Nana came into my life when I was eleven. My son is eleven now. My head swims a little, when I look at him and think back to when I was his age, an awkward girl who only felt at home when in the company of a nine-hundred pound, four-legged critter. I wonder if his head will swim one day, too, when he has an eleven year old child and remembers where he was – who he was – at that age.
Nana was technically a Quarter Horse, but she never thought much about it. Half a hand away from being classified as a pony, she was stocky and wide, but muscular. She wasn’t a lazy lady; she worked hard for me every day I knew her. She had the worst gait you can imagine – those short legs of hers didn’t lend themselves to a gentle glide – and if you didn’t know what you were doing in a saddle, she’d rattle you to death.
My parents gave her to me as a late birthday present – one I didn’t mind waiting for. Together we toured the local 4-H circuit, competing in the not-so-exciting categories like Western Showmanship and Reining. Barrel racing and poles were off-limits; my mom would have none of that ‘dangerous’ stuff.
We never lasted long in the Halter competitions – Nana’s height was a joke – but neither of us minded that much. Standing around while judges stuck their fingers in her mouth and looked under her tail (a heavy, wavy thing that nearly trailed the ground and was so thick most folks thought it was fake) wasn’t fun for her, and if it wasn’t fun for her, it wasn’t fun for me.
For all the fun we had showing in the summer, those aren’t the most vivid memories I have of my friend. My most vivid memories are of the days when the weather was nice enough after school for me to load up my saddle bags with my books and head out with Nana to the south pasture. I’d sit in a dry-creek bed and do my homework or read while she’d graze nearby. I never bothered to hobble her; she never wandered far, and always came to me when she heard her name. Sometimes we’d wander together aimlessly, her cropping grass as we went, listening patiently as I would unload about the heavy task of surviving junior high. Every now and then she’d nicker at me, or bump my thigh with her nose, just to let me know how she felt about something I’d just said. She always took my side.
I read a book once about a boy who had a horse, and he and the horse would race each other across a pasture. His horse would always let him lead – until they neared the end of the property. Then he’d pull ahead, and take the win for himself. It was a sweet, endearing story, and I thought for sure that Nana and I needed to have our own story like that. I explained the whole thing to her while she listened with solemn, attentive eyes.
“Ready?” I asked, taking my place next to her, wiggling my toes in my boots.
She looked at me.
“Set,” I continued, looking ahead at the fence, a quarter mile away. “Go!” I took off running like my life depended on it, but it didn’t take me long to realize Nana wasn’t running along. I stopped and turned, breathing heavily from my sprint. She was standing there, ears alert, watching me with something like astonishment.
“Nana!” I shouted. “What are you doing?”
She nickered, and trotted my way. I explained the process to her again, counted down, and took off running. And once again she watched, curious about what her little human was doing, but not at all interested in doing it herself. Again, I called for her, and again she trotted my way.
“Don’t you want to race?” I asked her. She answered by wandering away a little, tail swishing as she went.
I have so many memories about Nana – memories of napping on her back, using her rump as a pillow; memories of cleaning stalls and brushing fur and the feel of her velvety lips on my hand as she whisked oats from them. Memories of her fathomless eyes, black and intelligent and caring. Memories of how she felt under me when we’d ride bareback – hot and strong and rhythmic; and I realize that even though I had no idea at the moment, I was a part of something so very special, so very rare. A soul-deep connection with an animal doesn’t happen often, and it doesn’t happen to everybody.
I am so humbled that Nana chose me to share her soul with.