Further back than I can remember, I wanted a pony. My mother told me "horsie" was one of my first words. When I was a pre-schooler, we were living in a residential area of Chicago. Once in a while someone would come along the street, selling pony rides. I especially remember a man on a horse, followed by several boys leading ponies. I remember my brother lifting me up so I could put the price of a ride into the man's hand. My impression was of a horse about twenty-five feet tall.

Sunday afternoons we'd go for a drive. No matter where we went, we'd end up at The Fair Grounds where there was a pony ring, and I'd get a ride. I was shattered when we moved from Chicago to Lake Worth, Florida, where no one was selling pony rides. But after a couple of years, we moved to Savannah, Georgia and a most wonderful thing happened.

We'd only been in Savannah a couple of months when my brother hunted me up at play to tell me that there were people at the end of our street selling pony rides. He had a dime for me, and took me to the large field across Wheaton Street, a block from our house. A battered box truck painted silver was parked in the field. An awning was stretched from one side, and a small horse was tied in the shade of it. A woman and a girl about my age came out of the box of the truck. The woman told us the horse under the awning was her older daughter's personal mount. Her husband had the ponies out in the neighborhood selling rides.

My brother and I found the ponies just a block from our house. There were two Welsh ponies, a fat bay named Alice and a piebald named Pansy. I was soon aboard Alice, having my first pony ride in too long a time.

One ride wasn't enough for me. Every time I could get my hands on a dime, I was back at the truck, riding Alice. I quickly became friends with the girl my age. Her name was Audrey. Nominally, Pansy belonged to her, but had to work for a living along with Alice. I learned that the family had been traveling with a carnival. This was during The Great Depression. The carnival had failed and broken up in Savannah. The family'd set up in the field while the father hunted a regular job and a better place to live than a box truck.

Audrey and I became best friends. Because the family was depending on the ponies for income, I could never ride free, but if no one else was around, I'd pay my dime, Audrey and I would climb on our mounts, and we'd ride together in the field until another paying customer showed up. It was the next best thing to having a pony of my own. But it didn't last indefinitely. Audrey's father found a job and they moved out to the edge of town, too far for me to get there on my own.

By the time I was twelve, World War II had ended the Depression. My parents had enough income to let me take riding lessons. I joined a beginner's class. My mount for the first lesson was a lineback buckskin named Buck. For the next lesson, I rode another lineback buckskin named Palomar. These were both full-size horses, actually a little large for me. I'd only had a few lessons when I fell off. When I tried to get back on my arm hurt and I fell again, this time with my foot in the stirrup, and got dragged a couple of feet. Though I didn't appear harmed, I was sent home. I seemed to be okay, but my arm continued to hurt. An X-ray showed that the upper arm bone was cracked. It had not separated, but had to be taped up and for several weeks I wore my arm in a sling. That was the end of my riding lessons for a long time.

When I was in high school, Audrey came back into my life. There was an old farm at the other end of our street. Nobody was trying to work the land there any longer. The ante-bellum farm house had been divided into two rental apartments. After Audrey's mother died and her sister married, Audrey and her father moved into the upstairs apartment. They no longer had the ponies, but about then the man living across the street from me bought a horse.

That horse, a chestnut mare named Ginger, and another were being kept in a small paddock behind a filling station a few blocks away that belonged to a friend of his. Audrey and I got permission to ride them any time the owners weren't using them. Living in that small paddock, the horses needed exercise. Audrey and I were happy to give it to them.

Ginger was bred and dropped a charming little foal that served as my model for the colt in my book The Valdez Horses. In time Audrey and her father moved from the farmhouse, and the men with the horses relocated them to a place in the county, but Audrey and I continued to get together. When we could afford it, my high school boyfriend and I would rent horses and go riding on Saturday afternoons. Sometimes Audrey would join us.

Then we all graduated high school. Audrey went away. My boyfriend got drafted. My father and brother opened a business together and I went to work for them.

