Horse Play

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The Jacksons, boisterous brothers and sisters of all shapes, sizes, ages and personalities, lived in a rambling country farmhouse. Set on a stark grassless yard, the property featured a ground-level trampoline stretched over a gigantic hole. At some point, the bouncy fabric died, split asunder by the punishing pounces of the Jackson clan.

I imagine Pete, their Shetland pony, came on the scene soon after the trampoline gave up the ghost. Beleaguered Mr. and Mrs. Jackson tried to keep their chaos-producing offspring out of mischief by providing wholesome entertainment, especially during the long, unrestricted days of summer when their children had all day to egg each other on. Idle hands are the devil’s playground, indeed.

Pete was brown and white, small of stature and long enduring. On the day I met the pony, the oldest brother, Buddy, was propelling himself across the yard, hoisting himself up and over Pete’s rump, and landing on the horse’s bare back with a satisfying smack. Buddy’s long legs and feet dragged the ground, stirring up dust clouds, as the pony plodded around the yard.

It was a lazy, sun-drenched day when Pete appeared in my family’s back pasture. I was never sure why my dad bought the Shetland. Eventually, our family would acquire more stately horses, from quarter horse to Tennessee Walker, but no one [except me] would ever confuse Pete with his more noble equine brethren.

Yet I immediately convinced myself of Pete’s majesty. I fantasized about how he and I would bond during the lazy sunny days stretching before us. Shy and bookish, possessing neither coordination nor courage, I nonetheless saw my wimpy self gracefully astride my “mighty” steed as we galloped across the plain. Never mind that my entire knowledge of horses came from TV shows like The Lone Ranger.

Dad caught up to the pony as I dreamily spun my visions of Pete and me roaming the wooded path, checking the property’s fence line and cooling down at an imaginary stream. My legs were too short to ascend by myself, so Dad cinched the pint-size saddle and hoisted me onto the horse’s back. “I’ll be back in a little bit,” he said, striding away.

I gently tapped Pete’s flanks, thrilled when he obligingly began walking the perimeter. Perched high on his back – distance being relative to a kid – I took in the beauty of the green grass, enjoyed the slight breeze stirred by our slow progress and inhaled the heady aroma of Pete’s eau de horse scent.

The experience was everything I had dreamed – until wily Pete implemented his plan. As soon as Dad was out of sight, that stubborn pony flat out refused to move. I prodded. I pleaded. I may have even profaned. Pete remained as still as one of those stone horse statues bearing a soldier. Apparently, Pete’s experience with the Jacksons taught him how to conserve energy.

Reality quickly set in. I was a short, timid coward, high on the back of a stubborn pony. The green grass now appeared miles away, far too distant for my stubby legs to reach without help. Instead, perspiring in the summer heat and fighting off horse flies, I remained in the exact spot where ornery Pete had made his stand. I soon began equating essence of eau de horse with the smell of treachery.

My father finally reappeared after what seemed like hours. On cue, that insufferable pony began placidly plodding again. I opened my mouth to complain … then closed it. Instead, I opted to be the strong, silent type, already mulling and shaping my fantasy about the events of the day. In my mind, I saw Pete and me riding off into the sunset together after, of course, we’d completed our heroic work and saved the town.

This was a much better story than the boring details of what really happened, I thought as we left Pete placidly chewing grass. Wild horses couldn’t drag the truth out of me once my fantasy bloomed and took root in my imagination.

About the Author

Freelancer Nancy Dorman-Hickson is an author, writer/editor, and speaker in Birmingham, Ala. She co-wrote Diplomacy and Diamonds, the memoir of Joanne King Herring, who was portrayed by Julia Roberts in the movie Charlie Wilson’s War. She has also edited the “Tennessee Living” section of Southern Living and served on the staff of Progressive Farmer. Read more about her at

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