I was boxing up books, getting ready to move, when I dropped one of my photograph albums, and it fell open. There on the page in front of me was a pigtailed girl riding a pinto pony in a local parade. That was me, back in the 1980s, with my beloved Munchkin. I hadn’t thought of her in years. I took a break from packing to continue leafing through photos that brought back old memories.
I have always had an inexplicable attraction to horses. After years of reading everything I could about horses, taking advantage of every opportunity to ride, and begging, I finally was able to convince my parents that my equestrian interest was more than just a passing fancy. I promised, over and over, that I alone would take responsibility for all of the financial and other obliga-tions of owning a horse.
Finally, on my 12th birthday, I received the gift of an orphan foal. My parents knew nothing of horses, and they were not familiar with the saying about green horses and green riders. The little pinto was not exactly the pony of my dreams---I named her, somewhat disparagingly, after the residents of the land of Oz. I wanted to ride English and learn to jump. Munchkin, however, was a grade, spotted, gaited pony who was parrot-mouthed and pigeon-toed, and she required braces on her legs to correct limb deformities.
Undeterred, I stuck to my promise. Bottle feedings at all hours led to bucket feedings before the little filly was finally able to eat on her own. Caring for her, with near-constant monitoring, was a crash course in horse care. And over time, with help from an aunt who knew about horses, we developed a training program to take Munchkin from halter training to under-saddle work.
To hold up the financial end of my bargain, I became a young entrepreneur, raising chickens and selling eggs across the county. I ran my business while still doing my schoolwork and my regular farm chores. It was hard work, but my dream was finally off the ground.
Munchkin grew into a spunky little horse, and as ponies owned by children sometimes are, she could be naughty. She would sometimes become anxious at feeding time and attempt to crowd me in her stall. She had a thing about not liking her stall cleaned when she was in it and would try to kick me. And despite my best efforts, she managed to buck me off during some of our earlier rides.
I don’t mean to paint Munchkin as a bad pony. Instead I would say that, overall, she was an incredibly good pony with a naughty streak that kept me on my toes. Working with her taught me to be a kind and patient leader. I also learned to read her body language, how to keep her attention focused on me and, when necessary, how to deliver discipline appropriately. And all those times she dumped me showed me the necessity of toughing things out and getting right back on.
But once Munchkin knew you were in charge, she was right there with you. Take that parade in the photo I found. Each year, my tiny hometown held a parade before a local horse show, and competitors were invited to ride. We took our place on our horses--- surrounded by the emergency vehicles with their sirens and flashing lights and the high school marching band with their cymbals and horns.
For her first parade, I could tell Munchkin was frightened and that I needed to step up and take charge. I deliberately became a calming presence, a leader who would show her the way. That did the trick. We rode in that parade and in many others in the years to come without incident.
Eventually, I outgrew Munchkin. She went on to raise another young girl, and I moved on to a bigger horse. Leafing through the photographs, I couldn’t help but think about how this little mare had shaped my horsemanship and outlook. It was so much more than just learning how to care for, train and ride a horse.
Looking back now, I realize that perhaps the greatest gift I received from working with Munchkin was a belief in myself. If I have a problem that seems to be insurmountable, I have confidence that I can persevere and overcome it. I did it with her and I can do it again with anything else. As a high school teacher, I try to use those experiences to teach others that achieving your goals is possible with hard work and dedication. I try to show my students that setbacks are likely but that they can be overcome.
None of this would have been possible if I had started out with a perfect pony. As a child, I treasured my Munchkin. Now, as an adult, I cherish her memories and the lessons she taught me even more.