I met Katie Cerminara through her work with Canine Adventure. We needed someone to care for Biscuit over a string of upcoming out-of-town engagements. And, Bub and I were both working so much that we thought Biscuit might like to get out of the house and onto the trail for some adventure walks.
When Katie showed up that first day to meet Biscuit wearing jodhpurs to go trail walking, I pretty much fell in love with her on sight. And, Biscuit, did, too. Though not because of Katie’s outfit and passion for horses, but because she has a true heart for animals.
As Katie and I have gotten to know each other, we’ve often shared stories about riding and horses. Many a morning the names Albert and Sassy have crossed our lips and made us both laugh and tear up in those few minutes at the door when Biscuit is coming or going with her good friend, Katie.
Enough from me. Katie recently shared this essay with me that she wrote about her horse Sassy. I was so moved by Katie’s writing that I begged her to let me share it on my blog. – Gigi
Katie and Sassy
I just sat there. I could barely move, the heat stifling any attempt to be productive. Instead I remained immobile in the grass, allowing my eyes to move languidly over the scene before them. The dust and heat spoke among themselves rising to greet the arid breeze and falling with disappointment as it paid them no mind. Their conversation was enthralling and for a moment I forgot I was in the valley. Surrounded by the softly sleeping giants, my eyes searched and for the first time that day strained to see the Blue Ridge in the distance. Those blue mountains that I used to see every day. Those blue mountains that I grew to hate. Those blue mountains that I now love, because she loves them. In a few hours, when the heat ran off and the crickets rushed in, I’d see the mountains again; she’d see them too.
Slowly I pulled myself from my position in grass. It crunched beneath my feet as I padded across yard, echoing the cracking sound in my hip. Years of arthritis quickly reduced the young joint to limited mobility, no matter how diligently I tried to out run the ailment. It spread throughout my body just as quickly as the wild fire that scarred the neighbor’s wheat field. She had arthritis too, though she never complained. Forever the stoic creature; never a whimper or a sigh as the pain surged through her joints.
As I made my way to the house my mind raced. How long had it been since I last saw her? Would she recognize me? Would she be mad that I hadn’t been around as much? Would I recognize her? Just as my mind began to carry me away, the summer thunder voiced its’ opinion. It rumbled softly in the distance as the clouds rolled off of the mountain, telling me I’d have to wait for my questions to be answered. The storm quieted my worries, but opened my memories, to the crossroad in our relationship. I blankly stared into the thick sheets of rain thinking of how quickly time slips away into the past. Three years ago I thought I had lost her forever, while she exhibited just how stalwart she could be. A benign tumor quickly developed, inside her stomach wall entangling itself in the intestine. It restricted all bowl movement and forced waste to secrete through the porous intestine tissue; she was septic as the doctors later described it.
I have never seen any creature so close to death, but in the crisp October evening air I saw her fire like soul diminish to a feeble spark. I knew before I found her that something was wrong, I could not see her as I reached the barn. This is wrong, where is she? I found her in the stall, laying with her back to me. Wrong again, she never lies down. As I rushed to her side, I caught a glimpse of the most quietly terrifying sight I have ever come across. Her slack jaw dangled a few inches from the dusty ground, as flared nostrils sucked gasps of air into her heaving lungs, rocking her body with hideously unnatural movement. Her eyes rolled in their half lidded sockets, as she swung her large head in my direction, ears flopping at the sudden jerk. A horse that lies is a dead horse. I must get her to stand. I pulled her legs, three roan and one white, into position and then placed the halter gently around her head. I would only have one chance at this, she knew it too and I could see the uncertainty plainly written across her features. On the count of three I pulled the halter forward as she pulled in the opposite direction. She made it into a sitting position, pausing to let her catch her breath. Breathing still a laborious task. Then it happened, she started to slide back to the ground as she nickered an apology. NO! I would not accept it and willed the 900-pound animal to stand, pushing with all my strength, strength that she did not have, on to her four legs. I feared colic, the flipping of the stomach is a death warrant for animals of her size, but expected much worse as I awaited the arrival of the vet.
My eyes scanned the field, I knew she would be out there; it was just a question of where. The explosive, though brief storm saturated the ground and expanded the creek over its boarders. The muddy waters slid around the oxbows with unnatural agility and grace. I knew it was unlikely she would be across this serpent like obstruction, she was always wary of crossing water she could not see through. There, in the most remote part of the field I caught a glimpse of her. Those strawberry colored tresses softly waved in the refreshing evening breeze, blazing against the lush pasture. They always managed to stay the same length, an obvious nod to her Native American lineage. She is one of the oldest breeds found in North America, and her particular blood can be traced all the way to the remote grasslands of northwestern Idaho, only a small portion of the once vast territory of the Nez Perce. These Native Americans managed relations with other tribes as well as white settlers across the rugged land and are perhaps most noted for their tenacious defense against American troops in 1877.
These qualities did not miss their mounts in addition to being among the heartiest of breeds; the Appaloosa is renown for its intelligence and athletic ability. She did not miss out on these traits, perhaps she even exemplifies them too well. Prior to meeting her, she managed to develop a reputation that stretched from the lowland of Alabama to the mountains of Virginia. She was a nightmare to train and a punishment to ride. Her red coat made it easy to discover her whereabouts, but also served as a warning to the poison that could be found within.
