Long, long before I knew anything about racehorses, I had a best friend named Bob. Here’s how it happened.
I was short. He was tall.
I was white. He was black.
My vocabulary was above average for a third grader.
He….well….I was the only one who understood him when he “spoke.”
I was a nine-year-old girl.
He was a gorgeous six-year-old Tennessee Walking horse, and his registered name was Bob’s Merry Legs. He was the most velvety black I’d ever seen. His four white stockings and broad, white blaze made him look even blacker than he was. He was at least 16 hands high, which meant he towered over me. As I grew older, I realized the Tennessee Walking Horse Association should never have accepted him for registration since his left eye was that deep, dark brown most commonly associated with horses while his right eye was blue, referred to as a glass eye.
I thought his eye was beautiful. It simply added to the unique, magical qualities I already knew he possessed. I wanted him as soon as I saw him go into the sale ring. Daddy had brought me to the auction, but I’m sure he had no idea what would happen.
I couldn’t turn my head away from him. I was quite certain my life would be nothing but pure happiness if I could have him and, by contrast, I was equally certain it would be nothing but misery if I were denied.
I knew begging and pleading would get me nowhere. In our family, one made a simple request and then waited for the parental decision.
“How will you take care of him?” asked Daddy. “Look at him. He’s huge. You won’t even be able to get on his back.”
I shook my head in the negative. “Yes, I will,” I countered. “Before they took him into the ring, I saw him stretch out with his front and back legs. I promise, Daddy, his belly was almost on the ground. I could have gotten on his back with no help,”
“They want $125 for him,” continued Daddy. “That’s a lot of money, but that’s not all. We’ll need to feed him and pay for visits from the vet every now and then. We’re talking about a very expensive situation here.”
I looked him square in the face, eyeball-to-eyeball. “I could give you my entire allowance until he’s paid off.” Looking backward over all those years, I have no idea how Daddy kept a straight face. •
“And how much allowance do you get?” he asked. “A quarter every week.”
“Hmmm,” he said, “if my mental arithmetic is correct, you’ll need almost 14 years to pay him off. That’s a long time.”
I dropped my head and looked down at the dirt. My visions of having the beautiful, black horse in the pasture at our small farm were fading quickly.
Now, my focus was to keep my bottom lip from quivering.
“Here.” I looked up to see Daddy holding out a dime to me. I took it with a questioning look.
“Call your Mama and see how she feels about it.” He nodded to the phone hanging on the wall.
I stretched upward on my tip-toes to reach the receiver and dialed the number. She answered almost immediately.
“Is something wrong?” she asked before I could say anything else.
”No, m’am. Daddy wanted me to call you.”
“Well, there’s the most beautiful horse here. He’s black and his name is Bob and if you let me have him I’ll give you my allowance to pay for him.”
“Let me speak to Daddy.”
I handed him the phone. He took it and turned his back, shielding his words from me. I waited until he finally hung up the receiver and rotated his body to face me.
“Are you sure about this? A horse is a lot of responsibility, you know. It’s different from a dog or a cat.”
I nodded my head in the affirmative.
“Okay,” said Daddy. “Go over to the man in the red plaid shirt….the one leaning against the fence. Ask him if the horse is still for sale for $125 and ask him if he can deliver him to our farm.”
I couldn’t believe it! I’d never before in my entire life experienced the surge of joy that rippled through me at those words. And, really, I’m sure I’ve never experienced it since.
A grin split my face, so wide I could actually feel the shape of my cheeks changing. I ran to the man, began talking to him, pointing first at Bob and then at Daddy. He nodded his head ”yes” to both my questions. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I started to run back to Daddy but changed my mind. I knew he’d take care of the business part. What I needed to do was introduce myself to Bob.
The big, black horse had been moved to a small corral, standing there all alone. There was hay in the manger but he seemed disinterested. I climbed to the top rail of the fence, threw one leg at a time over and perched there.
Daddy glanced up and saw me. “Be careful,” he shouted. “Don’t you get hurt before we even get him home.”
