I fell in love the moment I saw his bony butt. I have no idea why, except I knew he was to be mine, though a friend had arranged this meeting and first choice was hers. He was big and moved with an easy, if unsophisticated, grace that made him a joy to ride. Only four years old, he had not filled out yet. His registered name was Nikka Doone Sugar Bars. I called him, Dune, after a book by one of my favorite authors. He was a bay—brown with black stockings, a little white chip on one heel, a sweet face with a sickle-shaped splash of white on his forehead and bright, kind eyes.
For reasons I would never understand, but never regretted, my friend passed him by, and Dune was mine. Over the twenty-six years we were together, he saved my life twice and just about got me killed an equal number of times. I fell off him more than once and pay for it now with various aches and pains, but I don’t regret that either.
Like some men, Dune pretended he was not interested in affection and had to play hard to catch for at least a few minutes. In the early days, before we moved to the country, I would get up before dawn and drive out to the farm where I boarded him, ride, get home, shower and go to work. One day I walked into the barn and saw him down in his stall. He lay still and didn’t get to his feet when I approached, as instinct would have normally urged him to do. My heart sank. Only a sick horse would stay down like that. Then I noticed a tiny furry head looking over his back. Just after that, the straw near his hooves stirred, and I realized barn kittens had come in to snuggle during the cool of night, and my big horse was afraid to move lest he hurt them! I knew then he was a special boy.
He was a gentle giant with children as well as kittens, though he never cared much for dogs. I taught several kids how to ride over the years, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that Dune taught them. When a child led him, he walked slowly and carefully, his head lowered to the top of the little human’s head, and each foot placed as if on an eggshell. If a child was on his back, I had to chase him with a stick to get him to move faster than a walk, and that would only be successful for a few feet, then he was back to a steady walk. On the other hand, the moment I got in the saddle—Katie, bar the door! He loved to run and to jump, though apparently only with a rider, as I never saw him do either in the pasture. All I had to do was lean forward and grab his mane, his signal to let ‘er rip, and we were off. I usually aimed him at a long uphill grade to be sure I could rein him back in. The blood of race horses pulsed in him, and it was a thrilling, humbling experience to sit atop that explosion of power.
We had many adventures. Somewhat idiotically, I rode him most of the time alone. We tried a show once, but he was so excited, he neighed at every horse he saw, his whole body vibrating so hard I had to grab the saddle. Most of the time, it was just him and me—jumping over a barrel, exploring a path in the woods, or making our own path.
Once, a loop of vine caught me and swept me off backwards. The reins caught behind the back of the saddle, pulling Dune’s head up and back. Trying to get away from this pressure on his mouth, he backed, slipping in a pile of dry leaves. I had landed painfully and couldn’t move, and I felt his hooves all around me and brushing my back. But even in the awkward, frightening position he was in, Dune knew I was there and danced to keep from stepping on me. Then he stood, trembling, waiting until I could come fix the problem. On another occasion, he got tangled in barbwire. Although many horses would have panicked, he stood patiently through the night, waiting for me to come get him out of the mess.
Another time, I made a poor decision, taking a path in the woods that turned out far steeper than it looked. Halfway up, it got worse, and then for a short distance, it was an almost vertical cliff. We were in trouble. We couldn’t turn around; if we stopped or slowed, we would have fallen over backward. I didn’t think we could make it, but I did the only thing I could—I leaned low and grabbed his mane and told him it was up to him to save our bacon. He never hesitated, taking that impossible incline with a bold heart and, somehow, scrambled us over the top.
I didn’t think I could write about him. It has only been a few weeks ago that I had to put him down, and it wasn’t the way I would have had my old friend go. He was in a lot of pain and didn’t want to move, but when I asked him to—just as he had crossed scary bridges and rushing creeks and too-steep inclines—he did . . . because I asked him. I just hope I was able to spare him some pain. I am not sure I believe in heaven, but I hope somewhere he is waiting for me, and when it is my time, we will gallop up a long hill together again.
T.K. Thorne is a retired police captain (Birmingham, Alabama), director of City Action Partnership, and an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction.
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