My mind has been flooded lately with Frida Kahlo-like images: of horror, of pain, of accidents …all decorated in colorful flowers, or some other kind of lie. The images are because of my gray horse, Asher.
Last winter, before the snows set in, I sidled Asher up to a chair I had stacked on a barrel. He was too tall for me to mount from the ground—rather, I’m too old to jump that high. It was a cool day, and I thought it would feel cozy for both of us if I straddled his slick, rounded back with just myself: no blanket, no saddle. I had only ridden Asher with a saddle, never bareback, during the past year when he became “my” horse. I presumed riding bareback was part of his history.
This day, leaving the reins slack on his neck, I slid my leg over the top of him and pushed gently off from the chair, settling onto his strongly muscled back. I lightly cupped my knees in the “saddle notch” between his massive shoulders and the curve of his ribs, careful not to grip, just resting there absorbing his warmth.
The moment I settled, his head came up. I felt tension in his back, his haunches, shoulders, neck. Instinctively I grabbed for his mane as he bobbed his head between his knees like a loon diving for food. He sliced the air in a quick, clean motion that flung his mane out of reach. At the same time, he popped his front legs off the ground, bowed his back, lifted his dappled-gray hindquarters into the air, and hammered those solid-boned legs on the ground with the clear intention of sending me over the top of the round-corral rail.
“Oh, Asher!” I heard myself say in a tone that a naive woman might use when struck for the first time by the man she thought loved her. Surprise. Hurt. Disbelief. I bent quickly at the waist in an attempt to get hold of his neck so that I might land with my feet down. Too late. My body flew sideways in the air alongside the lower part of his belly as he propelled himself forward. I attempted to roll but landed on the backside of my shoulder and hip on unplowed ground, my legs following in straight lines like two trees felled simultaneously. Fwap, fwap. Asher was still bucking. On the other side of the round corral he stopped and looked at me in surprise, snorting loudly. It hurt just that much more that he would not come over to see if I was okay—which I was not.
I could smell rain in the air. One of our black chickens came zig-zagging over, clucking, wondering if there was a new fresh pile she could scratch around. I eyed Asher through the dust. “Well, damn you,” I said, as I hobbled up on one foot, the sprained or broken one clearly giving me trouble.
It was a month before I could ride again.
While healing, I imagined making a painting of Asher. I painted him as a horse made of balsa wood. The angles of its jaw and shoulders bear broad carver marks. It has a lovely curve to its neck, just like Asher’s, and dark sensitive eyes, but the eyes are pieces of hardware—dull, dark, and inverted. The balsa-wood horse is screwed together, one screw in the shoulder, one at the hip. It is immobile.
In fact, the horse’s front feet have large nails, one each, sticking out and upwards at an angle—nails that would be close to half as long as its lathed legs, nailing it firmly to the table. The hemp mane and tail cascade fully and catch the light. They look beautiful yet distinctly unreal. Scattered on the table are vibrantly-colored, crumpled (like me) flower petals. Around the wood horse’s neck, on a hemp cord, I hang some brass bells—bells that would, in my imagination, ring, if “Asher” should move, warning me.
The title of this painting is “Nailed.”
Of all the horses I have owned, say twenty or so, there are few—perhaps none—to which I have formed a bond such as the one I had with Asher. I first saw him when he was two. He was the color of ashes in a scuttle: dark, mottled, and with a blue cast: an eye-catcher even then. He had strong hips, a long neck, a short head, wide shoulders, the perfect Quarter Horse. When he was six, he was brought to me to sell, but I couldn’t resist him—so he became mine.
Other than his seductive looks, Asher was a mess a year ago: He had never been shod, he was difficult to catch, you could not approach him with a pair of clippers, he tossed his head constantly when you rode him, flipping it high and covering you with his spittle. We worked through those problems. Little by little he was able to tolerate the shoeing process without mangling the farrier; little by little he came to trust my loose-rein riding style and a gentle snaffle bit.
Asher loved to be turned out into the pasture. He politely waited until his halter had been removed, walked sedately past me until entirely clear of me, and then burst into a run—tail in the air—bouncing high off springy pasterns (more like a dressage horse than a Quarter Horse), and snaked that long neck into the air, throwing his head high and waving his nose back and forth like a wild stallion might in fending off an unwelcome newcomer. He squealed the entire time. At 5 o’clock in the evening, there he was at his gate, patiently waiting for me to arrive. I would lead him by the mane through the gate without a halter or rope, tuck him in with a treat and a pat, and close the gate behind him.
This was a great horse, I had no doubt. Not that he knew anything. Not that he had any particular performance capability. But he could walk out with a rhythm that made my whole body sing. When I put him in a lope, it felt like his feet were bouncing from pillow to pillow, like riding a winged Pegasus over one small jump after another. Was Asher ever easy to catch? Never. I insisted that he come to me, but it took ignoring him, circling him, petting some other horse, until he decided to let himself be caught. Once caught, he’d lower his head to the ground, if asked, to be bridled. He’d lead with exactly the same tension (none) on the lead rope no matter where I went or at what speed. He would always stop respectfully if I stopped. He never ran over me, shoved me against a wall, bopped me with his head, or stepped on me. I loved him. I was sure that he, at least, liked me.
That is all in the past.
This summer four of us met for a trail ride through New Mexico’s southern mountains. I had loaded Asher into my trailer to get him there. We had been over this trail before—Dry Mills Canyon, Trail #22—and Asher was used to the area’s canyons, arroyos, deserted homesteads, old pastures, and rock-strewn roads. We had listened to the wind move the pines in an eerie sawing sound. We had ridden past shallow-rooted and uprooted pines—endless deadfall—as I cursed the wilderness regulations that no longer allow feasible forest maintenance.
