At home where she's never been

Almost every young child who visits our farm begs to be lifted onto a draft horse, and most children who are so accommodated quickly change their minds. It is not the horses' fault. For all their gentle benevolence, they can't help being big, and most little people don't realize just how big until they're perched astride a broad, warm seat that shifts around above their parents' hairlines. As a rule, this is not what they bargained for, and they soon want down.

This was not the case with seven-year-old Amanda, who visited the farm last week with her younger brother and mom. Alison is a longtime and mostly long-distance friend who overnighted with us in the course of a cross-country move with her children. A stop in southern Indiana was all but mandatory on many levels, starting with that of our friendship.

Our dairy lies just an hour's drive south of their route along I-70, and it served as a carrot to the two young children. Sam and Amanda could endure the cooped-up miles if there were animals to visit along the way to their new home ... and among them, a Brown Swiss cow of their very own.

"Richie" was a symbolic gift, made years ago, to repay a kindness. Alison and her family could not actually keep a cow at their suburban home near Washington, D.C., nor could they take Richie to Denver. Her home is here. But they have loved the idea that she's theirs, and they've enjoyed pictures and news of her calvings over the years. This visit would be the kids' first chance to meet her.

Sam and Amanda were enchanted with Richie, but the cow was suspicious of all the sudden attention from folks she did not recognize, and the lush green pasture beckoned. Amanda's eye also began to roam. She knew, from her mom's stories, that there were horses about, and once she spied the draft animals, she promptly lost all interest in the bovines. You can ride a cow, but who wants to?

As I watched Alison hoist her daughter above her head and onto Jim's back, I calculated how long the little girl, inexperienced with horses of any size, would last. I watched her face, already picturing the trembling chin and outstretched arms, the plea to return to solid ground.

But there was none of that. Instead, Amanda made herself completely, serenely at home. When Jim ambled off to graze, she did not so much as glance back at us, or grab for his honey-colored mane. With arms relaxed, and a seat that was exquisitely balanced despite almost horizontally extended legs, she all but floated away with our elder Belgian.

"Ah," said Alison, a horsewoman from years back. "Ah-haaa! She's got it." She did not articulate what "it" was, but she didn't need to. I knew "it" when I saw it, too. Amanda had a gift, the innate, unreachable resonance that it takes to become one with a horse, rather than a mere rider. Age has nothing to do with it.

Amanda wandered about the pasture in a reverie, transported in more ways than one by Jim as he grazed along the fence line, under the cedars, among the cows. The rest of us sat in the sun on the trunk of a lightning-felled sycamore, a steed that was low to the ground and blessedly still, hence more to Sam's liking. He had reacted as most kids had to the real thing, and his time atop Jim was brief. Sam was perfectly content to lie low and watch his sister.

As time ticked by, we kept tabs on Amanda, but something about the pair in the distance put us at ease. I trusted Jim's good sense absolutely, and Amanda exuded a supreme self-confidence that the horse responded to in turn. They had, from all appearances, a perfect understanding and looked like a single entity moving about the pasture.

Eventually, Alison and I headed to the house for something to drink, neither of us worried about leaving Amanda where she was. She certainly did not want to come down to join us.

Yet back in the pasture a few minutes later, we did not immediately spot her atop Jim. I felt a momentary flutter of confused panic as my eyes scanned the grassy expanse. Had she taken fright and slipped or fallen? Had Jim shrugged or inadvertently shaken her off? It was a possibility I could not wholly dismiss, given her size and his.

But then, from the horse's broad back, her slight form rose upright at the sight of us, and she dreamily waved. She'd only been taking a nap.

My friends headed west the next morning, but Amanda has left her mark on the farm, as certain visitors do. You can never predict these things, or explain why some people linger even after they leave, as Amanda has. Something took place between her and the horse that is still in the air.

When I see Jim in the pasture these days, Amanda is there, too, in my mind's eye, a quiet little presence that moves about with him.

After Alison gets settled in her new home, I'll give her a call and ask if her van seemed unduly crowded when they left here. I have a feeling that Amanda brought a large, oaty presence west with her as well. It may even have moved in with them - in lieu of Richie.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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