When I turned seven years old, my parents gave me a fantastic and uncommonly dangerous birthday gift. They gave me a pony. Having grown up on a little farm and ridden miles with my mother to and from kindergarten in rural New Hampshire, I was fully prepared for a horse of my own. I could balance on an English saddle and knew to keep my heels down in the stirrups. I understood the responsibilities – mucking stalls, feeding morning and night, grooming before and after trotting over the backroads of farm country.
“What’s his name?” I asked while letting him eat a carrot from my hand and then running my fingers through his shaggy coat for the first time.
“Buckwheat,” my mother said.
“That’s a funny name.”
“Bucky for short.”
I should have known right then: my parents had been duped when the former owner insisted this animal was well-trained and agreeable. I should have foreseen what awaited me in the pastures once this friendly little pony was saddled up. But I was seven. So I shrugged and asked when we could go for a ride.
The next day, Bucky accepted the saddle and bridle without complaint. Proud owner of a pony, I led him out into our fields for a test ride. My mother nodded and smiled, encouraging me to fit foot to stirrup and swing up onto his back.
I mounted and quickly learned the truth of Bucky’s name. He lowered his head and kicked his back legs up high into the air. I flew off that pony as if thrown from a full-sized horse. My helmet and the pasture’s long grass cushioned the impact. It was also a boon that I was taking gymnastics at the time, which somewhat prepared me for the tumbling lessons I was about to endure.
“Hey!” my mother said to the pony, giving his bridle a tug, one of those horse nuts who to this day believes equines comprehend human speech. “You behave.” Happily rid of its rider, the to pony began munching the grass.
“Go ahead. Try again,” my mother coaxed me. “You know what they say: You have to get back up on the horse who threw you.”
A little nervous now, I climbed aboard. This time I clung to his back through three bucks before careening to the ground.
“Hold tight on those reins,” my mother said. “Don’t let him lower his head. Try again.”
I tried again. And again. And again. Every time Bucky bucked me clear. I wasn’t strong enough to keep his head up. His head would go down. His rump would go up. And I would fly. While my mother wondered if she’d been had by the hick who’d sold her the pony, I finally gave in for the day.
Next time, I came prepared. We cinched him with a western-style saddle, which provides a more secure seat and a pommel to grab hold of too. I quickly learned that the pommel can behave much like a fist swung in an uppercut motion when a horse bucks a rider off balance. On my first try, I got the wind knocked out of me before toppling to the ground. Then my friend Jed asked to give it a go. He valiantly teetered for a stint of bronco training before falling to the ground.
“That’s it.” My mother eyed the animal, jaw grimly set. “Give me those reins.”
She climbed into the saddle and leaned back against Bucky as he tried to lower his head. Compared to us children, she seemed like a giant atop this little horse. Her biceps and forearms tensed with the effort. Unable to buck off this latest passenger, Buckwheat craned his head around and opened wide to take a bite out of her knee. My mother – hard-as-nails farm girl to her very core – gave Bucky a swift kick in the mouth. That straightened him out some.
Frowning mother and resentful pony stalked together around the pasture for a minute before she dismounted, disgusted and surprised that this cheeky little pony had the gaul to chomp at her. “He tried to bite me!” she growled.
The same nearly unhinged look in the pony’s eye told me I didn’t want to attempt to ride him again that day. Or the next. Or for a couple weeks. That shaggy little pony dared me to try again, to sit astride his back so he could destroy me. I was happy to let him win that staring contest.
However, the day finally arrived when my mother said, “Go get your saddle.”
While a feeling of dread smoldered in my stomach, I sloped to the tack room. I was going to be eaten by my horse. I was going to get bucked off and trampled. Buckwheat the Horrible would delight in unseating this wimpy seven-year-old and maybe getting a second shot at his mother too.
As always, my enemy accepted the bridle and saddle without so much as a twitch. I began to lead him toward the pasture, toward the Coliseum, toward my doom, but my mother said, “No, we’re going for a trail ride.”
“Come on.” She turned and led her pinto into the front yard. Bucky at my side, I followed, all the more fearful as we emerged from the barn and obstacles came into view – the uneven ground and streambed, the pickup truck and the picnic table, the tractor and dog house.
Out on the lawn, my mother mounted her horse, looked down at me expectantly, no patience.
“Are you sure?”
“Saddle up,” she said, already guiding Brilly toward the road that would take them to the logging tracks on Tucker Mountain.
I put my foot into the stirrup. I met that pony’s unreadable eye. And I swung up into the saddle, prepared for my imminent ejection and certain death by sharp hooves.
But that small horse couldn’t have been happier to trot out onto the road. My mother and I cantered over the blacktop, side by side. We looked at each other in amazement. I gave Bucky’s shoulder a pat, spoke so his ears swiveled back to listen to my tone of gratitude. And we easily coaxed our mounts to a gallop through the hay fields at the top of the hill.
Buckwheat the pony would not be ridden in his home pasture. I don’t know why. But it didn’t matter. My mother and I wanted to rove through the forests and fields of East Andover anyway, not in our own back yard. Evidently Bucky felt the same need to strike out into the wilds with a partner or two. Perhaps he needed the thrill of running just as much as I did.
Bucky, a horse that I had begun to fear, turned out to be the centerpiece of some of my most prized childhood memories. We still had a couple wrinkles to be ironed out after the bucking episodes, but it was a process of discovery and not of conquest. He needed a different bit in his mouth. Whereas a slap on the rump amounted to hitting the ejection button, a light touch with the crop on his shoulder reminded him to take care with his rider. I never would have discovered these nuances if I had given up after a few falls, if my mother hadn’t suggested we try something new. I needed to adjust my behavior to fit better with his. And vice versa.
That pony was my first real lesson in the politics of personality. Slowly I’ve come to understand this process applies to the relationships between people too.
We each have our preferences and idiosyncrasies. Whether they’re inborn or learned, we have buttons that can be pushed and certain needs to be met. First impressions reveal very little about the people we meet and later impressions usually offer only tiny snippets of a person. Since we all make mistakes and harbor complex histories and have bad days alongside the good, it can be difficult to know one another at a deep level. It sometimes takes years and moments of risk to see the shape of somebody’s character.
When we understand each other better, once we’ve come to know one another more intimately – sometimes after discord or butting heads – we can usually find common ground. We can learn to be gentler with each other. We can try new things and understand what makes one another buck. We can settle into a standard of respect and vigor where we gallop through the days of this unbelievable life.