"My beautiful, my beautiful!
That standest meekly by,
With thy proudly-arched and glossy neck,
And dark and fiery eye!"
-- Caroline Sheridan Norton (1808-1877)
It was a mission only ahorse person would understand. Driving six hours in a car, all the way to Rockford, Illinois,when there were plenty of Morgans in Michigan, might have made no sense to some people. Indeed, I had “shopped” around Michigan, surveyingcountless equines, their soft muzzles, their sharp sweet horsy smell, theirwispy manes and eyelashes. I looked at legs and feet, disposition and movement,all the while never finding the intangible Something which fueled my search.
As I watched the cornfields rolling past, I pictured my first Morgan, Sharolyn, with herbittersweet coat and cresty neck, and her gentle, walnut eyes. I leaned back in my seat and remembered withgratitude and sadness this mare who had introduced me to Morgans, and horses ingeneral.
Thirty years I had waited. Thirty years of dreaming; of countless horse drawings, paintings;dreams of velvet skin stretching over bone and sinew and muscle; of riding likea prairie fire with the wind in my face. Despite my fantasies, though, I knew I was green, green, green. I needed a horse that could teach me everything. I’d decided right away on a Morgan, because I liked their reputation for versatility and I figured a Morgan would have the temperament to endure my beginner's mistakes.
It was February 1994,and to my surprise, when I started looking, I saw a lot of horses that didn'tlook like Morgans to me. They werebeautiful, but tall and rangy. Most of them were missing something. I wanted ahorse like Figure, the original Morgan stallion who had started the breed backin the 1700s.
Figure had been bay, andaccording to legend was short and sturdy. He’d belonged to a New England schoolmaster named Justin Morgan. The horse was ridiculedby many because of his size. But he could work all day hauling logs in therocky terrain of Vermontlumber camps, then go into town at night and win races. He competed withthoroughbreds and all kinds of other horses that had been bred for speed, andhe won every race he ever ran. He was reputed to be a powerful stallion with agentle and kind disposition. His most distinctive characteristic, though, washis ability to reproduce his own traits. Every mare he was bred to went on toproduce a foal that was a carbon copy of himself.
I loved the story ofFigure; loved the fact that the Morgan was the first breed of horse produced inAmerica.
During my search for aFigure of my own, I finally was referred to Kelly Batton. She was givinglessons at a barn in South Lyon, which hermother had sold to new owners. I didn’trealize it at the time, but Batton’s Farm was legendary in Michigan, and now a crumbling dynasty of oldMorgan bloodlines.
Kelly told me about amare that was for sale, and invited me to come and start taking lessons there.That way, even if I didn't like the mare, I could learn to ride on Morgans.This seemed like a great idea!
I was in the middle ofmy first lesson, bouncing along the rail on an old mare named Cinnamon, whensomeone led a black horse into the arena.
"Nancy," Kelly said, "This isSharolyn."
The next few momentswere like a dream. The girl got on this equine vision, and proceeded to rideher around the arena. That horse, Batton's Sharolyn, stood like a carved ebonychess piece, then suddenly exploded into motion. Her knees and hocks flew up inthe air and she arched her neck and pranced and snorted. Because I was an artist,I knew she appealed to my esthetic senses. But there was something more. Angelssang when I looked at her. That horse wasn’t just pretty. She twinkled. Sheshimmered.
I later learned thatSharolyn was sired by JJ's Monarch, out of a mare named Highover Coralyn.Sharolyn had been bred in Illinois,by Sharon Harper of Kerry Morgans. But Coralyn, her dam, was sold to Battonsand brought to Michiganbefore she was born. Sharolyn was nine years old, and seal brown, not black,but her winter coat was very dark. And she was my horse -- it was like I hadknown her in a past life or something, and had been looking for her. Even morestrangely, it was like she knew me too.
A couple by the name ofJerry and Sue Page had owned her since she was a weanling. They’d decided tosell her because they weren’t spending enough time with her. She had earned areputation for being hot and difficult, which I resented, because that was nottrue at all. She moved high, was snorty and proud and sensitive, but she hadperfect ground manners. She was bright, patient, willing and wonderful. Shestood still when the saddle slid underneath her belly because I didn't tightenthe cinch enough. She stopped and waited for me when I fell off. She tookcarrots gently from my hands. She nickered to me when I arrived.
