by Laura Crum
I’ve owned quite a few horses in my life. And because I rode my uncle’s horses, and rode for various trainers, I also rode a lot of horses that weren’t mine. Once in awhile, out of a clear blue sky, I’ll remember some horse I haven’t thought about in years. And the other day I remembered General Lee.
General Lee belonged to my uncle. He was a “trading horse” of no particular interest or value. He’d been somebody’s backyard horse and my uncle had acquired him for a few hundred. Once it was clear that the horse would not make a team roping horse, my uncle’s only purpose was to sell the animal at a profit. To this end he offered to loan me the horse for the summer, with the idea that I could put a few miles on the animal and make him more salable as a riding horse.
I was off at college at the time. I had just sold Hobby, a gelding I’d trained to be a reasonably successful reined cowhorse. In the fall I would buy Burt, a green broke five-year-old that I kept until his death in his late thirties. But for that one summer I did not have a horse. I agreed to take General Lee.
General Lee was a middle-aged gray gelding turned white, with a thick cresty neck and a heavy-boned, coarse frame. He looked a bit like an old war horse—thus the name. We always referred to him as “the General.” He was easy enough to climb on and ride, but not either well broke or reliable, as I found out. He was capable of bolting, rearing, constant jigging and stupidities such as turning sideways while descending steep hills. He was not a particularly endearing horse. I kept him at the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus and rode him through the hills there. I have memories of times he nearly got me killed and also happy memories of riding through that beautiful landscape on the old white horse.
One moment in particular sticks in my mind. A sunny summer afternoon, I was riding through the hills alone on General Lee. As we neared a place where the railroad tracks crossed the dirt road I was on, I could hear the train coming. I stopped, a ways from the tracks and waited. I was not entirely sure how the General would react to a train. The train, when it appeared, turned out to be the Amtrak, and the General turned out to be indifferent to trains. I stood by the side of the tracks and waved back to all the people waving at me from the windows. For a moment I saw myself through their eyes and imagined how colorful I must appear. A young blond woman on a white horse, way out in the middle of the wide-open hills, miles from any town. I realized just how lucky I was to be this person. And then the train was gone.
Summer wore on. I put some miles on the General. I let my friends ride him--with mixed success. No one was hurt, at least. The horse remained an ill-broke, not-too-reliable critter, but he was fun to have around. If you weren't an anxious rider, he was perfectly servicable as a trail horse.
When fall came, I sent the General back to my uncle. I never knew what became of him. Presumably he was sold to be a riding horse. But my uncle was perfectly capable of hauling such a horse to the local livestock auction and letting him take his chances. I never knew. I never even asked.
I was young, about twenty. I had been around my uncle and his somewhat callous way of treating horses all my life; I took it for granted. In my later years I began to think for myself and developed a huge distaste for such callousness. But at that time it did not occur to me to be concerned about the fate of General Lee.
When I think of the horse now, I feel very sad. He was one of many trading horses that my uncle went through over the years. I am sure that many of them did not come to a good end. And I rode and enjoyed lots of them. But General Lee was, for one brief summer, “my” horse, under my control. I could have kept him, if I chose, or found him a home. Today I would naturally assume this responsibility. Then I didn’t think to do so.
I remember that moment as the train went by and I wish I had thought to value what that horse gave me.
Its one of many things I wish I could do over. I wish I had had more understanding when I was young. I wish I’d done my part to place that old white horse in a good home. But its too late now. I can only do the best I can for the horses I have in my care, including my rescue horses and retirees. And I can help, once in awhile, to place a horse like Harley (see last month’s post—“A Thanksgiving Story”) in a forever home. And I can say “I’m sorry” to General Lee and all the others that I just didn’t step forward for.
I know we can’t help them all. And I’m not really beating myself up. I just think that most of us carry a little of this particular sorrow—the pain of all the horses we’ve known that we didn’t/couldn’t help. When, once in awhile, such a horse crosses our mind, we think, “I wish”….or at least I do.