From Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul II

Oats in My Pocket

Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.


All my best memories of growing up in Callahan County, Texas, come mingled with visions of my sidekick, a short, chubby bay horse named, imaginatively enough, Little Bay. He was named that, of course, to distinguish him from some of his other horse comrades who had such names as Big Bay and Tall Bay.

Little Bay was a Quarter Horse, about 14-hands tall. He was what my dad called an “easy keeper,” meaning he always had a coat of fat on his ribs even when other horses might be getting thin. Part of that was due to Bay’s gift of being part Houdini and able to work open most gate latches he ever ran across. He got into the feed barn more than once and supplemented his mostly grass diet. I realize now that it was probably only by the grace of God that Bay never foundered.

My only sibling was a brother, five years older, who was by then a teenager and old enough to work summers plowing for our great-uncle. Back then we only got one TV station in snowy black and white and my closest girlfriend lived at least ten miles away. So every summer on our remote ranch, Little Bay was my chief source of entertainment. I’m sure he lost at least a little of that fat layer because of our daily workouts.

Occasionally though, Little Bay would get a break. My mom would take one of my girlfriends and me to the town of Baird, about thirty miles away, to take advantage of two other things I considered to be essential to a young girl’s summer enjoyment; a swimming pool and a library. Baird had a wonderful old combination museum/library in the basement of the courthouse. I loved the musty smell and the cool, damp feel of the place as much as I loved the alluring turquoise waters of the town swimming pool.

I would always come away from the Baird library with armloads of books, some of which imbedded other great horses indelibly into my heart. Misty of Chincoteague, Midnight, Smoky the Cow Horse, Flicka and her unruly son Thunderhead all became a permanent part of my psyche.

Those books greatly enriched my time together with Little Bay. The summer I read Black Beauty, I washed and curried and combed Bay to within an inch of his life. Inspired by Smoky the Cowhorse, we ranged far and wide on the high lonesome sections adjoining our home place, checking the cattle. The summer I read National Velvet I set up an elaborate series of pole jumps in the field, made of such cast off items as an old screen door. Then I added a few brush jumps and water jumps back in the pasture and we were in business. We had our own steeplechase course, just like Velvet and Pie!

Bay’s chest no doubt contained a heart as big as Secretariat’s, for he could never deny this little girl anything. I could walk back in the pasture and catch him with a few oats from my pocket, make an Indian-style halter out of a soft rope and ride him bareback to the house where we would saddle up for our next big adventure. Any other horse would evade me, staying just out of my reach or finally trotting off out of exasperation. Never Little Bay.

One of my favorite memories of Little Bay was the summer he became a racehorse. My dad had always cautioned my brother and me to never let a horse run toward the house, for that would make him spoiled. In other words, any time we turned for home, the horse might want to take the bit in his teeth and race back, which could be a dangerous thing. The rider always needed to be in control of the horse, not the other way around.My dad pointed out that among other dangers, it was a good way to lose a kneecap to a gatepost.

While I usually heeded my father’s sage advice, in this case I had a little dilemma. I couldn’t get Bay to flat-out run unless we were headed toward home. No doubt Little Bay had been chosen to be my kid horse in part because he had only three gears, those being walk, trot and lope. I could only find the fourth gear, the one I wanted in this case, by pointing Little Bay’s compass toward home.

Finally, after weeks of training, the big day had arrived. Our track was a recently plowed field and our course would be a straight diagonal across the terraces toward home, culminating with the open gate that led to the home pasture. It was a clear sunny day and track conditions were excellent. Our racing colors were blue and pink; blue as in blue jeans and pink as in a once-red T-shirt. The crowd was restless and noisy and the other horses were high spirited and sleek, but none more so than Little Bay.

I took my feet out of the stirrups and snugged my knees up underneath the swells of my Western saddle, the way I thought a jockey ought to ride. I had my quirt ready, but it was really just for show. I never planned to actually hit Little Bay with it. I would just slap it against the top of my boot for dramatic effect.

At the sound of the pistol we were off to a quick start. The wind stung my eyes and Bay’s flying mane was in my face as I crouched as low over his neck as my saddle horn would allow. The hooves of a thundering herd pounded in my ears, but at least we weren’t eating dirt, because we led that field of horses the whole way.

Near the end of the race, though, it almost came unwound. As we topped a terrace Bay gave a spasmodic midair leap to avoid an ugly black stain that sprang up beneath us on the other side. He almost lost his stirrupless rider, but I hung on and we finished the race, managing to get through the gate post finish line with my kneecaps intact. The lane to the barn gave us enough time to walk innocently home with a blanket of roses over Bay’s neck, both of us enjoying the thrill of victory.

We left the roses and some of Bay’s sweat at the barn, so no one would suspect we had committed the unpardonable sin of running toward home. Then we went to the house to tell my mom about the oily black puddle we had found in the field. She knew exactly what to do; she called an oil company to tell them that her daughter had discovered an oil pipeline leak on our property. In those days small planes flew the pipelines every few days, but this leak had not yet been reported.

Little Bay and I truly won the race that day. The proof came in the form of prize money in the mail a week later; a fifty-dollar check made out to me from an Abilene oil company. In 1960s dollars that was a lot of money. I couldn’t wait to run out into the pasture and show Bay our winnings.

It wasn’t until many years later that I realized Bay’s great feat of athleticism that day perhaps saved us from serious injury or worse. He might have been short, chubby and slow, lacking the things the world thinks are essential to a good horse. But it’s what’s on the inside that really counts and Bay was big on the thing that mattered most—heart. He was a world-champion kid horse.

Little Bay has been in horse heaven for many years now. When I get there I plan to have oats in my pocket for the best friend a girl ever had.

Cindy Johnson Harper

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