Suddenly I had a regular income and I realized I could buy a horse of my own. My mother turned up some people within walking distance who had the remnants of another farm. They had a large pasture with a double open stall and a feed shed in it, and were keeping a cow there. (They also had a pig in a pen in their yard.) They were willing to let me keep a horse in their pasture for $5 a month. That was a small fraction of what it would have cost me to rent him a stall at the hacking stable. I could easily afford it. Now all I needed was the horse.

My brother had a car. He and his wife took me horse hunting. There was just one ad in the classified that day. We went for a look. The only person home was a little girl who explained the horse was her brother's. She told us about the tricks he'd taught it, like rearing up, and showed it to us in its stall. It was a nervous chestnut filly that was not much more than a pony, really too small for me.

So off we went to the Used Horse Dealer on the edge of town. The only people there were a couple of black teenagers. They were excited to have a potential customer. One hurried to call the boss, while the other brought out a ragged-looking red roan to show me.

In a couple of minutes, the boss arrived. He told me he only had two horses at the time. He didn't offer me the roan at all, but brought out a large handsome bay gelding. He saddled it up for me to try, but seemed doubtful about my liking it. He offered to find me a suitable mount at the next barn sale.

The bay was almost too large for me. I had to stand on a block to mount. Once I was on board, the horse behaved nicely. He seemed gentle. The price was right. I said I'd take him. The horse trader told me he'd deliver my horse the next day, and said if it didn't work out, he'd take it back and find me one more suitable.

Well, Kehli was not an ideal saddle horse. I came to suspect he was actually a harness horse that had been trained to work under a saddle. He paced instead of trotting, and he didn't seem to care for galloping. When he did it, he galumphed. He didn't even have a collected canter. But, boy, did he have personality.

Frankly, I was just a backyard rider, and not a very good one at that. Despite all my experience, I hadn't had lessons enough to learn any of the fine points of riding. I didn't need a well-gaited horse. I needed a lovable teddy bear of a horse, and Kehli was just that.

He did have one quirk that gave me trouble briefly. When I'd start to bridle him, he'd go up on his hind legs, doing all he could to keep away from the bridle. I soon found out what was wrong. He didn't want his left ear pulled through the headstall. He didn't want it touched at all. I discovered there was old scar tissue inside the ear. In time I was able to sneak my hand up there and determine that it was no longer sore. Evidently he simply remembered a time when having the ear handled had hurt.

Bridling him was a problem easily solved. I had English tack for him but I bought him a western style split-ear bridle. It only went over the right ear. I could unbuckle the cheek strap and put it on him without ever touching his left ear. He very quickly learned that if I put the strap over his head before presenting the bit, I wasn't going to hurt him, and he started standing to be bridled as nicely as anyone could ask.

Kehli learned to neck-rein as quickly as he learned to be bridled. All I had to do was ride him a few times with a switch in my hand. I'd lay the switch gently against his neck when I went to turn him. Soon I didn't need the bit at all. I had a Johnson (rope) halter for him. Frequently I'd just put the halter on him, tie a loop of rope on it for reins and take him out bareback. He liked that. Being without the bit meant he was allowed to nibble at his leisure as we meandered around in undeveloped areas. Once he found a patch of wild strawberries and just about wiped it out.

Kehli was unflappable. I could take him anywhere. I decided that one morning very early, before there was traffic to speak of, I'd ride him to the very heart of the city, Bull and Broughton Streets. I picked a route along side streets most of the way, and was ambling along past the county court house when I heard a laugh. I looked, and saw an elderly cleaning lady leaning out of a window. She called to me that it had been a long time since she'd seen someone riding a horse past there.

Once I was riding by some road construction. There was an old-fashioned kerosene flare marking it. This was the kind that looked like a cannonball with a flame on top. Kehli pulled a bit toward it, and I gave him his head. He stretched down his neck, sniffed at the flare and thoroughly examined it. An old man in a pickup truck parked nearby called out that he never saw a horse do THAT before.

Another time, on my day off, I decided I'd ride Kehli up to the family store and show him off. Savannah is an old city with alleys behind the buildings on Broughton Street. At one time there'd been homes on the section where our store was. As the commercial area encroached, home-owners moved out, houses became rentals and tiny cabins called "back houses" had been build in the backyards facing the alleys. Away from the big businesses, a lot of these were still there, rented to poor black people.