Though I had alwaysloved horses, I'd harbored a notion that they liked to eat, and weren’t muchinterested in anything else. I had never been around horse people much, orknown a horse on a personal level. I had read countless horse stories but hadput them off as fanciful tales. I wasn’t expecting much from horse ownership,other than a lot of one-sided affection and some great trail rides. Imagine myutter delight and infatuation when I discovered that this mare was more like adog! That she would come to me, follow me around, nuzzle me and blow in myhair!
She was a dream cometrue. And she was beautiful. Very up-headed with an arched and cresty neck, sheresembled a Friesian in miniature. And could she trot!
The Pages came to visitus a couple of times, interested in how Sharolyn and I were getting along.Jerry showed me how he had taught her to “park out”, or stretch in a show pose.Sue brought me a pewter picture frame with horses engraved on it. They werekind people and I could tell Sharolyn had come from a good place.
I found myselfwithdrawing from the real world. I existed to ride that horse. Every morningI’d get dressed in my riding clothes while my German shepherd, Reva, wouldwhine and groan with excitement. She’d ride out to the barn with me. She’d waitwhile I saddled Sharolyn, then I’d say, “Reva, go get my helmet.”
Reva would go flying outof the barn. She’d leap into the back of my pickup, a red Sonoma dubbed the “Revabus”. She would grabmy helmet and bring it in to me, holding it high with the straps swinging down.
We’d be gone all day.The world consisted of Reva and Sharolyn and I.
A few weeks after Ibought her, I moved Sharolyn to a different barn where she and I could go outand trail ride. When Kelly loaded her into the trailer, she said, “This horsewon't go on the trails. She hasn’t been out of the arena enough; she’s onlybeen on the roads a few times in her life. Be careful.”
Our first ride took uson a trail through the back of the property, walking among the trees, swishingthrough piles of wet brown leaves. Sharolyn’s head was high, and she smelledthe air, blowing a little snort with every breath. Reva trotted by Sharolyn’sright rear leg, occasionally breaking off to investigate some odor in the dampground, then returning to her position.
We rode for hours thatday, through woods and fields, along the river, walking through the mud and thehushed brown grass of early spring.
Each day we explored thevast state trails, scaring up birds and brushing past budding twigs. Oneafternoon, my husband Bruce came with us, walking behind the horse. We had gonea couple of miles when the path rose abruptly, running up a long, steep hill.The trees at the top towered far above us.
“It would be easiest foryou if you’d just grab her tail,” I called. “She’ll pull you right up there.”
“She might kick me,” hesaid.
I shrugged and rode on.To my knowledge, she had never kicked anyone, and never would. Reva remained inposition with the mare, and we trotted up together, leaving Bruce to struggleup on his own. At the top, without my bidding, Sharolyn stopped and turned herhead to look back.
I gasped. "She's waiting for you!"
She did that for therest of the afternoon. Every time he fell behind, she knew it, and she wouldstop and look back, waiting patiently for him to catch up.
I was spending hourswith my new friend every day; brushing her, combing her mane and talking toher, feeding her carrots and apples and smelling her sweet smell. She would greet Reva and me when we arrived,and was always willing and eager to do whatever I felt like doing. I imaginedtaking her to Morgan shows, and had fantasies of all the future ribbons wewould win in the English Pleasure classes. I needed to learn how to ride saddleseat! And I couldn’t believe she had never been bred. I envisioned a littleSharolyn baby, high stepping and up-headed and snorty; a carbon copy of itsdam.
People gushed over her.I would meet other riders on the trails, and they would literally stop to stareas we went charging past. “She is awesome!” they would say. “Look at her move!”
Then one day, she was alittle lame in her hind legs. I didn'tride that day, thinking she must be sore from all the activity. The next day, she was no better, and I calledthe vet. He got out of his truck, tookone look at her, and said, “This mare has E.P.M.”
“Equine protozoalmyeloencephalitis. A parasite has gotteninto her bloodstream and munched through her nervous system.”
“There’s no preventative.They think it is spread through bird stools. It affects some horses, not all ofthem.”
