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Polly, My First Love

By Dianna F. Dandridge

Horses come and go through our lives, but seldom do they pass through without leaving a mark of some kind. Horse lover or not, life is never the same after these magnificent animals touch our lives.

Polly, according to her owners, was nothing special -- no great bloodlines or special talents-- just something to try to interest the kids and get them out in the fresh air. To me she was a beautiful, wonderful well-bred answer to my dreams. She was a dark bay with a broad stripe down her face and two white stockings and one white sock. Somehow, all the years I knew Polly, I never saw her mane and tail tangled or full of burrs. Her black tail always dragged the ground and her mane hung below her neck. Her dark color against the green of the pasture always made her look as if she was in silhouette. I could watch her grazing out in the fields for hours. By the time the Eaton’s realized their children were never going to be interested in the horse I was already head over heels in love. We lived in one of the small rent houses on the Eaton’s farm. Mrs. Eaton and my mother were good friends. That’s how it came about that I ever got permission to ride Polly.

I remember Mrs. Eaton came over to get mama to help her with something for the church. As she pulled up to the house I was out near the fence trying to coax Polly over with a handful of rolled oats, leftovers from that morning’s breakfast. Mama usually tried to keep back a few things that might tempt Polly and oats were fairly cheap. Mrs. Eaton said something about me liking the horse and I’m fairly certain my answer left her with no doubt of just how much. Mrs. Eaton went in the house to talk to mama and I stayed near the fence, offering Polly the oats and some hand picked grass.

I had seen Mr. Eaton ride Polly, but not very often. He spent a lot of time on the tractor or in the barn, but the horse always seemed to be an after thought. The Eaton kids never even came out to see her. I never understood that! After some time Mrs. Eaton got ready to leave and asked me if I would be interested in riding Polly a little bit. She said the old girl needed some exercise and she was fairly certain Mr. Eaton would give me permission as long as it was okay with mama and I didn’t get hurt. She couldn’t have offered me anything better. For the next several days I would ask mama if Mrs. Eaton had come by to tell me I could go get the saddle. Then one day maybe a week later, Mr. Eaton pulled up at the house wanting to talk to me. Not only did he give me permission to ride Polly, but he said he would even help me saddle her that afternoon.

Heaven came down and rested in that old farmer’s hand as he gave me the bridle and a saddle blanket. He carried the saddle out to the pen and then we had the fun of catching Polly. Some people might have lost heart after fifteen or twenty minutes of chasing her, just to get a rope on her, but not me. Mr. Eaton just sat on the tailgate of the pickup waiting. I imagine he expected me to give up. Finally, mama came out with a handful of apple peelings to offer Polly. She couldn’t resist a treat of apple peelings. I finally managed to get a rope around her neck. With the rope around her neck she led easy enough -- right up till she saw the saddle -- then she tried to bolt away, but thanks to Mr. Eaton closing the pen gate, she was trapped.

After that Mr. Eaton took only a few minutes to show me how to saddle up. I didn’t bother to tell him I had read everything I could get my hands on and already knew the mechanics of the task. I listened intently, enthralled I was about to get to ride this beautiful animal. I knew she had to be brushed down before the saddle went on, but the delay nearly drove me crazy. Soon enough she was brushed, saddled and bridled. Mr. Eaton helped me on the first time, showed me how to handle the reins and led me around the pen until he thought I was comfortable. Finally he opened the gate and led Polly out into the pasture. He let me have my first solo ride.

If I had known then what I know now I would never have wanted to get anywhere near Polly. She had basically one gait-- slow walk. Getting her to turn meant pulling and tugging on the reins until she had to turn. She did understand whoa! Unfortunately giddy up or go were not in her vocabulary.

Riding Polly was a bit like straddling a rooftop and she was nearly that responsive. Mr. Eaton had told me to kick her a little with my heels and that would make her go. Yeah, right! Polly took one clumsy, ambling step and then two, but never got in a hurry. Considering how short my legs were, I doubt she even felt my kicks in her well-padded sides. But at nine years old none of that mattered.

For the next couple of years I spent a lot of time chasing that old bay mare and a whole lot more time riding. From the first time I caught her she had some amazing tricks to try to prevent me from riding, but as determined as I was I usually managed to beat her -- after a time. Her favorite tricks included holding her breath so I couldn’t pull the cinch tight. I learned if I just walked her around for a minute she would have to exhale and I could pull the cinch up. When holding her breathe failed, Polly would lift her head so high I couldn’t get the bit in her mouth. For that one I learned to keep a handful of oats ready to drop on the ground. When she bent to get the oats I got the bit in her teeth and the bridle fastened around her ears. She never got really responsive and was always ready to head back to the barn. The truth is the only time I ever got her into even a low trot was when we turned towards the barn. I’m sure I didn’t help matters none with my unorthodox riding and awkward skills. Mama was terrified of horses and knew pretty much nothing about them, so the only help I got from her were treats to coax Polly along. Daddy knew more but wasn’t interested in teaching me, so everything I learned was pretty much by the seat of my own britches.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say Polly ever got violent, but she did manage to get rid of me a number of times. More than once I would land in the fresh green wheat of the pasture and sit up in time to watch her heading back to the barn. Once she got rid of me I knew there was no catching her. And, after she got to the barn there was nothing I could do to get her moving again.

Somewhere in those years, we moved off the Eaton farm for awhile. When we came back daddy was gone for good and standing beside Polly was a beautiful sorrel colt, just a couple of months old. Apparently, or the best I could understand, one of Don Rector’s quarter horse studs had jumped the fence and found Polly to his liking. Polly’s beauty might have only been in the eyes of the 12-year-old girl, but her baby, Cinnamon, was undeniably gorgeous. As a colt he was a bright sorrel without a white hair on him. Again the Eaton’s gave me permission to work with the colt and Polly. I guess they never thought how serious I was about the horses.

