I have never been an absolutist about relationships, but four years ago, when we acquired a horse, I was adamant about how this had to end. I told our twelve-year-old daughter that the day she went to college, he would go back to the sale barn he came from, to be sold to the next little girl who was ready to fall in love. A horse was a big financial stretch for us, but we told ourselves we could handle it, in great part because we knew the effort was finite.
So much for resolve: Three days ago we packed up Reno’s two blankets, the toy he rolls around to make the alfalfa treats fall out, twenty plastic baggies of his special mash, and the worn cornflower blue halter that looks so striking against his dark brown coat. We wrapped his legs to protect them when he stood in the horse trailer, and we followed that trailer to a stranger’s home in the west valley, where people board horses who are lame, or old, or in semi-retirement, a state they enter at the arbitrary point when people like me can’t make good on the business about the sale barn.
He is the first and last horse we will ever own. College is still a year-and-a-half away, but we will fill that gap with a borrowed horse. No point in making another long-term commitment – as though we could. Even if the budget and situational insanity allowed, nobody in the family is prepared to cheat on Reno . He is our only guy. The day before he left, my daughter, Sarah, explained things to the new horse, who resided temporarily across the barn aisle from Reno , whose stall he would move into once his predecessor was gone.
She pointed at our horse. “I will love him forever,” she said, “but you and I will be good friends.”
As for me, I nurtured the fantasy that Reno could come back after Sarah left for college. I told him he was only leaving for a while, even though I knew I was lying.
My feelings about Reno stop far short of sentimentality, for his dominant personality trait is attitude. Over the years, he has nipped at me, Sarah, my husband, Larry, and various other people who tried to do nice things for him. There were months when any suggestion that he move into third gear – What? Me, canter? – was met with bucking and more bucking. He landed a kick on Larry’s leg about six inches away from what would have been a shattered kneecap. He refused to get from one jump to the next in the designated number of strides. He alienated everyone who loved him, and then he struck a pose to remind us of how blindingly handsome he was. I instructed Sarah to run like hell if she ever met a man who behaved this way.
She stood by the horse through it all. She insisted fervently that he understood the command, “Go to Mom,” and she liked to point him toward me, her hands on her hips, her feet out of the stirrups, to prove that given his druthers he would head right for the woman who rode him when Sarah had too much homework. At the start I protested that he was merely walking toward the nearest familiar face, the one who always had alfalfa pellets in her pocket, but after a while I allowed myself to be seduced. Sarah even convinced Larry and his lucky kneecap to reconcile with Reno , and they built a wary truce on carrots and apples and letting someone else hold the lead rope. We joked about her having a sibling with hooves, but behind the joke was the truth: The horse was not just a ride; he was as much a part of the family as the dog.
Like any troublesome guy, he seemed to know just how far he could go before he needed to give us cause to love him. Then he would stand with his massive, dark head against the bend of Sarah’s neck and shoulder, or let her loop her arms around his neck. He let her stand in front of him and kiss him on the nose. He nickered when we walked along the row of stalls; he knew our sounds, and we knew his. He played tricks, but never when it would have put Sarah in any danger. They were partners.
And when the weather was cool, or early in the morning, Reno would let us have a glimpse of his better self. Sarah would inform him, with a subtle shift in her posture and a kick of her heels, that she preferred no longer to be earthbound, and he would show her how to fly.
But lately, she wanted to jump higher and more often than he did, and we realized it was time for a change, for both their sakes. The consensus among our friends, once we admitted that Sarah had outgrown her horse, was that we finally had come to our senses – and by the way, what on earth were we going to do with Reno ? If he were a slightly younger or easier horse, we could in fact have sold him to that next little girl. But he is middle-aged and not easy to ride. I became obsessed with what I called the Black Beauty syndrome, a vague fear that selling Reno would be the beginning of a sad end, as one owner after another gave in to frustration and gave up on him.
He might be growing weary of the kind of exertion required of him, but were we just a good-time family? Responsibility does not end with usefulness – nor does affection, much as I’d wanted to believe that it would where a horse was concerned. A new idea took shape: Reno was our horse for keeps, but he was ready for an easier life, and we had to find it for him. For the long term, we needed a solution that didn’t drain the college fund, like the cousins’ ranch in Montana . But none of us was ready to send him that far, this soon; the west valley was a half-step while we got used to the idea.
I was not to be trusted, in the days before his departure, and I wasn’t quite sure why I kept bursting into tears. He was Sarah’s horse, after all, and she had made her peace with the transition, after a long period when the surest way to make her cry was to utter the words “Reno” and “gone” in the same sentence. She saw this as his hard-earned retirement.
Still, I cried in the shower, in the car, at the stalls; I tried to do it when no one was around because I felt like such an idiot. The replacement horse was easier on every level, and I should have been thrilled. Instead, in a dark moment, I confided to the interloper that he was merely a transient solution, and went back to plotting ways to move to rural Pennsylvania and set Reno up in the back yard. I confessed to another mom – a lifelong rider who had two horses, her own horse trailer, and a daughter who’d ridden since she was three – that I was having an inordinate amount of trouble letting go.
“You love him in a different way than Sarah does,” she said. “I felt that way about our first pony. He was Nicole’s childhood, and when he went, it was over. Reno is this part of Sarah’s life, and that’s why it’s so hard for you to give him up.”
So much for not crying.
There it was: The end of Reno is the almost-end of adolescence, the first of many separations. Reno takes with him tiny Sarah, too small for him at first, too small for her borrowed riding jacket and her new boots, her smile burned into my memory because I stared straight at it so many times. He takes feisty Sarah riding into the ring sobbing, after he had bucked her around it twice, still determined to get around the course on the third try. He takes Sarah sailing around the ring on the good days, and never, ever leaving the stalls without saying, “Good night, Reno . I love you.” He takes endless hours of us brushing him, bathing him, of having something to do – you grab the fly spray and I’ll clean his feet – beyond the backtalk and misunderstandings that can come with being a teenager and a mom.
Reno ’s retirement stall was bigger than his old one, with a back gate onto a little paddock, and shavings piled high enough for a road show of “The Princess and the Pea.” It had the evening meal’s alfalfa, an automatic waterer, and his toy. The hauler walked him in and slipped off the lead rope and halter. Reno spun and bolted for freedom, which would have been enough, right there, for me to put him back in the trailer and take him home. But all he did was stand in the driveway and wait for one of us to reclaim him, and then into the new stall he went.
Two days later, Larry answered the phone, and it was the woman who took Reno in, calling to say that the forms we’d filled out had arrived. When I realized who it was, I blurted out, “Is he happy?” She assured us that he was.