An Allegorical Horse
By William Simonsen
They were on a horse-trading trip, father and son, visiting a well known, but gone to seed horse breeder whose stable was a good distance south of their home place. They took trips together a couple of times every year driving mile after mile on the two-lane blacktop back roads of the Midwest. They were comfortable traveling together. Sometimes they bought mares and colts. Sometimes they just looked at a lot of horses.
Looking at Doc Carpenter’s horses began and ended in the tack room of his run down stable looking at pedigrees. It was unlike visiting any other horse farm. Before visitors were allowed to see any horses, the doctor spent close to an hour explaining his particular ideas on horse breeding, ideas he illustrated with the pedigrees he knew by heart and had hanging on every square inch of the walls of the room which smelled of old leather, whiskey and horse sweat. It was quite an education for a young man.
After the catechism, Doc opened the tack room door to his stable to the horses, his riches. Well over 80, Doc remained fascinated by the treasures that stood breathing in the box stalls.
Doc’s eyes watered constantly, an early symptom of his impending blindness from tertiary syphilis. His training in medical school had taught him his fate from the disease he had picked up decades before in a Kentucky whorehouse. His daily exposure to death and suffering had convinced him to ignore his education and follow his lust. Now his every smile became a leer in the face of death.
When they arrived it was dusk outside, full dark inside the stable. Doc turned on the lights with an ancient rotary switch. All of the old fabric-covered electric wires were strung from one white porcelain insulator to the next like tiny electric poles. The boy expected to see sparks fly from the wiring at any moment. Instead huge mayflies and moths instantly began to circle the bare light bulbs in their eerie dance of death.
A snorting came from one of the stalls, then pawing hooves on rock hard clay.
Doc led father and son over to the stall. The head of the horse, mouth opened wide, teeth bared, came at them out of the darkness. The old stud raked his yellowed teeth against the heavy wire screen covering the opening in the top half of the box stall. Doc, who had seemingly grabbed a whip out of thin air, whacked the wire screen with its butt.
Then he made a guttural sort of growl and the old stallion backed into the shadows again.
“Here, I’ll bring him out for you,” Doc said.
The man and the boy stepped back a few steps to give the old man enough room to bring out the stud. To their surprise a light went on in the stall so they could see the interior and the whole horse for the first time.
A dark, dark chestnut brown. Easily mistaken for black in the evening darkness, the horse was smaller than average for the breed, but incredibly muscled and wide in the chest between his front legs.
The stall was whitewashed clean with a mixture of clay and lime on the floor. The center of the stall was several inches lower than the edges, a kind of saucer-shape created by the years of cleaning the manure from the packed dirt floor.
Doc looked at the young man — who stood well over six-feet tall and said, “He’d be too small for you, he’s only a bit over 15 hands.
“I retired him from the show ring when he turned 12 years old.
“He’s 20 now, but can still cover a dozen mares a year…if he gets his rest in between,” Doc said with a chuckle. Wearing wrinkled tan pants and an almost clean white jacket Doc was wearing two-tone brown and white dress shoes of the style fashionable when he was still young. He carefully picked his way across the stall and snapped the lead shank onto the stud’s halter, spoke to him in gruff unintelligible words, then turned to lead him out of the stall.
In one movement the old stud reached out with his teeth bared, trying to bite Doc’s shoulder. But 20 years of acquaintance with the old horse had taught Doc well. With surprising agility for an old man, he stepped forward and spun around and hit the horse on the side of the head with the silver-tipped butt of the whip he still held like a magician’s wand in his other hand. Neither old stud, man or horse, took a step backward. They stood like two old sparring partners who had learned each other’s moves so well they continually fought to stand-offs.
With the temporary truce struck, he brought the horse out into the broad alleyway between the opposing rows of stalls constantly showing him the whip, then stretched him out in a classic pose for the visitors. The stud snorted, still unwilling to cooperate quietly with the old man their decades together.
