“High up on the long hill they called the Saddle Back, behind the ranch and the country road, the boy sat his horse, facing east, his eyes dazzled by the rising sun.”
So begins My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara, the story of a boy and his desire to have a horse of his own. The boy, Ken McLaughlin, lives on a ranch in Wyoming, USA, where his father breeds polo ponies. Ken has any number of horses he can ride when he is home from boarding school, but he longs for a horse of his own. His father resists giving him one because Ken is a daydreamer and doing badly at school.
My copy of My Friend Flicka came via a book order through a school book club in 1975. Once a term we would get the brochure and order form. Each term, Mum would let me select two books to buy and I would take the order form back to school in an envelope with the cash, then eagerly wait for the books to arrive.
The book club order forms were my major source of books as a child. There wasn’t a book shop in the small Western Australian wheatbelt town where I grew up. There was a small newsagency that occasionally had a few interesting books on the shelf in the corner and, in a larger town nearby, a larger newsagency with a bigger selection.
‘Interesting books’ to me were defined as those that were about horses. On monthly shopping trips to the ‘big town’ to get things we couldn’t get in our home town – school shoes, electrical appliances, and the like – I would scour the shelves for anything ‘interesting’, my saved pocket money at the ready and, just in case it wasn’t enough, promises in mind to make up the few extra coins that I may need to beg from my parents.
But the book club order forms remained by best source of books. The two books I ordered each term were inevitably horse books, although occasionally a book of dog stories or something about another kind of animal would sneak in – The Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London, My Dog Sunday, another about an orphaned calf and kid called Cinnamon and Nutmeg. But mostly it was horse stories – A Horse of Her Own, The Silver Brumby, Silver Brumby Returns, Phantom Horse, Come Home Phantom Horse, Misty of Chincoteague, Stormy – Misty’s Foal, King of the Wind, and a myriad of titles from the Pullen-Thompson sisters.
But it’s My Friend Flicka that sits on my book shelf to this day, tattered and dog-eared from countless readings, the opening lines committed to memory.
I envied Ken McLaughlin his life on a horse ranch, although not his domineering father. Like Ken, I was a country kid but I lived in town and wasn’t allowed a horse. In retrospect, I realise my parents had neither the time nor the money to indulge my pony passion, but as a child I saw only their resolute refusal.
Ken’s parents did, eventually, let him choose a yearling, although that didn’t initially turn out well, because he chose a wild but beautiful sorrel filly he called Flicka. As the tale goes, it almost ended in disaster, but the thing that gripped me was that in the end Ken had his horse and she loved him. A sorrel filly.
Sorrel wasn’t really a horse colour description much used in the other books that I read, and it took me a time to translate it as chestnut. When I did, I could understand Ken’s fascination; my dream pony was a chestnut, with some white on its face and some white on its feet, perhaps flaxen mane and tail, but I wasn’t so fussy about that.
I had an image in my head of the exact horse I wanted. I had a picture of it as well. My sister gave me a book for Christmas one year – The All Colour Book of Horses – long enough ago that it was important to put the ‘all colour’ description in the title. On the cover was a chestnut mare and her foal, walking across a lush green paddock.
The mare had a white blaze down her face and long white socks. The description inside the book told me that she was an Arab. She was, I thought, the most beautiful horse ever, and she became the epitome of my dream horse. I called her Bella, which I somehow knew was Italian for beautiful. She was the horse I wanted.
Decades before the internet, I scanned the livestock sections of the papers – The Sunday Times was the best for this, although sometimes The Countryman held promise. I cut out or circled the adds that appealed, conjuring their images in my mind, imagining ringing and finding out about them, going to see them, buying them, bringing them home. I walked and ran through the local bush tracks, or rode my bike, imagining always I was on my horse. But it was always childhood fantasies. There was never a pony of my own in my childhood.
There were horses – the local publican kept four or five trotters in a paddock on the edge of town. I saved some pocket money and bought a body brush, dandy brush and curry comb, and I would slip through the fence and groom the publican’s horses.
A few of the girls at school had horses, and I hung around with them, hoping for the chance of a ride. Occasionally I got one but I had no skills. All my knowledge was from the books that stood on my shelf or that I borrowed from the library and read and read and read.
I went to riding school for a week one school holidays, but I was so homesick that it was hard to enjoy being immersed in the horse world, and I felt embarrassed at my incompetence when there were so many kids there so much younger than me who were so much more capable.