My seventy-year old body moves more slowly these days. As I saddled Asher to begin riding along the trail, I noticed I was the last of the four of us to mount. One woman was riding a Tennessee Walker, a horse Asher had not met. Those Walkers move differently than Quarter Horses—they have a different energy, longer necks. The woman was riding back and forth behind Asher, who twisted around, trying to see what this imagined “giraffe” was. He was wired. I started to mount. Asher sprung with all four feet straight upwards and carried me, still with only one foot in the stirrup, to the top of the trailer, about the height of two stacked cars. He then moved his whole body mid-air and spun me off.
Like firecracker noises or sounds of dead branches falling from a pine trunk, my body hit the hard gravel parking lot …hip, back, shoulders, elbows, head, legs, feet. My hip broke, and then it was done. I let out a sound like a mourning gorilla. I did not pass out. The bottom of Asher’s hooves rose again and again, coming down within inches of my head. I tried to roll under the trailer but couldn’t move very well. Throwing gravel at his head, I tried to spook him off. Finally he moved away and continued his bucking spree, saddle and reins flapping him on.
“I’ll be fine,” I said, once I got one of my horrified friends to roll me onto my back and off my hip. Hurt less that way. “You guys go on riding, I’ll be up in a bit.” Two ambulances, a ton of morphine, two hospitals, two metal plates and eight pins later, I was up. At first it was a walker and then a cane. My friends don’t forgive him.
Several weeks later they asked, “Are you gonna ride him again?” Then, “Will you keep him?”
I did not answer those questions at first. Finally I said, “I’ll keep him.”
He will be forever in my mind and my heart. But he will never be underneath me again. “Love is for the birds,” I remember my mother telling me, and then she quoted from The Rubaiyat, “…and lo, the bird is on the wing.”
My second imagined painting of Asher has a background in summer hues, with light speckling the leaves. I am lying on the ground on my back. My left hip has a large, dark erratic line through it. The leg, MY leg, lies off to the side. My arms are reaching up to Asher who, with curved neck and flared nostrils, is hanging from a big apricot tree with large dark leaves. His ash-gray legs are in motion. He is perfectly balanced—a dream horse, in the air. I have big tears flowing from one eye. My eyes are larger than normal, and blue. I have always wanted blue eyes. There are black chickens with bright red combs in the background, running, screaming. I imagine they sound like the ambulance siren.
I title this one “Broken.”
After a while, I decided to sell Asher. I don’t keep old lovers around. I did my crying the day I had a friend photograph me on a walker, leading Asher—a very polite and caring Asher—as he slowly walked beside me with no tension in the rope. When I sent the photograph around to my friends, I titled it “Our Last Walk.”
Several people considered buying Asher, and all agreed that he was beautiful. A short, squat man with a heavy black mustache ended up with him, but first he spent twenty minutes trying to catch him. It was this man’s request that he do the job. I could see that he knew a lot: He stroked Asher. He combed his mane and tail. He was in no rush to saddle him. Finally, the man threw the saddle on as if it was no big deal, and Asher accepted it as that. We walked to a place with deep sand, just in case. When the man mounted, had he been green, Asher would have thrown him. But this was an experienced rider who had grown up on the Mescalero Apache Reservation. He told lots of stories about lots of horses. The man hopped into the stirrup and Asher, more quickly than a coiled snake could strike, bowed his back, tucked his tail, and would have, had the man not had him securely in hand, bogged his head and bucked. I stood there imagining the next scene to be something like a Will James drawing. But the man held the explosive horse, he stroked him, and Asher relaxed.
As they moved out, I could see that this would work for the two of them. Asher rambled on for a while in that thrumming, long-strided walk, and then the man put him in a lope—not just an easy lope from here to there, but a moving-out kind of lope. He turned Asher into the fence, and I could see all that pent-up athleticism that I had never tapped, that talent that I knew was there and that I was (ah, the truth) too old, too old to ride. Asher turned, spun around and drove out, several times over. When they were done, the man with the heavy black mustache was smiling, and I could see that Asher had had a good time too. We shook hands. I watched the trailer leave with the top of Asher’s strongly muscled haunches just visible over the top of the door, his long tail hanging outside.
I visited Asher a few weeks later. I was startled to see his new home—an old tin shack with scraggly barbed wire for a fence. It was the kind of building you see a lot in New Mexico, more often in Mexico itself. The man had said he had forty acres. I had imagined rolling hills of gramma grass. It was not so.
Things come and go in life. I don’t want to remember Asher’s smell, or the light shining off his silvery hide. I don’t want to remember the feel of his hemp-like, gray-yarn-colored mane that I used to wind through my fingers, searching for burrs. Better that I concentrate on the cold wind rattling milkweed pods than think about the heat from Asher’s body, the feel of surface-soft, strong muscles under my brush, the downy feel of his muzzle, myself reflected in his dark eye. Better that I not remember the toss of his head, his charming insolence.
The last painting I imagined making of Asher is set in typical New Mexico desert—a craggy mountain, boulders, scrub oak, scrappy cedars, snakes, ravens, centipedes. Hot. At the bottom of an arroyo, there is a rambling, corrugated-tin shed. Barbed wire fence pieced together here and there. Hanging from the low roof on one end are brightly colored Mexican blankets with scarlet reds, blood reds, erratic black lines (like the pain that ran through my hip), and blue like blue eyes. The sky is dark silvery-gray with a faint flash of light. I painted the smell of rain. It can be done. In the corner of the dirt corral is a gray horse, just the top of his back, the curve of his strong neck. He is insignificant.
Underneath the dirt corral is my heart. First I painted the heart, then I painted the dirt over it.
Caroline McCoy with Asher: Our Last Walk
Asher, before he died at age 8 from colic.