The father and son walked around the horse, admiring his conformation. Patting him. Running knowing hands on his neck and back. Both spoke to Doc about the stud, but he answered only the boy’s questions, meanwhile gently quizzing him on the lesson in pedigrees he had been given earlier. Luckily, the son was a quick learner and remembered most of the lesson. When he made a mistake, Doc corrected him patiently.
After he put the stud away, the three returned to the tack room where Doc pointed out old sepia-toned photos of himself and the stud when they were both much younger. But mainly he talked to the young man. Telling him to be patient when raising horses, and by implication when living his own life.
“A generation or two takes a very short time in the long-term scheme of things.
“Ah, but a day, just a single day, can destroy everything you have worked towards for years. Keep track of the years and mind your goals.
“When you breed horses every colt is a new chance, but every colt comes from the past,” Doc said as a kind of benediction.
A couple of years went by quickly, then the young man heard about a colt for sale that had been sired by the old stud. He cut his high school classes one cold autumn afternoon to make the drive to the a farm a couple of counties over to see the colt.
As he drove into the farmyard, he looked around for any sign of life, then honked his horn to attract any person in the area.
After the horn honk produced no results, he walked over to the feed trough and looked out into the field. He could see several horses trotting toward him — he thought the farmer probably pulled into the farmyard and honked as a signal for the animals to come at feeding time.
The young man could pick out the colt he had come to look at from a distance. He was a copy of the old stud except for his color — the colt was a much lighter shade of brown, a sorrel, almost red. But the way he held his head and the action of his gait left no doubt.
“Can I help you,” came a voice from behind him. The young man spun around, startled. A middle-aged farmer bundled up in plaid woolen shirts and jackets had walked to within 10 feet while he was admiring the horse.
“I came to see the colt of the old stud, Seaside,” he said.
“You picked him out already,” the farmer said with a laugh.
“Is he broke to ride?”
“Nope, but he’s pretty gentle and well behaved,” the farmer said.
They talked for awhile, kicking small bits of dirt loose from the frozen ground, about horses and how the farmer had come to own the colt.
Doc had died earlier that fall. He left no family. The county held an auction to sell his real estate and horses. The farmer said the owner of an Alabama paper mill bought the old stud.
The farmer took the colt as payment on a feed bill which was unpaid at the time of Doc’s death.
While they talked the young man had carefully moved closer to the colt and now gently held him by the neck and nose without a halter.
“Do you have a bridle?” he asked. “I brought my own saddle, it’s in the truck.”
The farmer rummaged around in one of his old shacks, eventually bringing out a moldy leather bridle to the young man, then brought the saddle over to him as he put the bridle on the colt. The colt was big and strong for a three-year-old, but underneath his untamed side he seemed gentle and sensible to the young man.
The young man knew what he was doing was foolish. The ground was frozen and would be unforgiving if the colt bucked and threw him. The field was big and he would be thrown into the stubble left after harvest. If the colt got loose and ran off, he would be spending half the night, freezing his ass off trying to get his saddle back. But he wanted to see if the colt liked to be ridden, and there was simply no other way to find out.
He waited three weeks — until Christmas week to bring the colt home. Skipped school again one afternoon and drove back to the farm with a horse trailer hooked to the back of his truck. He paid cash. Money he had earned working on a construction job during the summer.
The sorrel colt loaded into the trailer easily, the trip home was slow due to icy roads and the snow that began to fall as he left the farm with the colt. By the time he got the colt back to their stable it was dark.
The father had been watching out the kitchen window, wondering where the truck, the horse trailer and the boy had gone. He put on his old worn-down boots and heavy wool coat, the one he had worn around horses so much it smelled more like a horse than a real horse, then walked down the hill to the stable.
He came in the door just as the young man was wiping down the colt and warming him up after his cold ride.
“So you got a new horse,” the father said.
“Nope, you got a new horse. Merry Christmas. This is one of the last colts of Doc’s old stud,” the young man said.
“I can’t take this. You worked too hard for the money to spend it on me,” the father said.
