My pony, Topper, was the equivalent of a extra short, dark hair and skinned, broad shouldered Italian man, who liked his coffee strong and black and switched to blood red wine in the evening. He swore like a sailor and gnawed on the stub of a cigar.
Topper’s dark complexion was matched by his gruff demeanor. His mouth was hardened from years of children riding him and if he spotted a succulent clump of grass, it was best to give him his head. He could easily yank most kids forward into a heap on the ground with a strong tug of his meaty neck.
The Horse Show was a long mile and a half down our road. There were entire fields of grass clumps that would no doubt be undeniably delectable to my fine steed. I wore riding breeches and a home made halter top that tied with a shoelace width ribbon at my neck and around my middle. The sky was overcast and the air muggy. We set off for the show.
The riding was lethargic. We would advance a few paces and then Topper would yank his head down to trim a green nub at the side of the road. He didn’t just pull his head down. He seemed to put his strong neck and head into it and thrust hard just in case an unaware rider might be holding the reins short. He was wicked. We might have covered half a mile when Topper decided that the Reynolds’ fields were in need of trimming and his appetite could accommodate. Before long, I found myself nearly across an acre of pasture, completely at the mercy of my seasoned pony. I pulled my feet out of the stirrups and slid off. He was not moving with me atop. I might as well attempt leading him back to the road. At this rate, we might miss our first class, Junior English Pleasure. I leaned down, grasped his bridle near his muzzle and tugged on it. His head came up but he took no step. I leaned into him, hip hard against his shoulder and tugged at the same time. One leg took a single step. No air moved and my face felt sticky with sweat.
“Come on, you old pig.” I muttered at him, tugging and pushing him to force motion out of his singularly minded body. “You can eat all you want on the way home.”
Begrudgingly, he took some slow steps. This scene of dismounting, tugging, returning to the road and climbing back onto his short squat frame was repeated half a dozen times as we made our way along the road, past farms, fields and gardens to finally reach the riding ring.
Trailers lined the far side of the fence that framed the long oval of the ring. It too was fenced in with large gates at either end. There were all manner of horses and ponies and riders. Some were impeccably dressed, their horses’ manes braided with ribbons matching the color of their riding gear. Others, like myself, had limited accessories although Topper’s black tail and mane were neatly braided and held fast with blue ties. My boots and breeches were of good quality but heavily worn, hand-me-downs from my older sister. I found registration and slipped my number jersey over my halter top. We hadn’t missed our first class and Topper, once in a ring, was obedient and quick to respond. There was no grass within sight so he resigned to the business of being ridden. We came in second and although not as pretty as blue, Topper’s red ribbon stood out against his jet black jaw. He was used to winning ribbons.
The day passed pleasantly. It was humid and the sun never came out. The heat nearly overwhelmed but there were enormous oaks and a few pine trees providing shade along the edges of the paddock surrounding the ring. In between classes, people relaxed on lawn chairs, eating from picnic baskets and visiting while their horses stood in the shade, sipping from buckets of water and munching on leaves of hay doled out for jobs well done regardless of placement. Topper and I didn’t ribbon that day in Junior Flat Hunt Seat but he worked hard for me anyway. The required jacket, that my mother had delivered along with lunch, was scratchy against my back and as soon as I finished the class, I took it back off.
The ride home was a little quicker. Topper knew we were headed back to the barn, his stall, a sweet ration of grain and so only stopped here and there for a mouthful of grass. I was grateful as I was spent and feeling hot and sticky. My skin felt tender and I remember thinking I might be fighting a cold.
Later that night, it became clear it wasn’t a cold but a severe sunburn. My face and back were bright red. My shoulders blistered and burst over the next several days, rendering me bedridden in a dark, cool bunk bed that was standard in the small cubicle rooms my dad had built for the conference center at our farm. I consider the damage still today, and have since always worn appropriate clothing on hot, humid, overcast, seemingly safe, sunless days.