Long ago I had the vision of retiring to a small Montana town and living on a few acres outside of Billings in a little green house. I would have goats, make designer cheese and, most important, a painted horse would live in my front yard. Sometimes when I was visiting my Aunt Jo and Uncle Hank, Hank and I would take a drive. I had the immense privilege of driving Hank’s beloved Little Red, a 4 cylinder Dodge truck from the 80’s, a simple truck with a shell, a carpet in back and a few cinderblocks to help with traction. It had a standard transmission, five on the floor, and Hank was continually impressed that I could drive it. Hank had suffered retinal detachment so he could no longer see other than some limited peripheral vision, so he couldn’t drive.
We’d head out west of town to the small farms. It was clearly an area that was entering that twilight zone between housing development and farms, but it was still farms and we were happy.
On one such drive, Hank spied the green house and the horse. “I think this is it, Martha Ann.”
Fast forward a few years. I’m living in Descanso, CA, next to La Familia Lopez, the greatest neighbors anyone ever had. They were a family of five — husband, Andy, wife, Sofi, three kids — two beautiful girls and a baby boy who, by the time we both moved away, was three years old. The fence between our properties was real but also an illusion. We were a family.
Andy is a cowboy but at that time he was working for a concrete company. He has incredible skills, old-timey skills, like roping, and leather working, and metal working, branding, training horses — the list is longer that that, even. Over time I learned that Andy missed being a cowboy but he had families to support and the money he was earning was good. One day Andy called me over to the non-existent existent fence and asked if I’d mind if he put a little corral against my fence. He was getting a horse and Sofi didn’t want it close to the house (we both lived on a little over 1/4 acre plots of land in a small town in the Cuyamaca Mountains).
“Why would I mind?”
“The smell, I don’t now. It’s a horse.”
“No. I don’t mind at all.” The corral was put up under the shade of a couple of oak trees near the boulder where I often sat and graded papers.
Nothing happened for a long time. Just the corral and an oil barrel in one corner.
Then, one crystalline February morning, I got up to get ready for school and opened the front door and there, essentially in my front yard, stood a painted horse.I remember standing in my doorway looking at the painted horse being completely amazed that I “had” a horse. I ended up spending a lot of time with him.
Brownie is the only horse I’ve ever really known and he upended everything I thought I knew about horses. I guess I always thought they were just kind of dumb stubborn animals that needed to be mastered by a person sitting on their back who NEVER let on that they were afraid. “Don’t let it know you’re scared.”
The way I understood that was that a horse would take advantage of my fear and try to hurt me. That’s not actually what it means. What it means is that if the rider is afraid, the horse thinks there’s something dangerous somewhere in the area and they need to get out of there. It’s not about the rider. It’s about the horse being a prey animal. Horses read minds. Seriously, they do.
The only other horse I’d had much experience with was my high school friend’s horse, Irish and the plain fact is, Irish really did have a malicious and mischievous streak. She’d done many evil things to get me off her back, including throwing me over her head onto a rock.
In time, I’d gotten so I could ride Irish, and we developed a kind of “friendship” but I never really “knew” her. But Brownie? That’s what the kids named the painted horse. His people were very busy, and I was very close, so within a few days, Brownie found a way to let me know who he was. I dreamed that he opened the fence, walked through my front door, came into my room and walked into my heart. It was one of the most real dreams I have ever had.
I spent hours with Brownie. Our relationship wasn’t only based on carrots, either. He was waiting for me at night when I got home from school and greeted me with a nicker and a few hoof scrapes on the ground to show me he was happy. Sometimes I’d come home and find him and Dusty hanging out together. Lily T. Wolf slept beside the fence where Brownie stood. He would close his eyes in pleasure when I scratched his nose. I always saw he had hay and water when his people were gone for a while. If I walked up the street, Brownie followed along the fence. He loved his kids and let Little Andy do anything to him — climb on him, around him, under him.
I could go on and on and on about Brownie, but I’ve written about him here before and I doubt I’ve said anything new here. But what I learned from that horse profoundly changed my life. His was the purest love I’ve ever felt.
P.S. Andy found a job on a ranch in northern CA and they moved up there. A few months after that, following Andy’s advice to me to “follow my heart,” I returned to Colorado. We’re still in contact, both of us living where we belong.