Note: This piece originally appeared in EQUUS Magazine.
Everyone knows a horse like Folly. An ordinary horse. He never had a string of blue ribbons hung on his stall or a trophy in the tack room with his name on it. And while it’s true that Folly stylishly jumped a log or two in his time, he did so only out on the trail—-without any fanfare at all.
Over the years, I’ve come to think of Folly as my own horse, but the truth is, even though I cared for him in his retirement, he was never mine. He belonged—heart and soul—to Irene, my husband’s mom and my trail riding buddy. I guess you could say that Irene was sort of ordinary, too. Like Folly, she never gave much thought to winning trophies and ribbons, but she could stick a sudden spook like nobody’s business. She often lamented her lack of refinement in the saddle, but she had skills I envied. Irene could perform real life maneuvers you didn’t see in the show ring—like riding a fast gallop on a bendy trail, for instance, or keeping a perfectly balanced seat while Folly trotted down a steep bank.
Irene and Folly made a good team. They believed in staying prepared for whatever could happen on the trail. I remember one ride when my horse’s bridle hooked on a tree branch and swung precariously from his head. Irene jumped off Folly and deftly tied my horse’s bridle into a makeshift halter, using the baling twine she kept in her pocket for just such an emergency. Folly stood quietly nearby, reins dropped on his neck. I admired Irene’s ingenuity and how Folly did his part by standing and waiting for her.
“Oh….well, it wasn’t anything special,” Irene said. “Just ordinary stuff.”
Truth is, Irene almost didn’t buy Folly. It had been a tough year. She’d just lost her seasoned trail horse, Roscoe, in a tragic barn fire and was contemplating giving up the horse thing altogether. It seemed the logical thing to do. After all—she was 65 years old; how much more riding could she look forward to? Wasn’t it high time to retire from this horse life?
But, giving up on horses, for Irene, was more than just about giving up riding. It was a life she’d been dreaming into existence ever since she was a little girl. It was winter mornings at the barn and fresh hoof prints in the snow. It was riding solo into the forest on the back of a really good horse. She decided she just wasn’t ready to turn her back on it, yet.
She found Folly in the classifieds. The old man selling him claimed to have rescued Folly from a bad situation. He told Irene the little chestnut gelding was 15-years old and that at one time he’d run barrels, but we had no way of knowing for sure. And Folly wasn’t talking. That was on a cold November day. The skies threatened an early snow. A bad time to buy a horse in New England. Irene offered the old man twelve-hundred dollars, telling him she’d take him on one condition.
“If he doesn’t load on the trailer- you haven’t sold a horse,” she told him.
The old man, a seasoned horseman himself, nodded his approval.
But, Folly was a smart horse. He knew that if fate offered you a promising new path, it was best to take it even if you weren’t exactly sure how it was all going to turn out. Without so much as a glance back at the old man, the little chestnut gelding followed Irene into the back of the trailer. He stood quietly as she tied him to the rail.
When she walked her new horse off the trailer at home, there were some horsemen in our circle that weren’t impressed. Folly stood just 15hh, was slightly splay-footed, and had a little bit of a roman nose. And, on that day, at least, he was showing a little white in his eye, giving him a too-spirited look for a 65-year old woman. But, Irene didn’t seem to notice as she smiled and ran her hand over his gleaming chestnut coat. She turned her back on the small gathering and led Folly into the barn to see if her old saddle would fit his compact frame.
Those first few months were touch and go. Irene came off him a couple of times she admitted to… and probably one or two times she didn’t think worth mentioning. The problem was that Folly didn’t appear to be all that familiar with the trail, but he did have a good try in him. And, sometimes a good try is worth more than experience in a horse.
After a season or two of trail riding, Irene found herself placing more and more faith in Folly’s judgment. Whenever he balked or refused to go forward, Irene knew he had his reasons—maybe the footing was dicey or the water too swift and deep. On those days, she’d turn him around and save that trail for another ride. Folly got so good that he became the “go to” horse for teaching green horses how to handle the trail. I rode my young horse, Morgan, behind Folly while he taught us how to cross water, walk over bridges with confidence, and pick our way carefully when the trail got rocky.
There came a time, though, when I was studying natural horsemanship that I noticed there were some holes in Irene and Folly’s relationship. The way I saw it they had a few obvious faults that needed to be addressed. For instance, sometimes Folly moved away while Irene was still swinging her leg into the saddle.
“In my natural horsemanship book, it says it’s your horse should stand still while you mount,” I told her.
Irene thought that sounded reasonable so she asked me to spend a little time coaching her on how to teach Folly to stand in place. It was his responsibility, I reminded her.
In a matter of days, they made great progress, but there was something in Folly’s expression that had me puzzled. Like there was some private joke I was missing. A few days later as we were getting ready to ride out I heard the crinkly sound of a candy wrapper just after Irene mounted. Folly brought his nose to Irene’s knee.
“Are you bribing him with peppermints?” I asked, astonished.
“Um….yeah…” she said. “It works! Look how nice he’s standing.”
“But, that’s not in the book!” I said.
After the cat was out of the bag, Folly felt more comfortable putting his people-training to work. At least once on every ride, he’d stop for no apparent reason and touch his nose to Irene’s knee. That was Irene’s cue to pull a hidden candy out of her pocket and pop it into Folly’s mouth.
“Time to put another quarter in!” she’d say.
If you’ve ever had a horse like Folly, you already know how the years fly by while you pay scant attention. I don’t know how many miles Irene and Folly racked up on the trails, but I bet it was a lot. And throughout the years, Folly gave so much more than a good ride. He was there for her when she lost her sister and she needed a strong shoulder to take away some of her grief. He was there for her throughout all the trials and tribulations of everyday life. It seemed like Folly would go on forever. Only that isn’t the way it goes, not even for ordinary horses.
We lost Folly on another chilly November day, the same sort of weather we had on the day Irene brought him home. The phrase “we lost him” sounds peculiar to me— as if we’ve only temporarily misplaced Folly and if only we look hard enough, we’ll find him again. Our veterinarian thought he had some sort of equine stroke or similar neurological event. It might also have been a tumor that grew just a millimeter bigger, enough to press on his spine or the very tip of his brain stem.
Whatever the reason, Folly was fine in the morning for turnout, but an hour or so later he couldn’t stay on his feet. We called Irene to let her know. At eighty years old, it was hard for her to get to the barn, but we promised we’d say goodbye for her. When we reached out to put his halter on he toppled over backwards, landing on his side with a thud. We had to prod and pull and shout at him to get him back on his feet—the way you would a pack horse that had collapsed under far too heavy a burden.
That was all day Friday.
On Saturday, Folly was only able to walk sideways like a crab. And only in small circles.
By mid-morning, I noticed he wore the look of resignation horses get when they realize that it’s their time to go and they’re just waiting for the humans to see it, too. We called our veterinarian and she agreed it was time to let Folly go so he could begin his next adventure.
It didn’t take long for everyone to gather. Irene had to say her goodbyes over the phone. She was 81 years old. Before he laid himself down for the last time, I whispered a secret into Folly’s ear. I told him he was right about the peppermints. It was a good idea even if it wasn’t in the book.