I started, without a word, along the path. She knew I was there, and it would be her choice to acknowledge me. She was listening, that much I could tell, but she gave no other sign. I knew she had heard me; she had the best hearing even in her old age. Eventually, she turned to face me, wild eyed and acting as though she had no idea I was so close to her. I stopped. She turned away from me, a silent gesture that pulled me forward exposing her benign mood. As I approached I said her name and she turned again, however, this time she began to walk forward. Outwardly I smiled, it was now I knew she remembered me. I asked her how she had been lately. Those almond shaped, mahogany brown eyes sardonically cast their gaze in my direction, answering my question and driving the point home with a flip of the head. She held true to the old horseman’s warning, With almond eyes, expect trouble and I couldn’t help but inwardly agree with whatever cowboy had the misfortune of creating that tale. She had always been the one tell me what for, never the other way as most prefer.
The evening sun bounced off her mane creating sparks of red and yellow flying across the air, mimicking campfires that were sure to spring up all across these low hills. I stayed with her sitting in the tall grass as she grazed around in the abundant clover. She seemed at ease.
As the sun melted behind the oldest mountains in the United States throwing vivid ropes of color across the sky, I swung my leg over her in one swift movement.
The combination created a crescendo of energy as the molten star agreed to play our game. She knew what to do; we had years of practice and as the thought barely formed in my consciousness she bolted. Get it! Her hooves beat against the soft ground challenging Nature’s earlier thunder. I grabbed her coarse mane, entangling it through my fingers and stretched low across her neck as my arms pumped in perfect rhythm to her own furious movement. My legs remained firmly planted behind her muscular shoulders anchoring me to the wild strength. The once refreshing cool air stung my eyes while my hair whipped and snapped furiously in all directions.
And then, just as the crescendo exploded, it stopped.
The sun had won again, slipping behind the tin roof of that ancient barn before we had managed to cross into the shadow.
I dismounted thoroughly unaffected by our loss, there would always be tomorrow. She did not seem concerned with anything other than the darkness of the barn, her eyes played tricks on her in low light. Her ears prickled trying to decipher the sounds behind the darkness and her body tensed, clearly deciding between flight and fight. Her flight instinct consumed her for a brief second as she jolted back into the fading dusk. Moving aside I reached back with my palm exposed and waited. Once I felt her whiskers against my fingers I continued into the shadows, she also continued boldly. She hardly exposed her insecurities and I knew it hurt her to accept my help, yet it spoke volumes to how we had grown to need one another.
I missed her more than my own family these days and constantly tried to figure how to move her away with me, but she was happiest here: in fields that could swallow her whole. I often dreamed of running out west with her. We would find a cattle ranch in Wyoming or Colorado, or maybe even return to her ancestral lands, we would spend the days in big sky country where we had a chance to out run the sun. Early morning rides would not smell of honeysuckle and sweet dew, but instead of dusty hay and old leather. Our work would no longer be to jump the cleanest courses or gait the quietest to prejudice judges that disapprove of loudly colored show horses. Instead our days would be filled with getting long and low on cattle, checking fence lines, and galloping over thousands of lonely acres. But this was only a dream of mine with the bitter sting of knowing that it could happen, though when it did it would not be with her. My need for this paradise to become my reality would not blind me to her age. Her health meant more than my own and I would not knowingly put her at risk, and yet she would still have a hand in my Wild West movie. She would help me break my next partner, and it would be her protégé. Until then she would have to settle for day trips trekking through the blue mountains.
She was much more receptive to me in the morning than she had the pervious night. She was always like that. I tacked her and before the heat took a firm hold of the morning we moved through the hay field, heading east to the mountains and the George Washington National Forrest. It took the morning to hike to main trail through the dense second growth wood. She wore bells, around her ankles to alert fellow hikers, in addition to less than benign creatures of our whereabouts. When we approached the large bolder spray-painted and slewn with tags ranging from I Love Yous to Never Forgets by Appalachian Trail hikers we took a sharp left, continuing at a sure-footed pace over the rough ground. I relaxed in my position; she knew where to go and was in her element gracefully straddling the domestic and wild worlds.
Finally we reached a clearing and our destination for the day. The wildflowers beckoned gently from between the tall yellow weeds. Invisible drafts across the bluff created wave-like movement through the pasture. The sun warmly cast its’ ray just for the two of us that day, appearing to forget our continual competition. I stopped her just on the edge of the thicket in the cool shadows and removed her tack beneath a sizeable maple. She looked at me when I was finished and I knew she was longing to be with wild flowers and mountain grass. As I sank to the ground, resting my back on the tree I told her to go for it.
She moved through the knee-high brush with ease, grabbing mouthfuls of the sweetly smelling blossoms. Her molted red coat blended with the hay colored vegetation and as the night before the sun danced around her. Instead choosing to highlight her goldens and ambers. It amazed me how nature could color an animal so vividly and proudly, but man could still manage to find something to hate that was out of her control. I stood and she neighed in protest, I paid her no mind, and continued to search the blanket I stowed somewhere on her tack. Eventually I found it and threw it across the ground, just beneath the maple, she whorled around at the flash of color and movement. I mumbled a horribly spiteful apology to one of her most annoying, though somewhat endearing qualities. I stretched across the blanket and watched the clouds pass, occasionally putting a name to a shape. From our mountaintop they looked tangible and friendly, not the cold and distant warnings seen from the valley below.
She stayed close and kept an ear in my direction as I began to doze, listening.
Copyright Katie Cerminara. All rights reserved. Used with permission.