I’ve been blessed in life, to come to know the intimate joy of horses. It began early, and has continued throughout my life up until the recent and sudden departure of my beautiful paint, Poca. But that’s another story. This one, that of my first, is a story for little girls everywhere, those cherished and innocent little spirits holding out hopes for a pony in the lives of their formative years.
It happened at a time when my father was driving along Glen Ellen Road, in a Chicago suburb. I was seated and settled in for the ride in the back seat of my parent’s Riviera, dark green and rusting underneath. A present from my brother, David, to my father, who was always trying to provide for us all, where my father could not.
The landscape was in the throes of rapid Midwestern development characteristic of its time. I remember watching farmland after empty field change as it all gave way to bulldozers and concrete. Tract housing and strip malls invited in a life of promise — room to breathe, care for a backyard, host bbqs on Saturday afternoons. Except for us — we lived in those apartments down the way, newly constructed at the time, at 113 South Euclid.
So it came as a shock to me, when my father the machinist, living on a subsistence salary of $250/per week, announced one day the gift forthcoming of Chocolate. It was during Thanksgiving time, and after driving past the Czaja’s farm daily on our routine errands, one day my father pulled in the long driveway, tree-lined and glowing with bright green. Right up to the old farmhouse, the one with the happy family — four kids, a sheepdog (named Charlie), a nice hippie couple — Jim & Kathy — and most important of all, the home of my soon-to-be new pony, Chocolate. She had lived there for as long as I could remember, I had watched her run past trees and under barn eaves, chased by Charlie and in the company of her companion, Prince, carrying no one but an invisible passenger on her little brown body. But today, it was MY day — my father had chosen to gift me her ownership — along with a saddle, bridle and halter, for the modest sum of $50.
The lack of expectations created from living in my shared bedroom with my parents in that little apartment meant I had no dreams of ever calling a horse my own one day. For every little girl dreams of having a pony of her own, but for me, I dared not to dream. For me, I knew the realities of my existence — and they did not include owning such a vehicle of magic. For on Chocolate, I could bring along with me renewed hopes and dreams, fantasies and aspirations. I never was even allowed Barbie dolls — they were “name brand” and therefore, too expensive. Breyer’s horses were cherished and coveted — and for other little girls. Cindy Jacober had a wall full of each breed and pose, and every time a new model appeared, it became a fixture on her fast-filling-up shelf. My little Breyer Arabian mare, she had a foal I quickly lost. It was the only one I ever owned, but they remained etched in the memories of being eleven years old and knowing I was different from the others with whom I attended school.
I was different, too, from my brothers — they envied this new acquisition — and complained of it often, remarking that they never before had been blessed with such extravagances. I didn’t know it at the time, but the extravagance with which I was blessed was a mere substitute for the parenting that they had been given that I was to miss out on. For as soon thereafter as I could remember, my riding lessons and weekly trips for hay purchases, in the back of that Riviera, quickly ceased. Calls to come have my father pick me up at the barn after school so I could avoid riding Glen Ellen Road at dark were met with a disappointing, “ride your bike, that’s why I bought it for you” response.
Riding Chocolate was all I needed, however, for my eleven-year old spirit to soar. Racing down suburban road easements, trick-or-treating via ponyback to the neighborhood front doors, exploring the growing suburb on her withers, was all I needed to carry me through the dreariness of my otherwise flat childhood. Hanging out at the park with my pony-in-tow, Saturday afternoons raced quickly by as we found ourselves racing down Medinah Road toward the barn, or finding other horse-blessed souls with whom I could share an adventure, all atop the carrier of my spirit. Apple orchards became places of magic — replete with jumps and barrels, where Charlie barked alongside our cantering presence. It was the happiest time of my childhood, to be certain, and were it not for my father’s act of creative and unselfish impulsivity and generosity, I would not be the woman I am today.
I still find great joy and peace on the backs of horses, the pleasure of whch I’ve had many experiences and known many horses thus far. It is a resource to which I turn, again and again, and one strictly reserved for the uniqueness of my own spirit, the best place to find myself. There is nothing matched in the experience of finding oneself on the back of a loving companion on a warm summer day, being carried along by the strength of another soul, in whom you trust your life and in whom you invest your time. Chocolate’s spirit lives in the flesh of each horse I meet and travel with to this day, and it is to her and my father I owe a debt of gratitude for the joy bestowed upon my young and innocent spirit.