Cinnamon learned to lead pretty easy and it wasn’t long before I could get him to follow me just about anywhere. I’m fairly certain that everything I taught him was in a rather unorthodox manner and surely nothing a real horseman would ever do. Polly, on the other hand was just glad I was spending more time with him and less time chasing and catching her. As the days turned into months, the Eaton’s decided it was time Cinnamon got some real schooling, not just the stuff I was doing with him.

They hired Eddie Strickland, a kid who was several years older than I was, to do the actual breaking of the colt. Eddie Strickland was known throughout the little town as more than a little bit hot-headed. There probably wasn’t a day that went by that Mama didn’t hear me complain about what Eddie was doing to that colt. She just smiled and said he wasn’t hurting Cinnamon. Then came the day when I knew I had to do something drastic. Eddie had gone to far and I had to stop him.

As I watched Eddie try to get the colt to load in a trailer my temper got shorter and shorter until finally I stepped in. Eddie had been pulling on Cinnamon and hitting him lightly with a whip to get him to load and Cinnamon finally had enough and hit Eddie with his head, knocking him to the ground. Eddie got up, mad as all get out, and kicked that colt in the chest. I mean to tell you I unwound on him. I ran to the barn and grabbed a pretty good size hammer and came out swinging. I knew he was a lot bigger than me and I had to have some sort of equalizer. I was going to hit him as hard as I could and make him stop hurting Cinnamon.

I don’t know where Mr. Eaton came from, but he and my mom must have seen me coming out of the barn at the same time. Mr. Eaton grabbed the hammer and mama grabbed my shirt collar. He tried to explain to me that Eddie hadn’t hurt the colt, but I wasn’t buying it. I told him that Cinnamon didn’t need all that whipping and kicking. He would load just fine. After I calmed down some I explained that Cinnamon would follow me up into the trailer without even a lead rope.

I guess none of them believed me, but Mr. Eaton and mama were willing to let me make a fool of myself if it would make me be still. I walked over to the colt and took the whip out of Eddie’s hand and threw it on the ground and then removed the lead rope from Cinnamon’s halter. Cinnamon turned to nuzzle me and like always found some kind of treat in my pocket. After I loved on him a bit, he did just like I said he would and followed me up into the trailer where I tied him up and gave him some more treats. I left him standing there munching on something without a care in the world. I told Mr. Eaton and Mama I told you so and said something not so nice to Eddie, but I made my point. Not long after the hammer incident, the Eaton’s sold Cinnamon. I never saw him again and don’t know what happened to him. I always hoped he found someone who loved him and was kind to him. As for Eddie, he just managed to stay clear of me, no matter where he saw me.

That left me with just Polly. By this time, I was beginning to realize Polly was far from beautiful, but that never stopped me from enjoying a day riding her. The Eaton’s didn’t care if I took Polly out of the pasture, but they didn’t want me leaving the farm. I’m fairly certain they knew she would never stray to far, but didn’t want to take the chance on me being off somewhere and getting hurt and no one knowing where I had gone. It didn’t matter much. I explored every nook and field of the Eaton’s farm. Had adventures no one ever knew about and dreamed dreams only a daydreamer on horseback could dream. Then one day, when I was coming back from a ride I saw Mrs. Eaton’s car in front of the house. I don’t know what was different, but something told me something bad was about to happen.

I walked in and Mrs. Eaton offered me a soda. That was something completely unexpected as sodas weren’t an everyday thing back then. I sat down and just had to ask what was going on. Mrs. Eaton told me that she and her husband had come to the decision to sell Polly. She said her kids never took the time to ride and they just couldn’t justify the expense of keeping her any longer.

I knew I didn’t have any right to be upset, but none the less the tears just kept coming. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out what I had done to make them angry enough to sell MY beloved Polly. Mrs. Eaton kept telling me I hadn’t done anything, it was just a decision they had come to. I begged and pleaded. I told them I would do anything if they just wouldn’t sell her. All to no avail. The new owners were coming to pick her up in the morning. I would be at school and wouldn’t even be on hand to say goodbye.

Mrs. Eaton left with me still sobbing. Mama tried to comfort me, but there was no comfort to be had. Darkness found me standing beside that old mare with my face buried in her shoulder and tears running down her leg. Maybe she understood we were saying goodbye, because she didn’t even try to leave when Mama opened the pen gate to come get me. The next morning I didn’t take her a handful of oats or even bother to look out at her. I just walked to the bus stop, knowing if I saw her again I would run to her and never let go. She was gone when I got home and nothing in the world could have stopped the tears. For several days they came unwanted and unexpected. Most people can’t understand that kind of emotion, only someone who has had to say a hard goodbye to their first horse.

As it was, I guess that was for the best. Like her baby, I never saw her again. For days I cried every time I looked out in the pasture and realized she was gone. I was positive that the Eaton’s had done this because they hated me. I guess I was just to young to realize they had kept her for several years simply because they loved my mom and me. Even years later thinking about that fat old horse can bring a tear to my eye. She was my first love and my first real experience with horses. She will forever hold a special place in my heart for that reason.

Matter of fact, every horse I have ever developed a real affinity to has been a bay. Most had at least one white foot and white stripe, but always a bay. Forever when I see a fat old bay mare in the fields, especially if she has a colt beside her, I can’t help but remember with all fondness MY beloved Polly.