The Perfect Christmas Present

            Christmas has always been a dark time of the year for me, and now that I am seventy, it doesn’t seem to be any lighter.  Like many people with depression, the holidays are hard to handle. While others are celebrating and enjoying the season, I crawl deeper into my cave of regrets and might havebeens.  When I was a child, I read John Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony.”  A young boy wanted his own pony, and for Christmas, there was a beautiful little red pony waiting for him in the barn.  Not that this was a fairy tale story, not with Steinbeck writing it. The boy learns to love the pony, and depends on it for a means of escape from his own less than perfect life, but then the pony develops strangles and dies.  I didn’t dwell on the end of the story, but I waited, ever full of hope, each Christmas morning that there would be a pony for me in our barn.

            Of course, I mentioned how much I wanted a pony, and I read books about horses, and I had friends who liked horses, but no matter how much I hinted, begged and whined, at Christmas I got presents that little girls are supposed to want, like dolls, and dresses, and a pretty set of fingernail polishes for the not quite teenage set.  My cousin, who was a city kid, and not particularly fond of animals larger than his rat terrier, got a Roy Rogers outfit with vest and chaps and hat and holster with a silver revolver that shot caps.  I knew it was not nice to complain about what Santa brought, and even more importantly, I knew Santa didn’t have much money to spend on Christmas presents for mouthy girls who tormented her older brothers whenever possible.  After all, they had a horse I wasn’t allowed to ride, because I was too small. What child ever believes they are too small to do what their older brothers are doing, even if the brothers are five and six years older than she is.

            The year I was eleven and my brothers were sixteen and seventeen and not much interested in their horse anymore, my parents cheerfully sent me off to a week of bible camp. While I was gone, they sold my brothers’ horse.  My brothers were happy. They had turned into car fanatics. My parents were happy. They had gotten rid of a horse that ate more than it was worth.  I was devastated when I came home and found that she was gone. I had planned on being able to ride her now that my brothers didn’t use her any more.  I cried myself to sleep for the rest of that long summer, and once it began to be holiday season, dreams of the red pony waiting for me in the barn on Christmas morning started playing in my head most nights. But, again dolls are what girls want for Christmas, so a doll was under the tree with my name on the package.  By now, I would have welcomed books about horses, or almost anything that had a horse connected to it. This was before the era of Barbie Ponies, thank heavens. At some point, I did get a large ceramic statue of Trigger which I put on the top of my dresser, and played with very carefully while riding the range with Roy and Dale. I begged my folks to take me to every Roy Rogers film.  Roy and Trigger were the ideal vision of cowboy and horse, able to go anywhere, and to fight for the underprivileged and save the day when faced with bandits or Indians or rustlers. 

            When I was thirteen, I took to reading the classified ads out loud to my parents every night, going over every horse for sale in a fifty mile radius.  I do not think they appreciated this service, but in the spring there was an ad for a Welch pony mare for 65.00 dollars.  Father thought that this might be something we could afford, if it looked like a good horse.  I was ecstatic. Mother was not cheerful about another horse, but if I was thrilled she would try to go along.  When we arrived, the family had two horses. One was a large light colored gelding, they called a claybank which now would be described as a cremello, not exactly white but not much darker than white either. The other horse was a red roan filly, with flaxen mane and tail, standing about 14 hands high, which meant she wasn’t tall enough to be considered a horse, but she was quite a bit taller than the average Shetland pony.  The father rode her in a field so we could she that she was rideable and he and Dad agreed on the price, and all at once I had my own red pony. While their father was showing her off for us, on of his girls confided in me that ’she bachs’.  I didn’t understand what she said, and asked if she bucked. The girl shook her head and replied, ’’she baulks.’  I wasn’t exactly sure what this meant, but as long as it wasn’t bucking, it couldn’t be too bad. 

