Often it takes time, loss, and our own experience of parenting to recognize a parent’s love. Sometimes a childhood memory comes upon us and we think, Now I understand. Now, many years after my father’s death, I understand that his saddling my horse was an act of love.
I see my father with the curry comb in his hand. I hear it scratch against the horse’s hide and I notice a louder sound as he combs the coarse mane and tail. With a soft brush, he brushes the horse’s back and then reaches beneath the belly crooning, “Whoa, boy. Easy now.” He cautions me not to brush the tender wedge of the horse’s withers. The horse might kick.
He throws on a saddle blanket, releasing a pleasant whiff of horse sweat. I watch him smooth the thick layer before placing another blanket on top, a fancier one. How do I know a wrinkled saddle blanket can wear a sore on the horse’s back? Other than reminding me not to brush the withers, or, when I was very young, not to stand right behind even the gentlest horse, I don’t remember him lecturing me. I think my father knew if he saddled a horse with loving care and with horse savvy, then I would, too, when my time came.
I admire his strength as he heaves the saddle onto the horse, the right stirrup hooked over the horn. Sometimes, when he reaches to let down the stirrup and the cinch, the horse jumps a little; when my father bends under the horse to grab the cinch, I think he is brave. I love watching his strong hands loop the latigo strap around and around the cinch ring, neatly folding it through the brass buckle, and giving the leather strap a firm tug.
As my father unties the horse, he pats him on the shoulder and calls him by name. Dad turns and smiles at me. My time is coming. He leads the horse around a couple dozen steps, sometimes handing me the halter rope to make a circle or two. We are ensuring that the horse lets out any excess air in its belly. Dad slips his hand under the cinch and then tightens it. My father never skips this procedure, no matter how eager I am to go riding.
I hold the halter rope as Dad buckles the halter around the horse’s neck, takes the bridle and, with his left hand, guides the bit into the horse’s mouth. He places the earpiece over the horse’s right ear. The bit rattles as the horse rolls his tongue over the cricket, signaling contentment. Dad ties the reins in a knot and hands them to me.
Except when I was very young, he never helped me get on a horse. That was my job. I remember leading the horse to a rock, a hay bale, or maneuvering close to the corral so I could slide onto the saddle from the top rail. Suddenly, I was on my own, ready to ride into the blue sky and sage-covered hills of a Nevada morning.
Writing about my dad saddling a horse takes me back to the grand barn at the Seventy-One Ranch in Starr Valley; to the humble railroad tie barn at the Thorpe Creek Ranch in Lamoille; to smells of hay, leather, and horse manure; to the darkness of a barn and the way morning light shines through cracks in the wood; to the sounds of horses shifting their weight or rubbing their rumps against a stall.
Most all my memories are fond ones, but, for a girl, the relationship with her father becomes complicated with the necessary distance of the teenage years. When I think of my dad saddling a horse, the manifestations of love are clear–teaching, protecting, letting go. I know he watched me with love as I left the yard.