From Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul II

A Friend Like No Other

Destiny is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for; it is a thing to be achieved.

William Jennings Bryan

Tigress came into my life just when I needed her most. That was in 1967 when I was a shy, intense fourteen-year-old, the only late-blooming ugly duckling among the five girls in my family. My sisters, two older and two younger, were all pretty and popular, with friends in the right circles and boyfriends to spare. I, the tallest and most freckled, had crooked teeth, thick glasses and red hair. My friends were the out crowd, a fact I tried to hide from my mother, herself a lifelong beauty. My family assuredme that I, too,was attractive but a simple glance in the mirror proved otherwise.

Things would look up for me at sixteen. That’s when the braces came off, the contact lenses went in and my long, straight hair proved perfect for the times. By then though, it was almost amoot point. Something else had already ridden to my rescue, two years earlier. Or should I say, galloped.

It was Tigress,my first horse.With Tigress in my life it didn’t matter if I never went out on a date, never had a boyfriend, never got married, all distinct possibilities in my adolescent head; I had her to love and care for instead. It seemed an acceptable trade-off.

She was an unregistered Thoroughbred filly, a star-faced bay, to my young eyes ravishingly beautiful. My mother pulled together the $350 it took to buy her—a considerable sum for a green-broke, three-year-old back then. We brought her home to our ten acres in Northern California, where we’d settled after my father had retired from the Air Force.

In the beginning, I remember just standing and gazing at her as she grazed, thinking howincredible itwas she belonged to me. She seemed so big, although in fact, at 15.3-hands, she was smallish for a Thoroughbred. But she felt big to ride. She was full of energy, with springing gaits and a natural forwardness. Fortunately, she was also willing to submit to my authority, tenuous as it was at the time. I’d had a few riding lessons before acquiring her, but Iwasmostly a self-taught equestrian. I’d read all the books—Margaret Cabell Self, George Morris, RonnieMutch. I knew a fair bit in theory, but little in practice. Tigress was so forgiving though, that it didn’t matter. She put up with me while I figured things out.

Not that she was bomb-proof. Tigress, despite her name, was a timid soul. Shewas prone to shying, but of a benign sort. When something startled her—a rock outcropping she hadn’t noticed before, or a torn piece of grain bag on the ground—she didn’t rear, whirl or bolt. She usually didn’t even suck sideways, in that classic maneuver that can unseat the unwary. Her trademark response was the four-legged splay. She’d simply sink down, her feet sliding beyond her four corners and stare at the offending object, neck rigid, then she’d snort.

At speed of course, it was different. One time, when my sisters and I were galloping through a thick stand of live oak, my stirrup iron caught a trailing vine, dragging it after us. Naturally, to Tigress this was the proverbial saber-toothed tiger, snaring her at last. She shot forward and sideways at the same time, unseating me. Then she galloped wildly in circles, neighing her alarm. Finally, she braced to a stop a few feet from where I was still sitting in the wild oat grass, laughing. Her expression seemed to say, “Are we all right?”

She always turned tome for reassurance and she taughtme the meaning of the term “honest horse.” I remember being puzzled when I first heard it: An honest horse? Weren’t all horses honest and if not, how did they lie? I didn’t yet know that there are horses that withhold their best or try to cheat you, or indicate one thing when they mean another. Not my Tigress. She never said “no” to me out of defiance, orneriness or guile. She sometimes said, “I can’t,” out of fear or confusion. But she never said “I won’t,” or “You can’t make me.”

In 1968, at the Potomac West School of Horsemanship, my one classwas English equitation. As Iwaswaiting formy class, I eyed the practice jumps in the warm-up arena. There was a full course of them, of various types, all around three feet high. I’d been jumping Tigress on my own at home, over humble, homemade fences. Somehow, I suddenly felt my mare could handle that warm-up course. And if she could, I could.

Without asking anyone, I took her in, picked up a canter and rode what I now remember as a perfect course of fences. I threw my heart over each jump—all the books told you to do that—and so Tigress sailed right over as well. She could be brave, in her own way, when it counted. When riding Tigress I felt a sense of freedom, power and confidence.We were masters of the universe; bold, determined, unstoppable. We could go anywhere, do anything. It was a glorious feeling for a fifteen-year-old.

Time passed. I grew up, went to college, met and married a wonderful young man. Through it all, Tigress remained mine, sometimes leased out to another, sometimes boarded in a nearby field. Finally, in 1980, my husband and I moved onto our own twenty acres, bringing Tigresswith us. She continued to be my four-legged soul mate. We had grown up together and knew each other so well that I could just think canter and off she’d go, always on the correct lead. Even in her twenties, she was a magnificent ride. Tacked up, so that her swayed back didn’t show, she always looked a good ten years younger than her age. I went everywhere on her, exploring new territory around my home, camping up in the mountains. In 1985, I bought another horse to prepare for the time—still aways off, I hoped—when Tigress would be too old to ride. It was the Thoroughbred gelding Strider who first taught me the true value of equine honesty, by not having it. He was a clever bullywho learned quickly howto intimidateme. Asmy uncertainty grew, so did his defiance, until he would toss his head and threaten to rear if I even turned him in a direction he didn’t want to go. In the year that I owned him, he nearly destroyed my confidence. Then, after he was gone, Tigress built it back.

In 1989, I lost my good mare to a malady I’d never heard of. I now know about enteroliths and their causes. But then I was oblivious to the fact that one of these mineral-based stones might be growing in my horse’s gut. Because she didn’t colic with it early on, I learned of it only when it became large enough to kill her. The shock of her loss stunnedme. I remember vividly the moment when the vet pulled away after putting her down. I walked into my house and doubled over, keening a grief sharper than I’d ever felt before. In retrospect, I think I was grieving formy lost childhood asmuch as formy sweet mare. Tigress had been my living, breathing link to those happy years. She had helpedme to findmyself; nowshe was gone. I was certain I’d never own a horse again. Never would I risk that kind of anguish.

But time eventually softened the edges of my grief. In the sixteen years since my mare’s death, I have indeed owned other horses, eight in all, including my daughter’s ponies, Diamond and Brego. Still, I’ve yet to find another Tigress. And I realize I may never. I still miss her, but I’m also thankful for the twenty-two years we had together. To this day, I think of her whenever I pass her resting spot on our property, near the barn. Shewas the embodiment of all that I love about horses— their nobility, their strength, their beauty and gentleness and their amazing generosity of spirit.

Jennifer Forsberg Meyer

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