            The next day, my father borrowed a friend’s pickup to bring her home, and I was the happiest girl in the world.  I had my very own horse. I could ride any time I wanted to, and go anywhere I wanted to.  Of course, what I had was a not very well broke young mare.  She came with a halter.  So I learned to ride her with a halter and reins made from clothesline rope, and I also learned what baulk meant.  The pony, which might have been part Welsh, didn’t like to be surprised while we were out riding.  If a bird sang off key, she would drop down two feet, jump sideways, and then stand up again. I was usually rolling in the dust by then.  She didn’t run away, and I don’t remember that she ever did buck.  But I suspect baulking was why the family had decided she wouldn’t be a safe pony for their children.  I didn’t like it much, but I never really got hurt, thanks to my habit of riding in our front field, which I had plowed and disked until it was very soft and just right for riding.

            I shouldn’t complain. I should not even bother remembering that I never got a red pony for Christmas.  I should be and have always been very happy that I did get my own pony when I was thirteen, and she was my constant companion for four years, when I sold her to get a better horse, and a bigger horse, since I had outgrown her in those high school years.  But all my life, I have always wanted some omniscient god to give me the perfect horse for Christmas.  I think it may be a little late now.


17 Responses

  1. The last sentence makes this story special & makes its complexity and sadness work – “I think it may be a little late now.”

    Both a heart-warming and sad read – very human.

    One pointer: I would have liked it to be shorter & more concise.

  2. Very nice essay, Barb. I loved it, and learned what balking is.

  3. Oh I did the same thing when I was a kid. This is a great essay!

  4. A very moving essay. I too suffer from depression and know about the feelings of isolation. Thanks Jon for tweeting Barb’s post!

  5. Thanks for the kind words. I know this is over the 1,000 word limit, and I did try to condense it. I think it is a longer story trying to creep out.

    Barb Relyea

  6. It only needs to be under a thousand words if it’s a #fridayflash. Your essays can be as long as you’ like. 🙂

    One thing I was wondering, did you ever break the pony from balking?

    • No, she did that as long as I had her. However, once I got a saddle, and that is a story in itself, I had a saddle horn to hang onto when something strange happened that might scare her. My last horse, Dandy, we thoroughly tested before we bought to make sure nothing scared him, and he was wonderful. He was a reject race horse because he didn’t like to get and go, and that suited me just fine.


  7. Very moving and interesting piece.

  8. This is a touching essay, very moving. If you are thinking about revising, I would mention the fact that your brother had horses earlier. I’d like to know more about your relationship with their horses before they were sold.

    Thanks for sharing the work.

  9. When will people realise that girls don’t want dolls for Christmas, they want ponies!
    Touching piece, Barb

  10. You’ve got a really nice voice working here. Nostalgic with a not-quite-under-the-surface edge of bitterness. Well done!

  11. Sorry about the confusion, Kim. I had two brothers, and they shared a horse. She was a mustang mare from the Horse Heaven Hills in Washington state. For my brothers, she was transportation, rather than a friend. I didn’t go into this part more, because it turned out my folks were right to sell her. A few months later, the new owner, a younger boy was racing her with another horse, and was injured when she refused to stop and ran out onto the highway in front of a car. The horse was killed. I still mourned her, and it took a long while for me to realize that I wouldn’t have been able to stop her either.
    Barb Relyea

  12. Heartfelt and poignant essay.

    I’m sorry that this holiday time brings a darkness to you. I hope that it can get easier.

    And it’s never too late.

    Maybe there is a omniscient someone who will gift you the perfect horse. Though It may not be in the form you envisaged.

  13. Barb,

    This really sparked some memories for me. I just couldn’t understand why we couldn’t get a horse to keep in the back yard. I never got one, though. Preachers who have taken a voluntary vow of poverty really can’t afford one. I can see that now, but the ache remains.


  14. Susan, Our family had a small farm, 15 acres, and had room for a couple of cows and chickens, and several calves, raised for beef. We had pasture, and used the front field for raising oats, and hay. The problem was the initial cost for a horse and after World War II there wasn’t much money available. My brother’s mare cost 35.00 and she was unbroken. Several years later, my mare cost 65.00 and she was green broken. In those days, we didn’t use vets or give the animals yearly shots. Of course, I didn’t go to a dentist until I was 14 either. It was another world back then.
    Barb Relyea

  15. very touching – thanks for sharing that with us.

  16. Very poignant, very soulful. Thank you for sharing. Peace, Linda

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