Dad grew up around cattle and worked as a ranch cowboy during high school back in the ’30s. If it weren’t for World War 2 taking him from the cattle country of central Washington to the U.S. airfields of central China, he might have stayed a cowboy. But instead of keeping cattle he learned to keep aircraft flying and made a career of it in northern California at SFO.
Dad’s old now. At 93 he stands shorter than the 5 feet 3 inches he once boasted as his tallest height. He still loves horses, though, and when he moved to a place near us and found out the local university has an equestrian center he wanted to take a visit. Every time we’d get together for coffee or errands he’d bring it up.
So I called the equestrian center and asked about visitors. They said to just come on by, check in at the office, and they’d get one of the student staff to take us around.
I picked dad up at his assisted living apartment house and drove onto campus, past the dormitories and football stadium, past the medical school and veterinary hospital, onto a gravel and dirt road that wound around a bit, and finally pulled into the lane stretching between a couple of fenced pastures and up to the barn housing the tack rooms, some horse stalls and a small office.
One of the students, a graduating senior, pulled by on a quad with a couple hay bales on the back. She stopped by a shed, unloaded the hay, then walked back toward us.
“We were hoping to look around,” I said. “I was told someone might be able to help us out.”
Kate took us through the barn and by the covered arena, describing the different activities. There was a dressage ring, a green pasture with low fences for hunters and jumpers, a farrier’s shed. Only students are permitted to board horses there. No faculty or public horse owners allowed, in an effort to keep costs down to something affordable for the students bringing their horses from home.
The last stop was to see Kate’s horse, Magic. He’s old, like my dad. And tall, unlike my dad. Dad asked Kate if he could go in the stall.
“Sure. He’s very gentle.”
Dad stepped in. The top of his head came well below Magic’s shoulder. Dad spoke softly to him and reached his hand up to stroke Magic’s neck. Magic lowered his head, nuzzled dad for a moment, then tucked his nose right into dad’s shoulder and left it there.
Magic stood like that for about five minutes, almost cuddling into dad as dad stroked his neck and continued to murmur soft words to him. Eventually dad dropped his hand and stepped out of the stall.
“He’s a good old horse.”
We said thank you to Kate and drove away, back down the lane, onto the gravel road, past the medical school and football stadium, and into town.
With memories of an old cowboy and an old horse sharing a moment together.