Even now, all these years later, I can remember twisting my torso so Daddy could see my huge grin. I waved my hand, indicating all was well. I turned back to the horse.
“Hey, Bob,” I said. “You’re beautiful. You don’t know me yet but I already love you. We’re going to have wonderful times together.”
The horse tossed his head before walking to me. He stopped three feet short, stretching out his neck and flaring his nostrils in an attempt to pull my scent into his nose. Slowly, I held out my hand. It was turned palm upward, flat. I don’t really know how I knew I was supposed to do it that way. I just did.
Bob snuffled across my small palm. His warm breath was the most wonderful sensation I’d ever felt. And I knew….at that moment….we’d bonded. Nothing else was needed. We were friends, and we would remain friends even after we died.
Bob settled in at the farm immediately. No fuss. No special fanfare. My parents did, however, set limits on the freedom we could enjoy. There was a railroad track one mile east of our house. I wasn’t allowed to ride past it. There was a bridge 3/4-mile to the west. I was allowed to ride to the bridge, but not on it or past it. There were numerous dirt roads crisscrossing our farm and I could ride anywhere I pleased on those.
We lived in the country and I attended private school in the city. I boarded a school bus at 6:30 in the morning and didn’t return until 4:30. Bob learned my schedule. He began prancing and whinnying sometime between 4:05 and 4:15. Daddy made him wait until 4:20. Then he opened the paddock gate and let Bob walk, on his own with no bridle or rider, down the long driveway to the edge of the cattle gap. He waited there, looking expectantly in the direction he knew would bring the bus. He was neighing furiously by the time the bus door opened and I stepped out.
Hi, boy,” I’d greet him. “How were things for you today? Wanna’ go for a ride?” And, of course, he always said yes.
My daddy always, always, always wore a hat; one of those dapper little fedora types. He would go nowhere without one perched on his head. At least, that was the case before Bob. There were, however, times after Bob when he had no choice.
Bob seemed to love those little hats. He waited for Daddy to walk past him and then, as quick as lightning, he darted over, snagged the hat with his teeth and snatched it from Daddy’s head. He seemed to laugh and shout as he did it, knowing he’d exposed a very large bald spot. Fortunately, Daddy learned quickly that chasing the big, black horse was not the thing to do. It wasn’t a fair match and Bob always won. Instead, just ignore the situation. Don’t acknowledge the sight of Bob running around with the hat dangling from his big, yellow teeth. Eventually, having the fun taken from his game due to lack of attention, he would walk over and drop the hat at Daddy’s feet.
Three years after Bob came to live with us, Mama and Daddy decided I could ride beyond the railroad tracks and beyond the bridge. That was really great but there was one major problem….I couldn’t convince Bob we had permission to expand our universe. He absolutely refused to cross the tracks or the bridge. It was frustrating as well as humiliating. Finally, Daddy came and led him across both former boundaries while I sat in the saddle. Somehow, he equated that action with receiving the official okay from an authority figure.
I had my first date on Bob. His name was Malcolm—blonde, silver braces on his teeth, skinny and beautiful blue eyes. I can’t remember his horse but I do know he didn’t begin to compare with Bob in either beauty or intelligence. We took a long ride together, Malcolm 15 and I 14. We took our tennis rackets and the sandwiches Mama made. Bob kept watch as we munched and talked.
I graduated grade school (there was no such thing as junior high back then) and moved into high school. Unlike some girls, though, I didn’t leave behind my passion for horses in general and for Bob in particular. He was still my very best friend, and he still met me each day at the end of the driveway. Very seldom did we skip a day of riding but, if we did, I sat in the pasture with him. Our conversations were long and slow and deep. There was nothing about me he didn’t know, and he kept my secrets ever so well.
