Friday, March 19, 2010

In memory of a horse named Socks.

At the age of 9, most kids are obsessing over a new bike or the latest video game. I was on a mission to find a horse. To be fair, the mission had begun in infancy when I'd first laid eyes on one. I drew them, talked about them, took meticulous care of a stable of imaginary ones that fit nicely in our backyard in Houston while my parents waited patiently (and desperately) for the phase to pass.

It didn't. The obsession grew and the fantasies were getting a little eccentric which led to the purchase of two pygmy goats in a bold move on my parents part in the never ending game of parent/child negotiation. 'Once she learns how difficult raising a goat can be, she'll forget all about wanting a horse,' was no doubt the logic. I carried the goats, Dr. Pepper and Willy Joe, around like infants and bottle fed them with a hidden agenda of my own. As soon as they were full grown, I tried to ride them, fashioning a bridle out of a stick and some shoe leather.

If the 12 seconds on the back of a goat taught me anything, it was that 12 seconds on a horse must really be something. The obsession was gaining momentum. I wrote essays on horse management. I groomed Midnight, my Barbie horse, until the plastic lost its shine. And I begged to the point where even my loving parents were embarrassed by my lack of dignity. But it worked.

Either the planets aligned or I wore them down or I caught them on a margarita night, because the 13,474th time I asked if I could get a horse - the word 'no' didn't immediately follow. I opened the Houston classifieds and read a short but efficient ad for a pony - something to the effect of 'golden colored and loves kids.'

I didn't want to seem overzealous or anything, but could there be more of a sign? I mean I was a kid and my hair could be considered golden colored. The next evening we were on our way to the suburbs to look at this miraculous creature. We got lost and by the time we arrived, it was dark. No matter, the pony's shiny coat practically glowed under the front porch lights. (It was too dark to notice how the whites around her eyes hinted at a demon trapped inside trying to get out.) My mom and I looked at the pony's hair - then at my own. It matched! I mean, what more could you possibly want in a pony? Besides, the 5 minute test ride which the gentleman led me on went swimmingly. At this rate, I'd be in the Olympics by summer.

We bought the pony, Bess, and then the real test came. Bess was anything but the perfect pony, though in an ironic way she was a Godsend. Bess didn't like to be saddled, much less ridden, and she had a funny quirk of cow kicking you when you weren't looking. "A horse can kick sideways?" we marveled, until she got me in the butt when I was bending over to retrieve a brush knocking me down. Ah the tenacity of childhood - if that happened to me now, I'd have sent the pony packing and taken up knitting. But I was 8. I simply picked up a 2x4 and hit her back. She and I had a few rounds of this game until she decided it was far less work to just stand there while being brushed.

Fast forward another year. Bess had taught me how to stay on no matter how badly the animal underneath you didn't want you to. She'd taught me to be patient. And then in an unplanned lesson, she taught me to jump. We'd go flying over fallen trees, old railroad ties - anything you put in front of us. And with my legs getting longer everyday, I began instigating 'project upgrade.' Don't ask me why, but begging for the second horse was much easier, and before I knew it, my parents and I were scouring the entire span of central Texas for horse number two. And we were no green city folk this time around - nope. On these scouting trips, we made sure we saw the horses in daylight.

No shorter than 34 or so failed horse shopping trips later (the subject of another book, I mean post) we pulled up to yet another barn in the outskirts of town. It was a Sunday. Valentine's Day. And Lord Heaven all mighty there he was.

The most striking gelding I'd ever laid eyes on - so brown he looked black when a cloud passed by but under the full wattage of the sun, the color of a chocolate-dipped espresso bean with a white blaze and four white socks. His mane and tail were the stuff of dreams, so long and full he made my exaggerated Barbie horse look homely.

Gail, the nice woman who owned him, was selling him because she wanted a new barrel horse. I got on him, pointed him to the nearest field, and off we went. It was like riding a feather he moved so smoothly, only a feather in a hurry. This horse liked to go. I was three quarters head over heels in love, one quarter terrified as we headed back to my parents. I kept the terrified part to myself - I wasn't about to blow the chance of owning the most magnificent horse in the world.

We chatted some more as Gail showed us how Socks automatically lifted his feet to be picked without even having to touch them and said that of all the horses she'd had over the years, Socks had the best ground manners by far. She was right. When we asked how old he was (something else we'd learned to cover in our meticulous sleuthing), Gail replied about 8. He wasn't registered so she couldn't be 100% accurate, but that was definitely the ballpark given how long she'd owned him.

It was all settled. This gleaming, proud-necked half Morgan half mystery was to be mine. And then a couple of days later, my mom got a phone call from a crying Gail. She felt so badly, but her husband just couldn't let Gail part with Socks. He was his favorite horse. Gail may have shed a few tears but I created my own tsunami. I'd already written 'Socks' on everything I owned and even things I didn't (my school desk) and the news was devastating. We truly had looked at dozens of frogs to find this prince and now he was gone.

My tears finally stopped and we kept looking. Oh did we look. There was 'Morlaugh' the Arabian who sat down when you tried to saddle him, a show pony who broke off its lunge line, jumped a fence and disappeared into a suburb, and a pair of Tennessee Walkers that ate wood the way other horses eat grass.

Then, on Easter Sunday, a miracle. Gail called to ask if we'd found another horse yet. Apparently she'd found her a barrel horse, and in some crafty negotiating of her own, she'd convinced her husband to sell Socks. To this day I'll never forget that phone call. As a writer I should be able to capture that feeling for you but I'm sorry I just can't.

