By Billy Smith
With the AjPHA Youth World Championship Show nearing, we’re focusing on Youth and their horses. But just like the old story goes about the man whose neighbor accosted him for playing with his children when his grass needed cutting: “I’m raising children, not grass.” Each of us has his or her own story about Youth and their horses. Here’s mine:
I call him, “my boy,” but my son doesn’t have much of me in him and he’s hardly a boy anymore. He has a lot of my dad, and that’s good—very good. My dad, and my boy, are kind and tender-hearted; I’m impatient, even Vesuvian at times. They’re thoughtful. They take the world as it is. They roll with the punches, humble troubadours coaxing out life as if it were a shy kitten. But neither one is a shirker; they’re fierce in their own ways.
I can see my dad calmly and efficiently deflecting punches and taking younger soldiers to the mats when he was a wiry Army hand-to-hand combat instructor sometime before the tumultuous 1960s. “If a man’s gotta tell you he’s not scared, he probably is,” he said, as if it were a law of nature. When my boy was small, we got “that” call from the principal—he had clocked another student. “He kept picking on this little girl,” my boy said about his victim. “I’d do it again.” And I believe he would.
They’re both kind in ways I could never conjure in myself. No tolerance for low buffoonery. Their flavor of kindness draws people and even four-legged friends to them like they are gurus, bottling life’s secrets. Animals find solace under my son’s care. From the time he was a tiny boy, his show horse always trotted up to him, bowed his head and let him—only him—wrap his arm around his head, tucking his poll under his armpit. When the horse eventually became too sick and too far gone to continue living, my boy couldn’t watch the veterinarian deliver the merciful injection. I promised him I would stroke his horse’s muzzle until he was all the way down and all the way gone.
“Make sure you close his eyes before you bury him,” he instructed through a growing stream of tears. “I don’t want him to get any dirt in ’em.” I promised.
“Want to save his tail or mane?” I asked. “I want him to stay just like he is.”
As the barbiturates coursed to his heart and he melted into the soft green buffalo grass, I rubbed his doughy nose until all the life had slipped from him in one mighty final exhale. I closed his giant brown eyes, parted his mane over smartly and straightened his tail, just the way my boy asked and just as I had promised.
He has another horse now—lets him tuck his poll under his armpit, too. When the time comes, he’ll want him to stay just like he is. He’s that way with people. Doesn’t spend much time trying to “fix” them—he’s OK with how they are.
And then there’s the dog. One day I grabbed my boy in a fraternal headlock a few steps from our back door—fathers just do that every now and again—when I heard a menacing growl from behind. I turned to see the pearly whites of his Great Pyrenees, who had never so much as feigned aggression since he was a pup. On this day and this moment, he was serious. I released my boy as directly as I could. Despite my son’s glee in his newly discovered permanent protector, I knew somehow that dog knew him—knew him maybe better than I did. Letting him go was more than self preservation. I knew in that fear-spattered moment that my boy was already beyond me in the measures of a man.
I’m grateful for the generational skip. If I’d had my father’s ways, I might have lost them before I could pass them to my boy. Animals like being around my dad, too. He’s a dog man.
My boy’s fiddling with a career in law enforcement. He’d be good at that. The world needs more calm, compassionate and fierce souls. It’s already got too many impatient, thoughtless and vibrato-breathing members.
I’ve done all I can do to instill in him all of my bad habits. I hate failure like a foul odor, but maybe this kind of inadequacy is OK. Perhaps I’m just grateful for my dad’s recessive genes, grateful that every time I see that ginormous white dog, I jam my hands in my pocket and act kinder than I am. And when I think of that horse, a grin always sneaks up on me.
He, my boy, looks me in the eye now—maybe slightly downward, but I’ll never admit that. I see him in ways I’ve never imagined. I see a man—a man who stews in great and deep thoughts, a man who minds his manners, takes his hat off when he meets a lady and would take a bullet for his mother. He’s not perfect—most boys aren’t and men are never perfect—but he’s perfectly like my dad. And I’m OK—very OK—with that.