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Jessie Veeder

Veeder: On the slick back of a horse, it's always summer

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There's something about the slick back of a horse, his soft muzzle and tangled mane, his predictably unpredictable spirit, the stomp of his hooves and the swish of his tail that defines summer for me.

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And summer has arrived. I know it because the long hot days turn into lingering, golden evenings.

I know because I can see the fireflies dancing in the cool, dark spaces between the oaks.

I know because the cactus flowers, tiger lilies, prairie coneflowers and sweet clover told me.

I know because I counted approximately 57 mosquito bites and 32 ticks on the limbs I should have just kept covered.

And I know by the creak of the leather on my grandmother's saddle sitting on the back of my small bay horse as we move along fences and hilltops next to Pops and my husband, taking a look at the cattle and thinking that they have it made out here where the grass tickles their bellies and hides their babies jumping and bucking on the trail behind them.

Yes, we're in the fleeting days of perfect summer, and I'm burying my face in my horse's mane, breathing in the scent of summer and remembering what it was like to be 12, 13 or 14, legs dangling off the bare back of my sorrel mare, her hair sticking to my sweaty jeans while the summer stretched on before me with nothing to do but ride.

See, as a kid growing into my gangly, teenaged limbs, my summer job at the ranch was to keep the lawn mowed, paint the little barn, water the garden, watch my little sister, pick ticks off of the dogs and put some miles on the young horses Pops had started in the spring.

Pops is sort of a horse whisperer, a gift he discovered as a young boy out here riding horses for the neighbors and falling in love with each one, no matter the attitude or their tendency to shy at every rock or jump at every pheasant escaping from the bull berry patch.

I grew up watching my dad patiently work a young horse from the ground up, getting them used to touch and movement and the sound of voices. I watched him bridle and saddle them for the first time. I listened as he explained to me their potential, watched him smile when they did right by him and try again when they didn't. And I rode alongside him on my old mare as we took that young horse out and tried his feet on the hills and obstacles of the open pasture.

A few weeks of this and then it was my turn. Maybe I could take this one into the arena and work on his lead changes. Maybe I could practice his reigning and side passing. Maybe I could take him out on my own, see how he does alone in the pasture, crossing creek beds and climbing hills.

Maybe we'll connect. Maybe I'll teach him things. Maybe I'm a horse whisperer like Pops.

Or maybe we'll get 5 miles from home and that young horse will ignore my pleas to stop him and run full speed ahead back to the barn where the grain bucket waits and I cry. Just a little.

Yes, horses have taught me things about myself that I wouldn't have learned until later in my life. Like my patience doesn't come naturally. Some things can't be rushed. I'm tougher than I think.

And I'm not a horse whisperer.

But it doesn't matter. Not everyone naturally holds the combination of fearlessness, tenderness, persistence and heart it takes to make an animal trust you and listen. But I'm nearly 30 years old, and I work to find this in me every time I swing my leg over the saddle and head for the hills of my youth.

Because on the slick back of a horse it's always summer and I will always be a student up there, young and capable and listening, a little bit more myself and a little bit more free.

Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband on a ranch near Watford City. Email her at jessieveeder@gmail.com.

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