Socks was transferred from one Houston suburb to another where I took lessons on him twice a week. He was the reason I got up every morning. But despite how wonderful I thought he was, my trainer, a lovely woman by the name of Cathy Strobel, probably felt differently though she never said so. Being half Morgan, Socks was what they call 'gaited' and moved in an amble so smooth, you could put an egg on his back and it wouldn't fall off. Which was fantastic, only I'd made the decision to show in hunter/jumper classes where gaiting was not allowed (see what I mean about us getting savvier all the time?)

Instead of telling us it would never work, Cathy began teaching Socks via me, how to erase a natural, God given way of movement he'd had his whole life. Talk about teaching an old dog new tricks. And in the interim, we learned we were dealing with an older dog than we realized. On a vaccination visit, the vet looked at Socks' teeth and said, 'He looks pretty good for a middle aged gent.'

'Middle aged?' we retorted? 'What are you talking about - he's 8!' Nope, by the angle and length of his teeth, he was at least 13 the vet said. Teeth don't lie. Of course we don't think Gail lied either, but when a horse isn't registered and you haven't owned it all of your life it can be hard to keep track.

Anyway, Cathy and I worked and worked and worked and one day, Socks broke out of that smooth amble into a bumpy, two-beat gait. I think the whole stable cheered. From there we went to our first show where we won reserve grand champion. That feeling I can describe - one part Janis Joplin and two parts strawberry ice cream.

But it wasn't all perfect. One time while warming up on the race track behind the stables, Socks took the bit in his mouth and ran away with me, circling the whole track at a hundred miles an hour before breaking for the tiny opening in the fence between the track and the stables, nearly snapping my legs off. To this day I've never been so scared, and as soon as I realized where I was (right in front of his stall - where else do horse's want to go?) I jumped off him, grabbed a riding crop, and went to town on him until somebody stopped me.

And God love him, he truly hated to jump and sent me over many a fence, often times right in front of the judging box.

But for the most part, he was a gentleman. And kind. And patient. He was the only horse that would stay clean in his stall before a competition. He didn't even like to use the restroom at a show! And on trail rides, he was the fastest thing on wheels in a short pasture. Nobody could touch me - not even horses twice his size or leggy Thoroughbreds.

I eventually got other horses, got into high school, and started riding less and less. After college, a career in advertising took me far away from home for far too many years. Socks stayed back with my dad, still trucking along even though his thick black mane eventually faded and thinned to a few dull wisps. Age isn't kind to any of us.

But as long as he was there, back home, I was happy. We had gotten Socks when I was 9 years old. And as I got older and older, the horse who was supposed to be my age who turned out to be much older just kept on living despite what the vets predicted. By now I was now in my thirties and had come to think that maybe he'd never die. I kind of had this little thing in my head where as long as he was there, back home, then a part of me must be too. And maybe, just maybe I hadn't really grown up after all despite all evidence to the contrary.

Socks passed away on Christmas Eve. I guess that means I'm all grown up now.

I have had some wonderful horses in my life and some out right nightmares, but Socks was in his own league. He learned how to trot after a lifetime of not trotting. He learned how to jump when he'd rather have done anything else, probably even barrel race. He became the leader of his own herd after years as a city horse. And as an old man, he led my young nephews around with the patience of a saint. And now he's gone.

I wish so badly that I could give him a treat right now and pet his longer than logical forelock one last time. But I can't. Instead, I'll make this bread for him in remembrance. Socks had a sweet tooth and a policy of eating anything you put in front of him out of politeness. He would have loved it.

Zucchini Oatmeal Bread, for Socks

2 cups wheat flour
1 cup all purpose flour
3/4 cup cooking oats
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon plus 1/4 teaspoon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon allspice

1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce plus 2 tablespoons
1/4 cup oil
1/3 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons vanilla
zest of 1 orange
3 cups shredded zucchini
2 eggs

Preheat oven to 350 (325 if using convection.) Grease two loaf pans with nonstick spray then dust with flour. Set onto a rimmed baking sheet and set aside.

Meanwhile put all of the dry ingredients into a large bowl or stand mixer. Mix until well blended, then form a little well in the center and pour in the applesauce, oil, buttermilk, honey, vanilla, and orange zest. Mix until just blended, scraping the bottom with a spatula if using a stand mixture to be sure nothing's holding out on you. Add in the zucchini stirring just until mixed, then the eggs one by one, again stirring until just incorporated.

Divide the batter evenly between the two pans and bake for 45-50 minutes, until golden and cooked through (knife or dried spaghetti should come out clean when inserted.)

Let cool in the pan for 10 minutes before carefully inverting onto a baking rack to cool all the way down.

Slice, slather in salted butter, and eat warm while remembering someone you love.

* By the way, Cathy is still teaching in the Houston area. You can find her at:


Jenn said...

What a touching story! I'm so sorry for the loss of your friend, but what wonderful memories you have! The bread looks delicious. I've had zucchini bread but never with oatmeal..sounds wonderful!

Miss Meat and Potatoes said...

Oh - thanks Jenn! He was a dear heart. And yes the oats are a new addition for me too in zucchini bread, yet somehow nostalgic and right at home amongst the other ingredients. Have a great weekend!

Erica said...

Beautiful post!The bread looks wonderful. I love zucchini bread.

Jenn said...

Check out my site when you have a chance, I just nominated you for a blogger award!

Miss Meat and Potatoes said...

Oh wow Jenn! This made my day!!! I'm headin' over:)