Avoiding traffic, I rode up the alley that ran behind our store. As I passed, I kept hearing mothers calling for their kids to come see. Soon I had a small parade of kids behind me. They followed me as if I were The Pied Piper. Having been a kid once myself, I headed for the nearest square, dismounted and gave each a ride.

A number of times, I gave rides to kids. Kehli didn't like it, but he put up with it. He was always gentle with children but as I led him around he'd express his boredom by trying to nibble my fingers on the reins. He never broke the skin or even bruised it. He just gave me his opinion of going around in circles.

Where I kept him pastured was just across Wheaton Street from a very nice little neighborhood of working class black homes. The kind with pots of flowers on the well-scrubbed porches. Wheaton Street was busy and fast, so I'd lead Kehli across before I'd mount up. When they saw me, kids would come running, and I'd give them rides. Each one of them seemed to have kin "up the country" with a horse or mule they'd ridden before.

I had one of my most embarrassing moments in that neighborhood. Apparently I hadn't tightened the cinch enough. When I went to mount I felt the saddle slip slightly. I figured I could straighten it and tighten the cinch from the saddle. To compensate for the slippage, I gave myself a little extra boost as I went up. A little too much boost. I went right on over the saddle and came down the other side. Whomp.

I wasn't hurt, just embarrassed. Kehli stood there, not saying a thing, but I suspected was giving me a very large silent horse laugh.

Lee, with nephew on Kehli

When I got my first horse, Kehli, the only horseshoer in town was an elderly black man who came to the stable to give Kehli a pedicure and replace his shoes when needed. He died suddenly, and there was no one else in town who did horse shoeing. The woman who ran a hacking stable on the edge of town set out to find someone who'd come to Savannah and take care of the local horses, but it took her a while. Meanwhile, Kehli's hooves were growing. He really needed them taken care of when a circus came to town.

The circus was to be in Grayson Stadium. I rode Kehli over early in the day, while they were setting up. As I rode up, someone hollered at me to keep the horse away from the elephants. Seems elephants don't like horses. I went on around, well away from the string of elephants staked by the stadium wall, and located the liberty horses.

The man who had the liberty horses was at his trailer. I asked him if he could do something about Kehli's hooves for me. He said rather gruffly he'd have to charge me three dollars. That was okay with me. When I said so, he got friendly. He didn't have any shoes that would fit Kehli, but he'd trim the hooves and Kehli could go barefoot as long as I didn't ride him too hard or too much on pavement. Neither was a problem. I didn't ride Kehli hard anyway, and most of the side streets weren't paved.

He took care of Kehli's hooves for me and advised me that if I were going to ride him on pavement much, I should get him rubber shoes. These were regular iron shoes with a rubber coating to cushion the shock of pavement. I did get Kehli a set later when I had the opportunity.

After I paid him, he told me to come back when the afternoon performance was on and wait at a side gate of the stadium. As soon as his act was over, he'd get me in for free.

I'd have been going to the circus anyway and the price of a ticket was no big deal to me. But neither was the idea of missing the opening acts. I did fancy being sneaked into the circus by one of the performers, so I went (but not on horseback this time--no idea where I'd stow Kehli if I had him with me) and waited by the gate. Before long, the liberty horse man came and let me in, and I enjoyed the rest of the show.

Before long, the stable owner got a blacksmith to move to town and Kehli had his regular pedicures from then on.

I had not been to Daffin Park often until I got Kehli. I took to riding him over because it was a pleasant ride there from my stable. Most of the streets were old, unpaved and lined with live oak trees that dripped Spanish moss. Kehli loved a snack of Spanish moss, and would snatch some down as we went past. One day he was munching away on a very long piece he'd managed to grab. Most of it was hanging out of his mouth. A small boy going by with his father shouted to "look at the horse with the mustache!"

One day when I got to the Park, I discovered other riders there ahead of me. There was a woman on a pink horse, a man on a bay with a young boy in front of him and an older boy on a pony with a monkey behind him. A couple of dogs were running along at their sides. Of course we fell into conversation.