I had never heard ofsuch a thing. This couldn't happen to us. Surely she was just a little sore,and she would be fine in a few days.
But she worsened. Despite our treatments, she was wobbly,stumbling as her hips swayed and listed dangerously, first in one direction,then the other. Five days after her diagnosis, she was down and couldn't getup. The next day, she could not raise her head.
That day, when I walked intothe barn, I had my friend Gina with me. All was still, and as we entered theaisle, Gina said, “Where is she?”
“Down at the end,there.” When I answered, I heard Sharolyn begin thrashing violently in herstall at the sound of my voice. It was time to get up! We had places to go!
I knew at that momentthat I couldn't force this mare to lie there while we tried in vain to cureher. She had too much heart; too much spirit to lie quietly waiting to die.
The stall door was open,and she lay on her side rolling her eye back, trying to see out. I went in andsat down next to her. Her nostrils flared, blowing shavings across the floor. Ibegan stroking her smooth, warm neck. “Don’t worry, Sharolyn.”
Her eyes softened, and Icould feel her begin to relax as I spoke to her. I took a deep breath, andexplained to her that she would have to go on ahead for a little while; butthat she would be able to run and play. I said I’d be along someday and wewould do great things when we met again. I didn't cry, because I knew she wouldsense my emotions and it would upset her. Dr. Cawley came in and injected herquickly, and I sat there with her as she died.
I had owned Sharolyn foreight beautiful weeks. I have never forgotten the lesson she taught me -- thathorses are as capable of love as we are – and how they will blossom if someonebelieves in them.
I didn’t expect thecolossal grief that followed her death. I could not sleep. I could not eat. Iwould just sit and stare out the window, while Reva sat with her head in mylap.
One day I had a phonecall from a woman inquiring about art work. She let slip that she had ownedhorses for years. I suddenly found myself pouring my heart out to this person Ibarely knew. “I don’t know what’s the matter with me. I can’t function. I’velost pets before, but never like this. I lost a human friend once, and this isactually closer to that experience.”
She sighed. “When youlose a horse, you lose a part of yourself. It’s because you become physicallyone with that animal. It links you in a different way.”
I pictured myself as acentaur, the mythical creature; half man, half horse. Despite the bizarreimagery, I realized that in a way this was really true. I hadn’t owned her forlong, but during our many hours together, Sharolyn and I had become physicallyand spiritually linked.
Sue Page called me,saying Jerry was out of the country but he would call me when he got back. “I’mso sorry,” she said. “It’s so unfair that you would lose her right after youbought her.”
“I’d do it all over again,”I said.
When Jerry did call afew days later, the first thing he said was, “I want you to get another horseright away.”
His voice triggeredsomething in me, and I immediately began to sob, uncontrollably andembarrassingly, into the phone. “Oh, no, Jerry. I just can’t.”
“Yes. Make yourself doit, right away. Because if you don’t, you’ll make a martyr out of her, andyou’ll never own another horse. And someone like you should have a horse.”
At first I couldn't evenconsider his suggestion. The thought of replacing Sharolyn seemed like abetrayal, a dishonor to her memory and the bond we had shared. But after muchagonizing deliberation, I realized that he was right. I didn't know what elseto do with this terrible space that had been carved in me. Besides, Reva wasdepressed, having lost her new companion and the daily ride she had so fiercelyloved. If I couldn't do it for myself, I could do it for her.
As I reluctantly beganmy search, I wondered where I’d ever find another mare like Sharolyn. It madesense to go back to the source. Her breeder, Sharon Harper, was still producingMorgans in Illinois,with the help of her daughter Shannon.
And that was what hadbrought me here.
Bruce turned the car offthe highway, and when I saw the sign that said, “Kerry Morgans”, a surprisingthrill of anticipation ran down my spine. As the car rolled up the shadydriveway, we were heralded with a loud equine beller. I opened the door andstepped out. The early spring air smelled like mud and new leaves. There was abig, roughened old red barn. I knew it was full of Morgans, beautiful Morgans,and for the first time in weeks, I felt a tingle of hope.
Excerpted from "Clifford of Drummond Island" by Nancy J. Bailey. Copyright © 0 by Nancy J. Bailey. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.