I was sixteen years old and completing my sophomore term. Bob had been my best friend for eight years but, in most ways, it seemed far longer than that. He, too, was 16 but his hair was still jet black and his step still had all the fire and prance of a much younger horse. I visited Bob each morning before walking down the driveway to meet the school bus, but there was something seriously wrong on one particular morning. He was on the ground in his paddock, drenched in sweat. He’d swing his beautiful head toward his side and try to nip himself, telling me he was experiencing painful stomach cramps. He looked at me. I knew he was asking for help, and I also knew he had a horrible case of colic.
Sometimes colic happens for no obvious reason. Somehow, an impaction develops in the bowel. The pain is horrendous.
I ran to the house, slamming the door behind me, snatching the receiver from the wall phone and calling the vet. Mama came from the kitchen, drying her hands on a dish towel.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“It’s Bob,” I answered, short of breath from the run as well as fear. “Colic. I called the vet.” I was struggling to hold back tears.
Mama walked to me and patted my shoulder. “It’ll be okay,” she said. “I’ll just go get Daddy so he can help.” She got into her car and drove to the field where he was working on his tractor. They returned together.
“We need to get him up if we can,” he said to me. We set off for the paddock at a run.
Daddy put a lead rope on Bob’s halter. “You coax him,” he said. “He’ll listen to you.”
I couldn’t help it. I started crying. “Bob,” I sobbed. “Please, Bob. Get up. Please. Please.”
The big horse lumbered to his feet and, when he was standing, I gasped. He looked as if he’d lost 100 pounds overnight. Daddy handed me the lead rope. “Walk him,” he said tersely. I could tell from his look and his voice that he thought the situation was bleak. Tears running down my face, I started walking the black horse.
The vet arrived, jumping quickly out the door and pulling a stainless steel bucket from the back of his truck, pouring it half-full of mineral oil. He stuck a pump in the bucket with a long, clear, plastic tube attached to it. He walked over to Bob, pinched his nostrils together and began feeding the tube through his nose, down his throat and into his stomach. I couldn’t watch. It looked ghastly. He began pumping the oil into the tube, hoping to dislodge the impaction and move it out. He pumped and pumped and pumped, but nothing happened.
Bob’s front legs started buckling at the knees.
“Don’t let him go down,” the vet yelled at me. “We don’t want him to roll. If he does, he could twist that intestine and then we don’t have a prayer.”
I held on to him, my heart breaking. I knew he was miserable. I hated the tube. I knew how he must long to lie down. But I tugged and strained on the lead rope. “Please, Bob,” I prayed. “Stand up, Bob.” And, for the first time since the ordeal began, I allowed myself to say the word. The awful word. “Please, Bob. Please don’t die,” I breathed.
“I can’t do anything more,” the vet said. “Just keep walking him as much as you can.”
I was exhausted, but not too exhausted to continue helping the best friend I’d ever had.
I walked. I stroked his face. He touched my cheek with his nose. I suppose I knew what would happen. I suppose I wasn’t surprised when he yanked the rope from my hand and crumpled to the ground, looking like a million broken pieces of black glass. He stretched out his neck, and I lay down on the grass next to him. At that precise moment, on that crystal clear morning so long ago, I would have gladly lain down my life for his.
“I love you, Bob. You’ve been the best friend I could ever have.” He knew what I said. He always did. I missed school for an entire week, crying every day.
I was still short. He was still tall.
I was still white. He was still black,
But the wonderful world of friendship erased every difference. And, all these many years later, my heart still feels the tug of a lead rope whenever I think of Bob.
Daddy and Mama are both gone. The farm has long since been sold with rows of houses built on it. Way back in the corner….in the middle of a small thicket of trees and vines….is where Bob is buried. It was a big grave and Daddy worked all day to dig it, with a rented backhoe. He knew a decent burial was all I’d accept for Bob.
There’s a house built over the grave now. Sometimes….if I happen to drive by there when I’m home visiting….I wonder if the people living in that house ever hear a whinny and, just for a minute, think they’ve seen the silliest thing….a big, black horse with a fedora dangling between his teeth. I think they do. I think they see my friend, Bob.