In my teen years, one of my older brothers had a girlfriend who rode, and she took me riding whenever family trips took us to Perth. She tried hard to convince my parents that I should have a horse, at one stage even finding a little buckskin pony she thought was suitable. But it never eventuated and I remained ponyless except for the ones that so vividly filled my imagination.
In my early university days, I paid for riding lessons myself, scrimping and saving my meagre earnings to spend on two hours of bliss on Saturday mornings.
Later, I was distracted away from horses by study, work, travel, boys, and later by marriage and children. The years became crowded with other desires, with other things that were possible. Horses were too expensive. Too scary. Too much not of my world.
Yet my head turned to see horses in paddocks. My ears pricked at the sound of hooves. My heart lurched at the sight of pictures of little girls with their ponies. And envy rose on hearing of lives lived with horses. Somehow the idea that one day my life would have horses in it remained inside me.
It was my daughter who brought horses back into my life. Just before her third birthday she said she wanted a pony. My sister, remembering me asking for the same thing at the same age and knowing it was still an unfulfilled dream, asked me what I was going to do about that. “Get back on a horse,” I replied. I was determined that I was going to live my own dream; that I wasn’t going to get my daughter a pony and live vicariously through her.
I found a riding school near to where we lived in the city and started very traditional riding lessons. I loved being among horses and quickly the dream of my own horse, and of fulfilling my daughter’s dream of a childhood pony, came alive. It fed my desire for land – a place with room for a pony or two. By the time my daughter was approaching her seventh birthday, our little family had moved to a country property. I was approaching my forty-fifth birthday. Finally, the time had come for me to seriously look for a horse for myself and a pony for my daughter.
We found Timmy first. A little grey Welsh Mountain Pony, with dark eyes that looked as if they’d been outlined in kohl, the lashes painted with white mascara. The perfect child’s pony, although for twice as much money as I’d anticipated spending. We bought him anyway, me not really serious when I complained that my daughter was getting her pony before I had mine. Timmy came to live in our paddock and we ‘borrowed’ a little yearling filly from his previous owner to keep him company so he didn’t have to be alone in the big paddock. Then the hunt was really on for my pony.
Floss was one of the first horses I went to look at, with a semi-serious intent to buy. She was standing in the rain, a western style saddle on her back; just standing there, while all around her confusion crowded. A huge dog, a tiny dog, an overly-friendly deer (of all things!), half a dozen people, one of them a child with a brightly coloured golf umbrella. Floss’ owner wasn’t there, but had deputised these people – her mother, brother, cousins, to check out the prospective new owner and to show Floss to me.
Floss wasn’t officially for sale, but a friend of a friend had heard I was looking for a horse and had mentioned it to another friend of hers, and she was Floss’ owner. This woman had two other horses and Floss was hanging around in the paddock doing nothing; well, eating grass and being a horse, but not being used for any human-inspired purpose. She’d been doing that for two years and her owner was beginning to think that maybe she should move her on to a new home.
I looked at this horse and could hardly bare to touch her, more for fear that she would dissipate into thin air, than that she might hurt me in any way. I wasn’t thinking about my mythical Bella or Ken McLaughlin’s Flicka. I was looking instead at this real horse before me with the improbable name of Floss. I was trying to be sensible. To be realistic and logical. To be thinking and asking the right questions. To do this the right way.
All the time, my head pounding, my inner voice saying, no screaming, she is real, you could buy her, she’s not expensive, she comes highly recommended, look how quiet and calm she is. And yet, she hadn’t been ridden in years, she could be wild under saddle. Be sensible. Don’t judge a horse by its colour.
How could I not judge this horse by her colour? How could I not judge her by her stunning good looks? She was a little part-Arab (but mostly Quarter Horse) mare – chestnut, with lighter mane and tail, white blaze down her face, four white socks. I ran my hand down the warm reality of her neck, while my friend Judy picked up her feet and said, quietly, so only I could hear, “She has fantastic feet.”
“She’s a bit on the fat side,” I said to the owner’s deputies.
“Yes, she’s certainly a good doer.”
“Will someone ride her?” I asked.
The cousin got on. “I’ll only ride her a bit. She hasn’t been worked much in a while and she’s always been very forward.”
The cousin rode Floss around in a small paddock. She walked out briskly, moved into a speedy trot. Floss was definitely forward, probably too forward for me. But then, I could just call that willing, couldn’t I?
“I won’t canter her,” the cousin called. “She quite hot. She’ll calm down with more work.”
