Vol. 110 (2021)

Horse Crazy

By Susan Wilson

Guest Columnist

Oak Bluffs, MA, USA


When I was very little, maybe five, I received a Little Golden Book entitled: A Pony for Tony. On the cover, a kid about my age, and the most beautiful pony ever. Just looking at the photographs of that chestnut pony with his blond roached mane and the western saddle on his back was something that made my heart leap. In the story, Tony, apparently a city boy, goes to visit his rancher uncle Ray. Uncle Ray not only presents Tony with appropriate duds for a cowboy, jeans, boots and hat, but, ultimately, the pony. Tony is very excited, and then very intimidated by the size of his pony. Tony is, I should remind you, a little boy. The pony does indeed look pretty tall beside him. The upshot, after much soul searching, Tony metaphorically pulls up his big boy pants and climbs aboard all by himself. His proud Uncle Ray then takes him on a magical trail ride complete with cows and ponds and, one assumes, deep philosophical talks. It was the best summer of Tony’s life. William P. Gottlieb is the author and, sadly, the lovely photographs are uncredited.

A Pony for Tony - A Little Golden Book

Needless to say, I wanted to be Tony. I envied his duds and I really envied his having such an uncle. I had a nice uncle, but he didn’t own a ranch. I got the jeans, but I only got the occasional pony ride at the park, which, nonetheless, was pretty fulfilling. 


Fast forward a couple of decades and in my middle twenties I decided that, in need of some diversion beyond work and being a newlywed, I would take up those longed-for riding lessons. We were living in Connecticut at the time in a small town, bordering on some of the most beautiful countryside. It wasn’t hard to find a stable offering riding lessons for beginner adults. Crystal Spring Farm was a bit run down, but only in the way a real working farm appears run down. If the barn was in good shape, the antique house always needed work. Bud and Ginny Jaynes and their son Art owned the place, and our instructor was a wiry little woman who had been taught classical dressage by a military instructor while she lived in Lima, Peru. All of which had been a very long time ago, but Pat knew her stuff, and, best of all, she knew how to impart the knowledge.


I joined the Tuesday night group lesson and for many years that was my outlet, through babies and job changes and moves. Like the rest of the ladies of my lesson group (and we were all ladies, all under forty) I fell under the Svengali-like spell of old Bud Jaynes and his never-ending stories of his horse history. Like a benevolent Pasha, Bud sat at the head of the dining room table in their cluttered farmhouse, swatting flies and downing a thousand cups of coffee and an equal number of cigarettes, surrounded by us, his acolytes. Eventually he persuaded two of us to "invest" in a yearling Thoroughbred. We’d train it up as a two-year-old-in-training prospect for six or eight months and then make our bundle at the Fasig-Tipton auction. 


Ah, dreams. Take two ignorant city girls and entice them with big dreams. Joy and I figured out how we could do it, saved up enough money to split the cost of a cheap yearling and set off, with Bud, to Saratoga. Let me put this into perspective. Your kid learns to drive and the car you buy him is a Formula One race car. We went from zero to over our heads in no time. On the one hand, Joy did already own a horse, so she at least had some insight into keeping one. On the other hand, her horse was a docile elderly lovebug she called Vida Blue. Copper Dust was a baby horse with no brains and a penchant for playfully rearing. (Which, if you’ve ever looked at the underside of a horse, hooves dangling above your head, is pretty terrifying.)


Nevertheless, we gave it our best shot. We recruited a brave young woman to "back" Dusty, meaning actually get on her. And for several really good days, we were on our way. The rules are, in order for a horse to be considered a Two-Year-Old-In-Training, the horse has to have 90 consecutive days of being worked. We were up to about thirty when our dear little prospect managed to get cast in her stall. This means she got down and got stuck and in trying to free herself, managed to blow out her tendons. We spend the next six months rehabbing her, which initially meant keeping an energetic young horse captive in her stall, otherwise known as stall rest, as well as poulticing and wrapping her legs day after day after day. When she was finally allowed out for hand walking, well, nobody could handle her. Bud counseled labeling her a "Horse of Racing Age" and sending her to auction basically as is. The good news was that she went for more than Joy and I had paid for her. The bad news, that only brought us to even on the myriad expenses a horse, especially an injured one costs. Lesson learned.


It would be something like 15 years later that I would again attempt horse ownership. By this time, we were living on Martha’s Vineyard, and the horse wasn’t for me but for my horse crazy (yes, it is hereditary) younger daughter. Okay, I encouraged the fixation with all things equine, but I didn’t think I was ready to plunge back into ownership until Ali hit the preteen years. A horse seemed like a better idea than the other kinds of mischief twelve-year-olds can get up to in a small place. This was also the year of "The Horse Whisperer." By this time, I was a little better versed in horses than I had been fifteen years before, but not as much as I thought. We made the classic first-time horse buyer’s mistake—we bought because the horse in question was flipping gorgeous. The fact that Gemini, as Ali renamed her from Lightning, was essentially unbroken and barely handled, somehow faded into unimportance by her stunning flea-bitten gray coat and long black mane. A seven-year-old Arabian mare. She looked like a Breyer horse model. Somehow I missed the evil in her eye.