They were the Belfords. They ran a fed & grain business (wholesale and retail) and had a place on Bee Road, not far from Daffin Park. (Her horse wasn't really pink, but had acquired that tint rolling in red Georgia clay.) They invited me to ride home with them.

Their place turned out to be a concrete block ranch-style house on a slab, on fenced acreage with a pond. Roaming free on the property were a small flock of sheep, a herd of Siamese cats, a handful of peacocks and hens and sundry other critters. There were ducks on the pond. All were beloved pets. Belfords were real critter people. The pony enjoyed the special privilege of being allowed into the kitchen on Sunday mornings to have pancake breakfasts with the family. We quickly became friends and I rode over to their place often.

Another time I rode Kehli over to Daffin Park, there was a small carnival setting up in the field by the stadium. As I rode up, a girl of around 8 or 10 came up and introduced herself to me. She was "Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair", the daughter of the woman who had the carousel, and was a bold youngster, obviously used to dealing with adults. She was a likeable kid and we got to talking. I don't recall whether I invited her to go with me to Belfords, or I mentioned their place and she asked to go. I told her she had to have her mother's permission.

Her mother was atop the skeleton of the carousal, wrench in hand, bolting it together. Jeannie asked, and her mother gave her permission to go somewhere with this total stranger. (Times have sure changed.) I set Jeannie in front of the saddle and we rode on over to Belfords where she got to met the critters and ride the pony.

After getting my horse, I had gotten myself a second-hand '52 Plymouth station wagon (something I could haul feed and hay in). A couple of times, I loaded the wagon with neighborhood kids and took them to Belfords where they got to enjoy the critters and ride the pony. Once one of the boys fell off. He wasn't hurt, just shaken up, but he started to cry. We talked him out of it, chatting about Indians and bravery and coup sticks.

There was a very large stand of bamboo in our neighborhood, so after we got back I had the kids fetch some. I cut a suitable piece, hung a turkey feather on it with brightly colored yarn and gave it to the boy, telling him it was a "coup stick" for his bravery in not crying. After that, the other kids were coming up with examples of their own bravery to earn themselves "coup sticks". Fortunately I had a good stock of turkey feathers and soon all the kids had "coup sticks". I even had one myself. After all, I'd come off horses a few times. I added to the decorations on my stick with a hair switch from the dime store. The kids were very impressed that I had a "scalp" on my stick.

The last horse I got while I was still in Savannah was a beautifully-gaited bay gelding named Brandy. His rack was pure joy to ride. He was younger and more energetic than Kehli, and loved to gallop. When things started going wrong in Savannah, and the county took away a large part of my pasture to build a school on, I gave Brandy to the Belfords. He turned out to be a bit too lively for them, and they handed him along to a friend who lived in the country and could enjoy his energy.

Kehli was as sweet and loveable a horse as one could ever want. He was unflappable and put up with just about anything. I could put a kid on him and let him go in the pasture and he'd stroll around at a gentle walk. The closest he ever came to shying was once when I was riding down the shoulder of a street, and a city bus pulled up, opening its door practically in his face. He gave a start, but instantly recovered.

When I decided to leave Savannah, I gave Kehli to the Belfords. I could think of no better home for him, and they had already fallen for his equine charm.

A description of horses

If you want some explanation of the horse colors Lee mentioned, a bay is the most common horse color, some shade of brown from golden tan to a dark mahogany, with black points---that is, a black mane and tail, and usually some black on the lower legs. Chestnuts come in the same body colors as bays, but their manes and tails are the same shade as the body or lighter. A piebald is a black & white paint/pinto--patches of color mixed in irregular patterns. A buckskin (dun) -- tan-- with black points (essentially a dun-colored bay). A lineback buckskin has a purplish line running along his spine and possibly a bit of one across it at the withers (shoulders). He may also have hints of stripes on his lower legs (if the stripes are pronounced, he's a zebra dun). Lineback buckskin is a primitive horse color that shows up a lot in wild herds and Western movies. A roan has white hair mixed in with his base color. This may be even enough that he looks frosted, or may be splotchy. A red roan is a roaned bay, a strawberry roan is a roaned chestnut.

© 2021 Gary Ross Hoffman

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