She was a skinny, scruffy little sorrel yearling-coming-two-year-old filly. Nothing fancy. Her feet were the wrong shape, her ears were scabby with some unknown fungus or parasite, and her long winter coat was scraggly and dull.
But she was friendly, the price was right, and for some reason my horse-timid mom was encouraging seventeen-year-old me to train my own young horse. So I wrote the check.
We had our first wreck between their barn and our trailer. She tried to pull away, spooked at something and ended up floundering on top of me in the ditch. It was February of 1997, the snow was deep, and I didn’t get hurt. That time.
Not so much the other times. She banged my face into the barn wall a couple of days later when I tried to worm her. That hurt.
But I loved her anyway.
She was spoiled rotten, but she was quick to learn and willing to do whatever I asked of her. She didn’t mind my saddle on her back, and within a month I was climbing onto her bare back from an upside-down water tank (I couldn’t jump on bareback then or now…) and riding her around the pen in front of the barn. It really was pretty amazing.
I agonized over a name for her. In all the horse stories the horses had such perfect names, and she needed a good one. She wasn’t registered, so I had no names of great-grand horses to refer to. I didn’t like the name her previous owners had given her either. Six weeks went by and she still didn’t have the right name. I was still calling her ‘little mare.’
We happened to watch a movie set in the 1940’s and a song from it started running through my head.
“Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey
A kiddley divey too, wouldn't you?” [i]
There it was. Mairzie.
I tried it on her and it fit. Mairzie.
It was perfect.
We learned and grew together. She was always happy to see me, always seemed glad to be caught, and she whinnied at me from the corral when she saw me across the yard. If I walked across her pen she followed me even if I didn’t catch her first. She had that itchy spot on her neck just behind her ears and oh, she loved it when I scratched her there. And I loved to hop on her bareback and just ride. Just for the fun of it.
The worst wreck happened when she was three. I was riding her with a rope halter and learned the hard way to never, never, never wrap a rope around my hand. Marizie spooked at a pheasant, whirled, and I slipped out of the saddle. She took off at a gallop. I tried to hold on and whoa her, but inside of a couple of seconds I was on the ground and she was dragging me along by my right hand as fast as she could run.
“Dear God, I can’t let go!” ran through my mind, as I saw her belly above me and the blue sky beyond. It seemed to last longer than it did, but with one final thud I was still and Marizie galloped back to the gate. I shook the dirt off and went to catch her and take my saddle off before heading to the house to show mom what was left of my right middle finger. The nail was still there, somehow, but the entire tip was gone, down to the bone. My hand was rope burned pretty badly, I could feel the edges of broken bones in my thumb, and I had hoof prints from my thighs to my chest. After a trip to the Emergency Room and a lecture from my Dad on the importance of wearing gloves, I sank into bed, just glad to be alive, glad I still had a hand and an arm.
Mairzie had hurt me, and she had scared me pretty badly. She wasn’t mean, just showing a much livelier side of herself than she had presented the year before. It wasn’t entirely her fault that I had fallen off. Who couldn’t love her in spite of the pain? With some reminders about who was really in charge, some ranch miles put on her by the cowboy I would later call my husband, and the addition of a snaffle bit, our relationship improved.
She still scared me, sometimes. But I knew she respected me and would do what I asked of her. Always. She had a wild side, but she was sweet through and through.
Days flowed into weeks that turned into months that grew into years. Mairzie matured into a tried and true ranch horse, although my cowboy credentials did not grow at the same pace. She learned the routine of checking heifers every two hours, with the patience lessons of standing tied in between. She drug a calf sled, drug calves at brandings, and ponied head strong colts. I, on the other hand, roped one calf, one time, and it is a story I don’t care to recount!
She was so plucky. She could spook, and how she loved to run! But nothing fazed her when it came to cows. She would work all day long, mile after mile, and not give out. We trailed cows twelve miles home from pasture in the bitter cold after an early snowstorm, and Mairzie was the horse that finally convinced the cows that crossing a bridge really was ok when they balked and tried to turn back on us.
Early morning summer pasture checks were our favorite times. The golden light breaking over the hills, the dew like diamonds in the grass, the contented cows waiting to be counted, and Marizie’s run when I gave her her head all spoke joy. On a couple of occasions, she stepped in a hole and we both went head over teakettle and fell with a crash. She would stand there, looking down at me with her quizzical expression, wondering what in tarnation was I doing down there and waiting for me to right myself and climb back on. And away we’d go again.
In the midst of those busy days of farm work and college courses, I made a point to take time on my birthday to just ride. Just for the fun of it. Mairzie. Bareback. It became a tradition.
Then one day the cowboy that helped me with Mairzie’s training asked me to marry him, and Mairzie and I moved to West River ranch country. We got to gather cattle together on our honeymoon.
Somehow, then, Marizie became my husband’s horse. Maybe it was because I started having babies. Maybe it was because she was the best horse on the place. Who knows? Pretty soon she was carrying our babies in their Daddy’s saddle.
She worked hard with Ben. AI’ing cows. Day work for the neighbors. Brandings. Getting calving heifers into the barn. She was the go-to horse. Occasionally she’d favor a front foot a bit, but she always came out of it.
Until 2007. The ‘other hired man’s’ horse took off and Mairzie was asked to go after him. In typical fashion, she kept chase and didn’t give up. But the next day she could barely walk. A trip to Dr. Ismay revealed severe navicular deterioration. She was only twelve.
