Unlike most American children growing up shortly after World War II, I never once petitioned my parents for a pony. You see, we already had two, California and Midge.
My sister Kathy, eight years my senior, had done the necessary wheedling while I was yet a toddler. I suspect not much was required. Dad had had two ponies as a boy, and my grandfather grew up with a Shetland named Belle. So it was a time-honored tradition in our family: children and ponies. But my own memory, confirmed by digging through family archives and talking to older relatives, is that it might better be phrased "children versus ponies."
The point of contention was simple. We kids wanted pony rides. The ponies didn't want to give them. Who could blame the little beasts? The farm where we all lived had fruit orchards and good pasturage. It was the equine equivalent of heaven - if only there weren't little kids wanting rides.
My great-uncle was videotaped in 1984. "Belle used to go under trees and scrape her riders off," he recalled. "Or she'd be running and stop short and lower her head so that her rider slid off." My dad wrote, "Midge, like many Shetland ponies, had an uncooperative temperament.... She would walk with hesitation, stopping for grass snacks...." Boy, could I relate! My battles with our ponies had similar scenes.
I was at a disadvantage, since I was so young when we got our two Shetland mares. In our first photo of them, Kathy is beaming from California's back, and my two brothers are on Midge, their grinning heads stacked like a sawed-off totem pole. Little baby me stands in the foreground, grublike, my middle thick with a diaper. I can just imagine wily old Cal telegraphing to Midge, "That one I can handle."
California began her intimidation campaign when I would tag along as Kathy put the ponies on their picket pins. Cal's long tail would flick and sting my face, even when no flies buzzed. One time she rushed me and caught my bare ankles in her chain. I squawked, jumped free, and scuttled to safety beyond the radius of her tether.
But I grew and eventually was deemed big enough to try riding alone. Cal, the smaller pony, was my mount.
Kathy led her a ways and then set us loose. "Make her turn after the tree," she coached. I pulled the reins over, as I had been shown, and Cal was only too happy to respond. She cut immediately, right under a spruce, the lowest branches of which just allowed her clearance. I stuck tight in the saddle, though I was bowled over, tipped back along her rump while my face was raked through the sharp needles.
I grew some more. We switched to larger, gentler Midge. That worked better, but Midge had one flaw: She was inseparable from Cal.
When I was 8, I'd try to ride Midge on the farm alone. It was a fiasco. Midge would walk with shorter and shorter strides until she was stepping in place like the horn player around which the rest of the marching band pivots. I'd thump her sides with my heels, clucking and cajoling at first, but working up to screeching. Then I'd dismount and pull her forward, step by begrudging step.
Inevitably, Midge would start to whinny - prolonged, heartfelt whinnies. Cal would reply, making Midge frantic. I had to admit defeat. I'd swing aboard, and we'd gallop the 200 yards back to where Cal was picketed. Twenty minutes out, 20 seconds back - that would be my ride.
If I wanted a longer ride, Kathy had to bring Cal along. She would lead her along our bridle trail like a person walking a dog. For Cal, it was a prolonged trip to the salad bar. She ate a tuft of clover here, a spray of orchard grass there. Midge followed stolidly.
But then Kathy left for college. Summoning my courage, I took to riding Cal alone. Cal seemed quite heartless about leaving distraught Midge, and she would carry me way back on the farm with exciting gallops home. For a brief time when I was about 13, we had our heyday: I was strong enough to control her, she was strong enough to carry me.
But eventually I grew too big. Then, too, the ponies were growing old. They finally got their hearts' desire - no children demanding rides. In their latter years, we didn't even chain them up. What retired pony would run away from a fruit farm? They grazed where they wanted, wandering up to the farmhouse to mooch carrots once a day.
In a way, you could say they won that round of children versus ponies. They were still ponies, and I was no longer a child. But, since I do cherish memories of good pony rides, you could say I won, too. Perhaps, after all, it was a draw.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society