned to the right, and the saddle and I slithered quickly down her side. Betsy turned her head to watch as I tumbled out of the stirrups and hit the ground with a whack. It was a setback, but I was by no means discouraged.
The next day I took plenty of time saddling up. Betsy had to breathe eventually, and when she finally did I cinched the saddle up snugly. I reined her around and she stepped docilely down the road, her ears pricked ahead and her eyes bright. "This is easy," I thought. A moment later I felt a quick jolt and a loose, airy gain in elevation. The bright blue Rocky Mountain sky moved past in slow motion, from horizon to horizon. I landed on my back with a dull thud, still staring into the deep, sapphire distance. Betsy stood motionless, reins hanging limp on the ground, gazing past me at Mr. Schow's pasture full of Arabians.
The summer wore on, a succession of tense, edgy rides, Betsy and I both trying our best to think ahead and make each other mind. Betsy had nerves of steel but pretended to fear everything, looking for excuses to dump me off. A windblown weed, a bird chirping, the terrifying sight of the tractor she walked by every day of her life: All were valid excuses to duck her head and kick her heels.
We took to riding in the orchard, each for our own reasons. I found the grassy surface an easier landing than a gravel road. Betsy discovered that if I let down my guard for a moment she could clothesline me on a cherry-tree branch. Riding was a miserable pastime for us both.
By the end of the summer I figured we were nearly even. It wasn't fun, it wasn't easy, but I had managed to get on and stay on about as many times as she had tipped me off. I was happy with a tie. But Betsy was still thinking ahead. The contest was not quite over.
One cool fall day she saw me coming with the saddle. For once she came to meet me instead of dodging around the corral for half an hour. She stood calmly while I saddled her up, stood calmly while I got on, and then slowly, inexorably, she folded her legs like a camel and lay down flat on the ground. It was the ultimate in passive resistance, the anti-riding technique Betsy had been searching for all summer. For the first time, what was obvious to her became obvious to me.
"Betsy," I said, "You're no saddle horse." Betsy just looked at me, but I knew that she was thinking, "And you're no horseback rider."
Betsy knew her proper role in life. She wasn't handsome herself, but in partnership with Mr. Schow's Arabian stallion she produced gorgeous foals, blessed with their father's good looks and their mother's resourceful mind. Betsy spent the rest of her long life in a pleasant pasture, where I visited her from time to time to scratch her ears and reminisce.
I knew my proper role in life, too. I went back to farming, spending my time in pleasant fields, thinking ahead of crops instead of horses, making plants mind. But when I look up at the wide western sky, brilliant and blue, I think of Betsy, and I smile.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society