The shadow of a smile

A stash of old photographs helped me remember just how much my first pony meant to me and my beloved sister, Karen, who was taken far too soon.
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A stash of old photographs helped me remember just how much my first pony meant to me and my beloved sister, Karen, who was taken far too soon.

The best Christmas present ever came to us in 1966, when I was 9. At the time, my family was living in a small town called Cheam, in Surrey, England, just south of London. I still remember that morning, rushing down with my two sisters to find our stockings filled with hoof picks and horse brushes. Wait … didn’t our parents understand that we didn’t need any of this if we didn’t have our own pony? And then the realization sank in: They got us a pony!

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His name was Corky, and he was a 12.2-hand skewbald Welsh pony with bright blue eyes and the most magnificent mane and tail. He was flashy, fast and fun---everything a little girl dreams of! My sisters and I learned how to ride and to jump. We took Corky to local shows, Pony Club rallies and gymkhanas. We hacked him in the fields, on the heath and along the roads. We even used to hack him around the grounds of the famous Epsom Downs Racecourse, just a few miles from Corky’s stable in Banstead.

It was the best of times. The three of us shared Corky for a while, until my older sister Leslie got a larger pony. Then, out of the blue, my younger sister Karen fell ill and died within several months. All this happened less than two years after that magical Christmas.

Somehow, our lives went on. Corky became “my” pony, and so many of my childhood memories revolve around him. We owned Corky until we returned to the States in 1972---the oil company my dad worked for had intended for us to be overseas for only a few years. When the time came to go, my parents’ plan had always been to sell Corky back to the stable owner, Mr. Henderson, who wanted him for his son, who had been too young to ride the pony when we had bought him. Now, as we left, we knew we were leaving Corky with a new best friend.

But this is more than a story about Corky and me as a child; it is about what he taught me decades later, as an adult.

A few years ago, I visited my Dad in Arizona, and he gave me a box filled with family photographs. Most of the images were familiar and had long ago faded or were bent and fingerprinted from years of handling. But I also came across a large, unmarked brown envelope.

Inside I found pictures of Karen and Corky that I had not seen for years. I was flooded with memories. Karen had been 7 when we got Corky, and the photos traced the final months of her life. The earlier ones showed a beautiful, healthy 8-year-old. The last ones were taken just before she was admitted to the hospital for the last time: thin, weak and ravaged by disease. Yet what struck me most in every picture was Karen’s smile---her pure delight and happiness to be on her pony. In every shot, Corky stood calm, quiet and maybe even understanding in those last images. The contrast between the earlier and later pictures was heart-rending.

My mother must have put the photographs away in the envelope because they were too painful to look at and remember. Who could blame her? Yet for me, the photographs were a revelation. Here was “my” pony ... but somehow I had forgotten that he had been Karen’s pony, too.

Corky had always been special to me; he gave me confidence, joy and unconditional love; he instilled in me my lifelong passion for horses. But what I saw in those pictures was a new realization, something I had forgotten so many years ago. Corky’s most special gift had been offered not to me, but to Karen: He gave a sick child the simple pleasure of sitting on her pony and knowing that he would take care of her. What more could one ask of a horse? Blue ribbons and even gold medals fade in comparison to what Corky gave Karen. I had always thought of Corky as “my” pony. I was wrong. He was “our” pony, and he was Karen’s first and only.

About the author: Diane Skvarla retired after 20 years as Curator of the United States Senate. Working with The Dressage Foundation she established the Karen Skvarla Fund to honor her sister and her love of horses and joy in riding. She visited England years later to learn that Mr. Henderson had retired to Devon, and he still owned Corky, who was by then 35 years old.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #469, October 2016.