“Well, that’s too bad because it’s what I decided to do.
“Here,” he said handing his father a towel to finish the rubdown of the colt. “Rub down your new colt. I’ve got to park the trailer.”
And the young man walked out of the stable. He parked the trailer, then got in the truck, drove to the bar in town he had begun to frequent. He was far underage to drink legally, but he was big and the bartender liked to have him around if there was trouble.
He stumbled into the house late. It was getting very cold and the snow had increased. His father was waiting up for him watching some black and white late movie on television.
“I want to pay you back for the colt. He’s really a good one,” the father said.
“No. He’s your Christmas present…”
And an argument began. It was the first argument the son had ever won. The colt stayed and he took no money from his father. It was his last winter on the farm and he helped his father break and train the colt. It was easy. The colt was sensible and easy to ride from the first day in the open field.
Fifteen years passed like nothing at all.
He found a college. He found a wife. He eventually found a new home in a place far away. He never thought much about that colt in the frozen stubble field he had taken a chance on a generation ago.
As he became a man, life came at him very fast. Soon there were children and jobs and office politics and house payments. The young man rarely saw his father.
Then a deputy sheriff knocked on the door of his house one afternoon bringing news his father had died.
Early the next morning he climbed on an airplane and was standing in front of the old farmhouse 12 hours later. He braced himself and walked inside. The usual death rituals were well in progress — casseroles from the neighbors, relatives weeping and falling into his arms, hysterical with grief. He never shed a tear. He realized they were only crying for themselves.
He went into his father’s den, found files and records, then sipping a cup of coffee with whiskey in it he tried to make some sense of what his father had left behind.
In a large ledger his father had left on top of the desk he found an envelope addressed to him.
The letter was very simple and personal. His very complex Will covered all of the monetary aspects of his death — who got what and how much money each person had coming.
His letter was a numbered list of instructions. Things he wanted his son to do after he died. At the top of the list was an unmistakable directive. “Sell the stud. You can finally get your money back and then some.”
He was shocked. It turned out his father had kept the stud his son had given him as a colt. After owning hundreds through the years, it was the last horse he owned. The last horse he rode.
At first light he drove the 30 miles to the boarding stable where his father kept the horse. A few years before, his father had closed up the huge stable on the farm because he no longer had the energy to keep it clean and nice. Told everyone he no longer needed a dozen horses to feed at five every morning. Of course there were plenty of boarding stables closer to home, but his father was very particular about the care of his horses. He drove the extra miles to what he considered a really good, clean stable, and perhaps to have a few minutes of peace and quiet in the car driving through the lush green country. Being one of his string of horses was always a lucky break for the horse — the equine equivalent of filling an inside straight in poker
The morning of the day his father died he had made the trip to the boarding stable and had taken the horse out for a nice long ride. On the drive home his heart gave out.
The horse still looked good. A touch swaybacked and long in the tooth. but basically fat and content with a silky coat. The groom said they still bred a dozen or so mares a year with him.
When he got back to the farm the son went back into the den and sorted through more old files and papers. In the files he found photos of his father with the colt, winning trophy after trophy, ribbon after ribbon. The trophies sat on shelves in the den gathering dust.
There were more photos of the colt’s fillies and colts winning their own trophies and ribbons. The yet more photos of their colts and fillies.
As Doc had predicted, every colt had been a new chance at greatness.
A generation of men and four generations of horses had gone by in the blink of an eye.
Contrary to his father’s directions, he did not sell the horse. It was the only one of his father’s instructions he did not follow. Instead he gave the horse to an old friend who had the useless and expensive habit of taking in horses from good friends.
He made her promise not to tell him when the old horse died.
The files are in the son’s den now because he doesn’t have a stable or a tack room, which he knows is where they really belong. The trophies are stuck on his shelves along with his dusty books.
Pedigrees on old yellowing paper gone crooked in their frames are on the walls along with faded photographs.
© 2013 William Simonsen. All rights reserved.