Her name was Sassy.
Well, that was her barn name, at least. She was, in fact, a registered Thoroughbred. 'Personal Awe' was the very first horse I ever rode, at the young age of eleven years old. She was a spunky trail horse with a checkered past, and as I stood outside of her stall, gazing on with admiration, I couldn't help but daydream of galloping through grassy fields with her black mane whipped back in the wind, tickling my chin.
Sassy was eight years old. She was sixteen hands, approximately, and a terrific jumper. The first day of riding camp, after all the paperwork was signed and the t-shirts and friendship bracelets were distributed(most of which were lost halfway through lunch), we were assigned to our horses and began the tacking up process. It was my first time around horses, unless you count all those hours at the petting zoo, or in the pony ride's line. I was nervous, sure, but this was what I wanted. I knew I loved horses, even at such a young age, and nothing was going to stop me from learning all there was to learn about them.
Sassy was obedient as I haltered her and clipped the lead line on. She walked alongside me as I led her to the cross-ties, and stood patiently as I groomed her and saddled her. With the help of a riding instructor I mounted Sassy for the first time outside of the indoor riding arena. She was quiet and gentle as we walked along the rail, and even at a jog she remained patient as I fumbled with the reins. She hardly stepped out of line, and unless you count the occasional chomp at the bit, she was perfect, all day long.
For the rest of camp I looked forward to riding Sassy. Every morning I would bounce in the passenger seat as Dad drove me to the stable. I would run to the office and scan the chart where all of the riding assignments had been posted the night before. Never again did I see the familiar five-letter name that would send a shiver of excitement down my spine. Sassy was a one-time deal.
The camp was fun, I have to admit, even if it didn't turn out the way I'd wanted it to. I got to meet some pretty fantastic horses and we even took a field trip to a dressage performance down the road, where I watched beautiful Andalusians at work.
When camp ended, I spent the next few months earning money for riding lessons. I washed cars, walked dogs, and sold cookies and cakes at bake sales all summer long. When August finally rolled in, and Dad agreed to take me back to the stable, I was ecstatic. I knew for certain that I'd be seeing Sassy again. Even if I couldn't ride her, I could visit her in her stall and feed her carrots.
That was just what I did for the next eight weeks. As my lessons progressed and I became more comfortable both in and out of the saddle, I spent most of my time with the dream horse any girl could ask for. By the end of November Sassy would be waiting for me at her stall door, her delicate ears pricking forward at the sound of Dad's engine idling in the driveway as I gathered my things and scrambled out of the car. To her, I was associated with long, enjoyable grooming sessions and sliced carrots and apple sticks. Sometimes I would be granted permission to lead her out to the paddocks and watch as she dipped her muzzle to the ground and began yanking away at the thick stems of grass.
And then the unimaginable happened. Kathy, the stable manager, asked me one day if I'd like to compete in a musical freestyle event, in which the rider and horse demonstrate their ground work in tune to a beat. I agreed, and she asked me which horse I was interested in. Can you guess what I said?
Three weeks later, I was feeling nervous. It was my first event, and I'd been working nonstop with Sassy. She was ready, and I was ready... so why was I so jittery? I took my time grooming and saddling her, adding silver ribbons to her thick, coarse mane, and running my fingers through her silky tale. Her black coat was gleaming like a polished pebble, and as she turned her head to look at me, I felt as if I were in the presence of royalty. She looked like a princess's mount, not mine. Who was I to claim to be able to ride such a majestic creature? Who was I to ride out into the arena, and show off the little that I knew about horseback riding and ground work?
Sassy took care of me. As Kathy announced my name and I trotted into the arena, it was Sassy who made sure we looked elegant and practiced. She bent around my legs perfectly, and at the slightest nudge of my heel, broke into an even canter. Before long a grin had stretched across my face and I was surprised to realize that I was, in fact, enjoying myself. I was riding, and Sassy, the most brilliant, four-legged animal I'd ever laid eyes on, was practically floating beneath me.
I was awarded second place, which was the most magical moment ever. As I stepped forth to collect my ribbon and bouquet of flowers, I felt proud of myself. I felt even prouder of Sassy, who really earned the awards. As the drinks and cookies were being handed out, and the gymkhana games began, I sneaked off to Sassy's stall to kiss her muzzle and thank her for being a star. She nuzzled my shoulder and her warm breath tickled my neck as I wrapped my arms around her solid, strong neck and held on tight. It wasn't until Dad arrived, ten minutes later, that I realized it was time to go home. Another day with Sassy, another ending. I couldn't wait to return.
Kathy called me at seven fifteen on a Friday evening. It was the night before I was scheduled for the next riding lesson, a week after the show, and my ribbon was pinned to my bedroom wall, along with the dozen framed photographs I'd taken home from the stable. Some featured the bay cow pony I'd ridden the other week, when Sassy was out on a trail ride, and others were of the dappled gray Quarter horse that had accidentally stepped on my foot as I helped his rider mount up. Most were of Sassy, though. Me with my arms around her, me laughing as she nibbled a carrot out of my hand. Me, with my hair in a messy ponytail, looking exhausted but happy as I'm cantering around the arena with her.
"I know how close you were with that horse," Kathy said to me as I gripped the phone with both hands, listening to her strained breathing. I wondered where she was going, and pictured her in the stable yard, hurrying out to her truck with the cell phone pressed between her shoulder and her ear. "That's why I wanted to be the one to tell you. Sweetheart, I'm sorry, but Sassy had an accident today. She spooked at a bolt of lightning during a lesson, and when her rider hit the ground, she bolted. She hit the gate and a metal rod punctured through her skin. The wound was too deep and she was in too much pain. We had to put her down."
I couldn't believe it. I was in shock. As Kathy and I hung up, the tears flowed regularly down my cheeks. I sobbed into my pillow, and when Dad came knocking on my door, I barely had the strength to mutter a response. I was devastated. The next morning when I returned to the stable, I stood outside Sassy's stall, thinking of how perfect she'd been for me in the arena, only a week earlier. I thought about the weather, and how if there hadn't been a storm, would Sassy still be here? Would she be greeting me right now, with that quiet, affectionate nicker? I sighed, running my fingertips along the brass nameplate as the tears stung my eyes. Sassy only wanted to please. She'd been the best friend I could ever ask for. I couldn't let her down now. I had to continue on, with her memory strong and fresh in my mind. I couldn't give up the only thing that was important to me.
I returned to the stable for regular riding lessons. The weeks turned into months, the months into years. I bought my own horse at seventeen years old, and competed in seven different states. The pictures of Sassy are still with me, and I keep them out where I can see them and remember her flawless being. They are my inspiration whenever I'm feeling blue. My horses are healthy and wonderful, and I love them with every drop of passion that I have. But there's no replacing Sassy. Her spirit will remain, and I will tell her tale for years to come.
I hope you enjoyed this as much as I enjoyed remembering it.
I hope you and your horses live long and vicarious lives.