“Thanks, I’ll think about it and call you in a couple of days,” I said, sensibility to the fore, and we left.
“She’s a lovely animal,” Judy said as we drove away. “I’m tempted to buy her myself. But of course, she’s yours if you want her.”
“Are you going to buy her Mum?” my daughter asked from where she sat in the back of the car. “She’s so beautiful.”
At home, I pulled the All Colour Book of Horses from my shelf, the picture of ‘Bella’ there on the cover, looking just as she always had, in my mind and on the page. “Look at this,” I said, holding the book up to my daughter.
“Oh wow!” she exclaimed. “It’s Floss. That horse looks exactly like Floss.”
“Doesn’t she?” I said. “She was the horse I always dreamed of when I was your age.”
“Mum, you have to buy her.”
“I don’t think that you should buy a horse because it looks like one you dreamt of as a child. I don’t think that’s a good reason.”
“But she’s a good horse. She’s lovely.”
“Yes, she is.”
And so she became mine. My dream pony came to life, came to my life, 42 years after I first asked for a pony.
I borrowed Judy’s float and towed it behind my inadequately powered car to go and pick Floss up. Judy came with me. The idea was that I would take Floss on a two-week trial and buy her for a thousand dollars if I thought she was okay after that time. I planned to have a vet check done and to have a horse trainer I had been having some lessons with come and check her out. Floss was reluctant to get on the float and had worked up a nervous sweat by the time we got her home. We unloaded her down on the road. She was high headed and fiery. ‘I can send her back if she’s too much for me,’ I kept telling myself. Judy led her along the driveway as I was too nervous to lead her.
But I loved having the horses in the paddock. It was literally a dream come true. I watched them from the house when I should have been working. Timmy’s little friend Lacey went home and our two horses remained in the paddock; two horses grazing on the pasture beneath the towering karri trees. It was a scene of fantasy. I watched the interactions between them and learnt things books had never taught me.
I was on a steep learning curve with the horses. I worried about them getting sick. I worried about not being able to handle them properly. I enlisted an army of supporters from among my horsey friends and spent a small fortune on local horse professionals. Elissa came and gave Lauren weekly lessons. Judy and Lisa were just a phone call away. Justin came for two hours every Wednesday morning for two months and we worked Floss together. Justin is quiet and gentle, a hippy cowboy horse whisperer, with a scraggly tangly pony tail, and a bandana around his neck. He wears a cowboy hat with a feather tucked in the band. I liked him and learned from his every move. Sometimes I would watch Floss as she responded to him and was left wondering how he made her move like that. Then a friend gave me the tip to watch Justin as well as Floss, to see how he moved, to watch his body language. I did so and my horsemanship improved dramatically.
After five weeks Justin got on Floss for the first time. She tossed her head in protest but didn’t buck. She threatened to bolt and he calmly circled her. I was in awe of his skill; terrified that he would dismount and tell me it was my turn. He didn’t. I stayed on the ground, learning skills that somehow made me a better person as well as some sort of a horseman.
But the next week it was my turn. Justin had a short ride first then told me he thought it time I got on her. My knees were shaking as I lifted my foot to the stirrup. Justin stood by Floss’ head, steadying us both with his voice and his calm presence. I had reins but he kept the training lead on her as well. I walked and trotted circles around him, elated. I was riding my horse. I was riding MY HORSE. I couldn’t have been happier. I giggled like a little school girl and Justin smiled wryly. I wondered if he was laughing at me but didn’t really care and think his spirit is generous enough that he shared my joy. I talked incessantly, overflowing with enthusiasm.
Two weeks later I cantered Floss for the first time. Her body moved effortlessly beneath me. I swayed to the rhythm of it. Her mane flew before me. I could hear her hooves on the grassy paddock. It was so real. It was physical and emotional. Being with my horses brings me to myself in a way that I cannot properly describe.
At the end of My Friend Flicka, Ken, having recovered from a terrible illness, runs out to see Flicka. She has been waiting for his return and “…the neigh that (rings) out on the cold air was a sound the filly had never made before.” Floss isn’t Flicka and the best I can hope for when I turn up at her paddock is a head raised from the grass and a ‘have you brought carrots?’ look. I’m happy with that. I’m happy to step into the paddock, into horse time and just be in the moment. This deep contentment with the moment is an aspect of horsemanship that I hadn’t anticipated but which, over the years since Floss and Timmy first came to me, has become the essence of it for me.
The wait was worth it.