Gemini and Ali

Gemini did not take well to her new home. She struck, bit, kicked, dumped her rider and then went back to step on her. She resisted tacking up, she would whack you on the head with her muzzle if you got too close to her stall door. We had to line up hay bales and barrels to make a kind of chute so that Ali could mount. But, I am proud to say, Ali persisted and stuck to it and never once begged off going to the farm and doing her chores and getting on that miserable animal. In her own way, Alison loved that beast, but after about a year, she mentioned that she thought Gem was maybe a little small for her and she should find a buyer. Secretly I thought that would never happen, but miracles do occur, and a buyer was found. On Nantucket. Getting the horse from one island to another would take up a whole different essay than this. Suffice it to say, Gem went and Ali began the search for a replacement.


Maybe the third time is the charm. Sally, a/k/a Mustang Sally, was as opposite Gemini as a creature of the same species could be. We went from a little scrappy Arabian to a gentle Thoroughbred cross—I used to say crossed with Labrador retriever. Sally and Ali weren’t stars in the show ring, but they logged miles and miles of bush-whacking trail rides with a pal and had that bond every horse-crazy girl desires.

Me, Ali and Mustang Sally

In all this time I was still doing some riding, but mostly doing the caretaking chores that are inherent in horse ownership. My coterie of fellow riders had changed and now I was a fellow mother-mucker. Our daughters rode and we kept each other company in the barn or on the sidelines; cheering on our barn rats during the little schooling shows they entered. Holding each other’s horses while moms got ring dust wiped off boots and lost helmets located. The players changed as horses died or girls grew into teenagers and lost interest. Or, in our case, went off to college. One of the saddest moments during our search for Gemini’s replacement was visiting a stable where the horse for sale was only for sale because his owner was on her way to college and couldn’t keep him. The poor kid broke into tears as she tacked him up. I knew then that, barring another bad choice, I would never do that to my child. We are a family that commits to our animals and even when Alison went off to school, there was no question but that Sally would still be here when she got home. The year that Alison actually took the horse back to school with her was like becoming  an empty nester all over again. Fortunately, they both came home. 


I should mention that, unlike most horse owners without a horse farm of their own, moving from one facility to another in search of the perfect fit, we have been associated with the same little private boarding farm ever since Gemini. Nearly a quarter of a century and four horses later I’m still at Bittersweet Farm. I’ve been there so long that I am the putative barn manager by attrition. I am the eyes on the place for the owner who lives elsewhere most of the year. When we arrived on the scene so long ago, the barn manager was Mrs. Leighton, a quintessential crusty, incredibly knowledgeable woman of a certain age. It felt to me like being back in Bud Jayne’s presence. On occasion, when I have to make some decree about draining hoses in the winter or latching gates at night so they don’t blow open, I say that I’m channeling Mrs. Leighton. We also are pretty sure that she’s haunting the place when peculiar things happen, and on a farm well over a hundred years old, peculiar things do happen.

Bittersweet Farms


Today I have a lovely Quarter horse mare named Maggie. I don’t ride much, throwing a leg over when the mood strikes me, a little ring riding, a slow hack with a friend once or twice a year. The pleasure I get from Maggie is taking care of her, much as I did with Sally. There is nothing more meditative than grooming a winter-fuzzy horse. Getting the mud out and polishing her black coat until it glows in the sunshine. I was never interested in competition, so it’s not as if I needed a bigger, better flashier animal. Maggie is perfectly happy to pack grandkids around, graciously allowing for my slightly more demanding requests for a slow canter. Maggie will be my last horse and she’s the perfect one. My hope is that she and I will be together long enough to do a "Century" ride which is when the combined age of horse and rider equal one hundred. Four years to go and I’m not going to say what the formula is.



I started this essay with A Pony for Tony. We are now securely in our third generation of riders in this family. If my fever dream in my twenties was to have a string of racehorses, Alison has fulfilled her own by becoming a dressage trainer. Recently she brought home a pony for her little boy who is about the same age as the fictional Tony. Batman is indeed a pony for, well, not Tony, but for Rocco.

Rocco and Batman


Susan Wilson     


Susan Wilson is a New York Times bestselling author of twelve novels and a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine. Her latest novel, What A Dog Knows, will be released by St. Martin's Press in June 2021.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.