It all began with the chicken coop. My father converted it into a makeshift stall for my sister. Well, it was for my sister’s horse, actually. Although at the time I thought it would be a good place to keep the girl and had suggested this.
I couldn’t understand it. Why a horse? Why not just put chickens in there as nature intended? With six kids in the family and some of them heavy eaters, we certainly didn’t have money to feed a horse. And Dad didn’t know the first thing about horses.
Modifying the chicken coop was just the start. He actually went out to the far reaches of our one-acre spread and built a barn. He did this bit-by-bit and paid cash as he went along.
Our friendly next-door neighbors had 40 acres. They allowed Dad to put a fence on their property so the horse had room to graze. A friend of Dad’s came out and helped build stalls. Everyone seemed to be in on this.
Don’t get me wrong. I liked the barn. It was like having a huge, ground-level tree fort in the back yard. It was a nice place to hide behind whenever there was some blame pending. It’s where I learned to appreciate the aroma of fresh sawdust and hay. That still gets me.
The horse, Prince Thomas Littlebit, was a Quarter Horse/Welsh Pony cross and a bit of a rascal. He escaped on a regular basis, usually to raid the Arabian Horse farm just down the road.
The farm’s stud, Desert King (this was the early 1960s, prior to the more imaginative part of the decade) didn’t quite know what to make of this plucky little gelding hanging around the periphery of his kingdom. It was the closest thing to a rival His Highness had ever experienced.
No doubt, Desert King looked upon this bizarre little half-horse with a mix of anxiety and curiosity. Apparently, the presence of Tommy confused the stallion to the point of being unable to perform his primary function. The farm’s owner threatened to sue Dad. He did this at church during the fellowship hour.
“I could take you for everything you have,” Desert King’s overlord hissed at Dad over coffee and cookies. Since “everything” consisted of a wife, six kids, a barn, a converted chicken coop, and a little horse, nothing ever came of it.
I don’t know how much Dad paid for Tommy, but I know it wasn’t cheap to keep him. In addition to his lodging, his feed, and the attorney fees, Dad had to pay for a better fence.
You would’ve thought I learned something from all of this. At least enough to not let it happen to me. But, no. As soon as my daughters, Jamie and Hiliary, were old enough to form intelligible words, they began talking about horses. The talk turned to ideas and the ideas to plans and plans to petitions, complete with spreadsheets. And I began to understand why my father converted that chicken coop in the first place.
I held out for as long as possible, but in the end, I surpassed my father’s horse related efforts by a wide margin. I had not one, but two horse-crazed girls. Two girls, two horses. It was simple math.
I didn’t build a barn in the back yard. Over the years, local units of government had come up with laws prohibiting such nonsense. Instead, we sold our house in town and bought a place in the sticks with acreage. Then we built a barn.
Like my father before me, I learned by doing. I learned how to stack hay, both the easy way and the hard way. (In case you’re wondering, the easy way involves inviting your daughters’ rival boyfriends to the barn on hay-stacking day.)
I learned how to back a horse trailer — right after I learned how not to back a horse trailer. I learned all about manure — where it comes from, how to compost it, how to use a dilapidated spreader, and how to repair a dilapidated spreader.
And I learned that “five stalls” means “five horses.” Like my sister, my daughters eventually sold their horses. Circumstances and the priorities of adulthood obliged them to devote their time and effort to other things. But the experience will always be with them and is still an essential part of who they are as people. I think the same could be said for me.