He was a medium-sized horse with a long head. Big patches of brown dotted his white coat and he had a long, white mane and tail. He watches warily, one blue eye and one brown eye under long, white lashes. His halter was too small, cutting ridges into his face and the inside corners of his eyes. Flies were eating his exposed flesh. His ribs showed; she knew he must be hungry, but she had no food to give him.
She remembered what she had learned: talk quietly. She did, and he finally let her pet him. Her little brothers wanted a ride so she caught the pony, hiked the oldest one up and on and up and off he came. Now he was mad at her and the little one was, too, because he didn’t get to ride so they stormed off, which was fine with her. She wanted to pet the horse that she had decided must be a Paint. She had read about American Paints, part quarter horse and part thoroughbred with brown and white patches, and he fit the description.
They were there looking at a place to live, since her father had found work in a not-too-nearby town and in a completely different state. They would have to move away from everyone and everything they knew, and the only place they could find was in this tiny town just about in the middle of nowhere. She was 13 and didn’t want to move, especially to this place that neither looked nor felt like home.
She had, in her mind, been born loving horses. She loved watching shows with horses, so that meant all the Westerns or cowboy shows, as she once called them. Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, The Lone Ranger, (My Friend) Flicka, Mr. Ed, Zorro, Black Beauty and the list goes on. Annie Oakley was her favorite because, of course, when she was little, she was going to be a cowgirl! She read every book about horses she could get her hands on, the favorite and most recent being The Black Stallion and the series that followed, which took a lot of patience, since it took forever for the library to get them. After that, she decided a jockey would be way more exciting.
Then began her quest for real knowledge. She continued reading everything she could find about horses: the different breeds, their anatomy, and how to care for them. Someone told her they saw horses at the fairgrounds, and she started riding her bike several miles to get there. They were keeping the sulky racers there and sometimes the owners would let her help brush as they talked about the horses. She even managed to talk her way into being allowed to sit on a few. They lived in the city and didn’t have any extra money, so she knew she would never get to have a horse.
Within a couple of weeks they had moved, which made her feel numb and the only thing she could think about that would keep her mind off of home was the Paint. They weren’t very excited about letting someone they didn’t know and with very limited experience, hang out in the corral with their horse. She rode her bike down long country roads with only an occasional house, but that wasn’t fun to do alone, so back to the horse she would go.
She learned that his name was Thunder and he was about 17 years old. The owners had kids her age who didn’t want anything to do with the horse and pony. They said horses were too much work; she just didn’t get it. She would pull grass by hand and hold it out to him, which was tricky to do between the electric wires without getting shocked, and usually ended with her throwing it inside the fence onto the bare ground, but she would stay and talk to him while he ate. When she did get shocked, she told herself it was worth it; after all, she had been kicked and bitten before and this was nothing in comparison. Finally, she waited longer than he could and he came and ate out of her hand. That was their real beginning.
By midsummer, Thunder started to whinny whenever he would see her and, finally the owners gave in and let her stay by him all she wanted. She brushed him and sneaked him carrots when she could; she wondered if he was getting thinner. Occasionally, if no one was home, she would climb onto his back and just sit on him while he walked around. Getting up on him was a challenge so, in the middle of a very dark night, she sneaked out and practiced holding his mane in her left hand while swinging up on him. It took a few attempts, but he was patient.
Way too soon, school started; the days were hot and long. He would see her walking down the road towards home and be pacing the fence line and tossing his head. And she knew, knew that he loved her as much as she loved him. The owners were becoming uncomfortable with his love for her and they started to find excuses to keep her from spending time with him. What could she do? There was always the middle of the night.
About four weeks after school started, when everyone was out of the house doing various things, she saw smoke coming from the house. She ran to the neighbor’s house where her mother and baby sister were visiting, and they called the fire department. Her brothers were playing on the swing set and dad was at work, but their precious dog they had rescued from the pound years ago, was still inside. She attempted to open the doors, but they wouldn’t open and it got too hot and windows started to explode and then it was over.
Once again, they were moving, this time with nothing to pack.
They moved 30 miles away to another small town; this one had a small library. They were renting a farm with a barn and corn fields all around it. How appropriate, now they had a barn. She asked if they could buy Thunder if she got a job and paid them back, but she was only 14 with no place close to work and they really couldn’t afford to spend the money on a horse and feed it, but they agreed his current treatment wasn’t good and wished they could help. She was so lonely; she felt like she was dying inside. Her parents must have noticed because one day after school, her mother sent her out to the barn for something ridiculous and there right before her eyes, was Thunder! Her mother said, “You could hear the screams for miles!” But it was really only one good one. Her parents had worked out a payment plan with the owner.
They spent the rest of the fall and nice winter days riding. She taught him to rear up like Silver from The Lone Ranger and they would race cars as they rode next to the road. She brushed him, cleaned and conditioned his hooves, treated his scabbed and scarred face, used her lunch money to buy him a bigger halter and fed him until his ribs didn’t show. On cold winter days, she would go and lie on his back with a blanket and read. Spring came and she had made some friends who had horses and they would have fun riding together. Life was perfect!
Then one day, she came home from school and found a note telling them that mom and dad were divorcing. Dad had taken Mom and her baby sister back to their home state and she would come and get them as soon as she could. It was awful, but she still had Thunder. A couple of weeks later, her father told her they would be moving to the city when school was out, and she had to find a home for Thunder and her heart broke. One of her new friends wanted a horse, had a farm and her parents permission. And so, she should be happy, right? She lay on his back and sobbed the long five mile ride to her friend’s house. They promised, as friends do, to stay in touch. Three days later, her mom came like she said she would and took them back with her to their new place. They exchanged three letters. She would stare at her one photo of Thunder and she wondered about him. Then her friend moved and the letters stopped.
She never knew what became of him. What she did know was that somehow, some way, when she most needed a friend, she had her Paint, and at one of the lowest points of her life, her dream of owning a horse actually came true. She’s all grown up now and could have a horse if she wanted – she still loves them – but she knows in her heart that there will never be another one quite like her Thunder.
Editor’s Note: This is a true story of a local girl who preferred we not use her name.