“Get yourself a different horse,” was the verdict.
I left the vet clinic fighting back tears.
In the space of six months I had lost a baby, we had moved, I had miscarried another baby---now my horse? How would I ever replace Mairzie?
Another pregnancy sidelined my riding for a time. Mairzie had a year and half’s rest. When I got on her again she was full of fire and sass, and her limp was mostly gone.
So we rode her. Not as hard as before; if we put in a long day she would definitely favor that right front foot. But we could still ride her. By this time our oldest son was needing his own mount, and Mairzie was the natural choice. She had never been a ‘kids’ horse, though, and their first venture did not end well. She took off, he came off, and it was another wreck. Thankfully all his limbs were still intact.
He was determined to ride, though, so in the smallest pen in the corral I stood back and chewed her out while he rode her around. Pretty soon he figured out how to communicate with her, and she figured out that there really was somebody up there; soon they graduated to a slightly bigger pen, then to trotting, loping, jumping feed bunks, and John Wayne style bareback tricks.
Fastforward another decade.
A couple more babies, for a total of five, and Mairzie and I are both showing grey around the edges. Each child, in turn, has been carried in the saddle with their daddy or I on her back; each child, in turn, has been boosted up and learned to balance on her bareback, learned to ask her to go, to stop, to turn, learned to move with her smooth-as-glass trot.
She is officially the children’s horse, but I still grab the chance to ride her when I can. Anytime I can slip on her bridle, climb onto her bareback from the corral fence (because I still can’t leap on…) and lope out across the pasture is a good day. Sometimes I sort cows bareback on Mairzie in January so I can feel her warmth when it’s twenty below in the sunshine. Sometimes I go out to check cows bareback if I can sneak away without someone else wanting to ride her. I keep the birthday tradition of a bareback ride, but now I have three little girls tagging along, riding double with me or bumping me off Mairzie altogether so they can ride her.
Sometimes the birthday ride is a little more serious because it coincides with pulling bulls. I don’t do that bareback. The two big boys and their dad, all of us well mounted on younger, spryer horses, get in on the action, with the girls all fighting over who gets to ride Mairzie. Because she’s the best. She just is. And she gets extra oats because she’s getting that ‘old horse’ look; the sway to her back, the dishes above her eyes, the gray hairs on her face; but she still insists on keeping up with the action behind the cattle and takes no sass from the bulls determined to stay with their harem.
How many miles did I ride her? Ranchers don’t put ‘step counting’ computer chips on our horses’ feet, but I know it was a lot. The pasture checks of our younger days when light and dreams were golden. The uncountable miles of gathering bulls and cows out of the government pasture. The ten mile drive home from up north every fall. The eight mile trek across the river to my in-laws that my husband’s family has been making for the last thirty years, give or take. Sometimes bringing their cows west to where we live. Now taking our cows there for the summer and bringing them home again in the fall. Countless trips out to the pasture after the milk cows, forays into the neighbors’ pastures after renegade bulls and stud horses, mare gatherings, pair sortings, heifer checkings…
How much did she teach me in all those miles? That is equally hard to quantify. Balance. Moving with her. Trust. Communication. How to be brave and get back on when we both fell. The sheer joy of the wind in my face and her gallop the rhythm beneath me.
How many times did I just slip on her bridle and ride for the pure pleasure of it?
Monday morning, June 3, 2019, my youngest daughter came into the kitchen. The girls had beat me out the door that morning.
“Mommy, why is Mairzie laying there like she’s dead?”
My heart hit the pit of my stomach.
Just last night she was trotting around the yard with a girl on her back and a piece of twine for a bridle.
“Maybe she’s just resting,” I tried to be optimistic as I headed out to investigate.
But there was no question when I saw her. No maybes. No goodbyes.
She was gone.
No sign of struggle. No days of teeth floatings, special feed, slowing down, and slow aging. Just a faithful, kind, feisty, determined old heart that stopped beating. Twenty-two years together came to an abrupt end. My old cowboy neighbor said, “That’s the best way,” when I told him the news. He is probably right. But I think I would have preferred a little warning. Although I knew that day would come eventually, part of me wanted to hope that somehow it never would.
How many miles did she carry me? I’ll never know that for sure. But I do know that I carried her the last mile. And with the tricks a person’s mind plays I kept expecting her to look up at me with that quirky expression wondering what in tarnation was she doing down there and what in the blazes did I think I was doing anyway?
But she didn’t.
And I left her there on the hill in the far corner of the pasture and went home to figure out how to get the day’s work done without her to depend on. Who rides which horse when the one that everybody can ride is suddenly missing?
We didn’t raise any foals out of Mairzie to carry on her line, because we didn’t want a baby to be saddled with her severe navicular issues. But among the horses we do raise I’m always watching for the ones that have her spirit, her personality, her love of chasing cows. And never mind your fancy grullos and buckskins and roans. Mairzie taught me long ago that a good horse is a good color. Although I must admit I’m a sucker for a blaze faced sorrel with white feet----thanks to Mairzie.
And there’s a three-year-old filly that likes to follow me around even when I haven’t caught her that I need to climb onto one of these days. She won’t take Mairzie’s place, but she will carry on her legacy.
[i] Mairzy Doats, 1943, by Milton Drake, Al Hoffman, and Jerry Livingston.