“Daddy! Daddy! Look!”
“You’re doing great, baby!”
What else was I supposed to say? Being a single dad was both the scariest and most rewarding thing I’d ever done in my life, and that was counting three tours in Afghanistan and getting shot twice. I was proud of my little girl riding Blanca on her own, but it terrified me she might fall off.
“Don’t grip the reins too tight, baby. You wouldn’t want someone yanking hard on your mouth. Hold them firm, but not tight. She only needs a little of a tug for direction.”
“I know, Daddy!”
Ten-year-old exasperation crept into her voice, but it just made me smile. I think we’re all like that at that age. Truth be told, the aging mare didn’t need the reins at all, but not all horses were trained to respond to neck taps or voice commands. Better for Liv to learn the regular way before teaching her anything more advanced.
My wife didn’t want Liv riding alone until she was at least ten, but riding with me was okay. Today was Liv’s tenth birthday, so I’m sure you can imagine her delight. I mean, what little girl doesn’t want a horse at some point? The fact we had several only made it better.
My government disability helped, but it wasn’t enough to make all the ends meet. I still needed to make a living, so boarding and hosting trail rides covered the difference. Blanca was my horse — a beautiful white Appaloosa with just a smattering of black on her flanks and hindquarters. She had been all sorts of spirited when she was younger, and her and I had numerous discussions and arguments about that fact, but she was in her late teens now and had settled into a middle-aged comfort zone. Every once in a while we’d play the game when it was just us, but she was very careful with Liv.
Liv urged Blanca into a trot and stood up in the stirrups. Her legs bent with the changed rhythm of the gait, but I could tell by how far Blanca’s head was angled down that Liv was pulling too hard on the reins to try and keep her balance.
“Put your butt back in that saddle, young lady!”
To her credit, she sat down quick and I motioned for her to come over. I continued leaning against the top split rail of the fence with one forearm and rubbed Blanca’s nose with the other hand when Liv pulled her up.
“You can’t pull on the reins that hard, baby. Blanca’s not going to throw you for doing it, but that hurts her mouth. Her mouth is just as sensitive as yours and that bit in her mouth is made of metal. You have to use your legs to keep your balance when you stand up, not the reins. Understand?”
She had her eyes downcast and a slight pout to her lips, playing up the look of chastisement and hurt feelings to the hilt. She knew she was doing it, too. I swear, girls seem to become ever more self-aware at a younger and younger age. I don’t recall them being like that when I was that age, but then again, us guys seem to be pretty clueless around then, and later, so I probably just never noticed.
“Don’t even. I’m not upset and you know it, so quit with the puppy dog.”
Liv giggled a little and raised her eyes to meet mine. Hers were so brilliantly blue that there was no doubt she had gotten them from her mother. The sudden pain of the gut punch caught me off guard when I met those eyes. My heart felt like it skipped a beat and it was all I could do to not gasp for air as my wife’s face filled my vision.
I covered by ducking through the rails and rubbing Blanca’s neck with one hand and resting the other on Liv’s leg.
“Look, I just want you to learn how to ride her right so you’ll both enjoy it. You’ll be amazed at what she can do when she trusts you to ride her right. You’ve seen me ride her without you. She can do all that with you, too, once she trusts you not to hurt her.”
Liv showed every indication of understanding when she nodded. “I know, but it’s hard!”
Of course, she had a ten-year-old whine at the end — always impatient. I did my best not to chuckle at her, but couldn’t keep from smiling.
“I know. It just means you’ll have to practice. I guess that means you’ll have to ride her a lot.”
I’m not sure there is anything better in the world than seeing your daughter full of happiness and love, but when it’s directed at you, well, words cannot describe it. It’s something you have to experience to understand. She damn near leaped out of the saddle and into my arms, then started kissing me all over my face.
“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you, Daddy! I love you! Thank you!” Liv pulled back her head and looked in my eyes again with a wide grin. “Did I say thank you? Thank you!”
I could laugh now and did. “Yeah, okay already. You’re welcome. Happy birthday, baby. One rule, though. You can only ride when I’m around to watch. I know you’re smart and all, but no riding on your own until I say you’re good enough. Deal?”
“Awww, really? Yeah, okay.”
I let her down to the ground and leaned down to kiss the top of her head. “Now go unsaddle Blanca and rub her down. I’ll come hang up the tack and turn her out when you’re done.”
I watched her pick up the reins and lead Blanca off to the stable. I needed a few minutes to collect myself after the gut punch. I was still feeling it.
It had been over two years since my wife had died of cancer. I had reached a point where I could go without thinking about it some days. Not most days, but some days. It had happened quick — six months from start to finish. She didn’t know anything was wrong, then it was, and by then the doctors said it was too late to reverse the damage. They could try all the standards, but it would only delay things and make her miserable in the meantime. We went with the painkillers and that was it. We made the most of that six months until she became too weak, and then she was gone.
Twenty-plus years gone, but they were wonderful years. Our love of horses brought us together while I was in the military, and the love of horses was what helped me and Liv get through the loss of her mother. It wasn’t always easy, and we certainly had our bad days, but riding Blanca together had helped us bond and find joy amidst the pain and anger. I missed her, but I could endure the sadness now without breaking down or falling into a depression.
It only took a few minutes to feel solid again, passing through shock and sadness to remembered joys and a daughter with her mother’s eyes. I headed towards the main stable, but cast a glance towards one of its side doors, knowing what I would see.
My wife had bought a pink pail with polka dots while pregnant with Liv. She used it to feed her horse, Char, but she would never tell me why. She told me the reason shortly before she died and then I understood.
“Char isn’t much older than Liv, so when she’s old enough to ride him, he will still be a fire-blooded Arabian. He will be a handful for her. He needs to trust her and the best way to get a horse to trust you is familiarity. Besides riding it, the best way to do that is feed it. I use the same pail to feed Char every day, and only Char. And when I’m not strong enough to do it anymore, Liv will do the same. You’ll teach her to ride and when she’s old enough, her and Char will be ready for each other.”
The pail hung on the side door, where it had always been put since my wife had gotten it. It had been repainted a couple of times to renew the paint, but it always hung in the same place. Char’s stall was the first one inside that door. My wife, always thinking of the future. Char was always going to be Liv’s.
Just the sight of it made me smile again. “Not yet, love, but we’re getting there.”
As I approached the stable., I yelled, “Liv! Don’t forget to feed Char!”
I grinned as Liv yell-whined back at me, “I know, Dad!”
Sometimes Daddy, sometimes Dad. Still about equal, but she was growing up. That was tomorrow’s terror. Today was not one of the bad days.
Copyright © 2019 DJ Blackford. All Rights Reserved.