Albert

Albert


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He's gone now - the all consuming dream and obsession of my youth; the culmination of years of begging, scheming, and ecstatic toil; my first horse; my delicate little, green broke, grey Arabian filly. Well all right, perhaps he wasn't a filly, or grey, or even possessing of a single drop of Arabian blood, so far as anyone could tell. Delicate? Not exactly. Green broke ... I fit that description far better than he, and he did more than a young lifetime of riding instructors to correct the defect.

My best friend, Lisa, and I spent every waking moment of our childhood together engulfed in equestrian pursuits. Mini-millennia were occupied in the development of vast herds of Breyer horses, each animal identified by name and strictly defined position in our respective herds. Complex scenarios changed daily within the constraints of assigned personalities and "herd dynamics" interpreted as only 7-year-old, horse-crazed fanatics can best imagine with as little actual equine contact as suburban life typically affords.

Lisa and I hatched never-ending schemes to earn enough money to buy our own real live horses as well. At 25¢ a week for allowance and an additional 10¢ a week for emptying the household wastebaskets, accumulation of adequate funds proved hopelessly slow going. In a tactic familiar to more than a few hapless parents, HORSE prominently and permanently glorified the top half of every gift list prepared by me - at first in crayon, then in pencil, pen, felt tip, and finally with each letter CAPITALIZED IN A DIFFERENT EYE DAZZLING COLOR!!! At times, there was a particular equine individual who so fully captured my heart that his name - Maple Leaf, Indigo - became indelibly etched on each and every fragment of my existence ... including the gift list. Whereas Lisa and I were both admittedly rather spoiled children, for some incomprehensible reason our horses never seemed to materialize under the Christmas tree.

We would soothe our frustrations by spending long hours designing intricate equine environments - deserted, horse-shaped islands molded into perfect models of equestrian delight, complete with every topographical diversity: mountains, lakes, plateaus, valleys, rivers, plains, rolling hills, boundless forests. Breathtakingly beautiful stables adorned our island paradises with rows upon rows of immaculately maintained box stalls, expansive indoor schools, and miles of perfectly straight, gleaming white fences surrounding lush and, of course, weedless pastures.

But our most essential and inspiring diversions were the summers of riding lessons which prompted ten months out of every year to be lived in restless anticipation. I actually began instruction a year or two before the commencement of my liaison with Lisa . My older sister, Pam, and I rode together at a modest stable in suburban Chicago during the summer of my seventh year. I only mention this first year of instruction as it was my introduction to what, from that moment, became my life's primary focus and direction. There were also individuals encountered during that time who have managed to avoid that great eraser which I mockingly refer to as my memory ...

Kontiki - the first horse I ever rode in a lesson. I remember him as a massive bay gelding who under no circumstances could be inspired to perform anything more active than a very steadfast halt. My efforts with him clearly demonstrated the tenacious and undauntable spirit (if not, in that instance, the totally ineffective tenacious and undauntable spirit) which was to prove my greatest asset in every future equestrian endeavor.

Cherry Bomb was a considerably more energetic mount - a chestnut Thoroughbred mare with whom I fell rapidly in love (certainly no reflection on the fact that I could actually produce movement while on her back), and who I would surprisingly meet again years later in instruction at another stable.

While that first summer of instruction served only to intensify my overpowering obsession with all things equine, my sister defied comprehension with her lack of continued adoration of the animal or the activity. Then there was Lisa. Though I cannot recollect the initial crossing of our paths, we were soul mates from the start. Perhaps we met in first grade with Mrs. Geller, or perhaps even a bit earlier at the school bus stop near our homes on that first scholastic day. Wherever the meeting took place, Lisa and I became immediately and permanently inseparable. Living just a block and a half apart, our access to one another was constant.

And best of all, Lisa was every bit as horse crazy as I was. I have already mentioned a bit of how we whittled away those endless, horseless hours of our youth, but summers were ecstasy. Our parents allied us with a fine and distinguished gentleman named Captain John James. Captain was an educated and talented horseman who operated a large boarding and instruction stable in the Chicago area. His manner was intense, commanding admiration and no slight amount of youthful fear in his many riding students. Very Germanic in every respect, right down to the booming accent and delivery of his speech, Captain was a force to be reckoned with; and Lisa and I reckoned with him gleefully summer after summer after summer ...

After what seemed like an eternity of instruction and, more importantly, the unrelenting and ever-expanding campaign to acquire our own horses, Lisa and I miraculously convinced our parents to lease an equine companion for one month from Captain for our enjoyment during the summer of our fifteenth year ... and enjoy her we did! Fox Trot was a large seal brown mare with a kind attitude and forgiving nature. Though a source of some painful frustration for me at the time, the fact could not be denied that Lisa was a far more confident and capable rider that was I, and the horse Captain chose to fulfill the lease agreement had to be manageable for us both. Fox Trot fit the bill beautifully. Not to be denied a single precious moment with "our horse", we virtually lived at the stable those thirty days. Ah, how brief a time one month can be.

At this point, however, life became somewhat less well defined, less predictable than in the years preceding. In the fall, Lisa and I auditioned for a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The ensuing involvement was far greater than anyone anticipated and swept us through the first weeks of the following summer. Still reeling from the unexpected emotionalism of the Superstar experience, I was in no way prepared for the events which developed in its wake. That summer, Lisa's parents bought her a horse. They bought her a horse. Lisa had a horse. It was not sinking in. This was not the scenario. We were always supposed to get our horses together, just like we did everything else. Of course, I was delighted for her ... that is, when I didn't want her to die. Not to add insult to overwhelming injury, but she had very nearly bought the horse of MY dreams. She was understandably eager to have me come out to the stable to meet Beau. I was understandably heartbroken.

All was not lost, however. In truth, prospects had never looked better for the eventual acquisition of my own beloved mount. Not only had Lisa's victory made my own fairly inevitable, but I maintained an ace in the hole, and the time had now come to play this precious card. A year earlier, my grandmother, Nana, had finally cracked under the weight of a decade's barrage: the begging, the crying, the unanswerable arguments, and those big, sad, pleading eyes. Out of the crack fell these words, "Laurie, Dear, if you ever have the money to support a horse, I will buy it for you." Well, that was all I needed. That, and seeing Lisa with Beau.

As Lisa and I both turned sixteen that year, the wide world of gainful employment opened before our eyes. Visions of funds with which to support a horse were suddenly drawing me through doorways of the local five and dime, toy shop, grocery store, and finally, Conrad's Pharmacy. Now, I was a timid young girl, afraid not only of my own shadow, but terrified beyond reason of the shadow of anyone older and authoritarian. Such a man was Shel Friedman. But I was a girl with a mission. I could not allow my fears to deter me from my life's only goal. I faced the beast (actually a very fine man, a pussycat in lion's clothing, as it were, whom I still think of as a friend), and he gave me a job. Oh, Nanaaaaaa ...

Poor Nana. When I approached her with her gracious, if not long overdue, offer of a year past, she obviously anticipated no such resurrection of a promise made in passing and designed only to shut me up for the moment. However, being a woman of great integrity and faith in the honesty of her grandchildren, she asserted (with obvious apprehension) that the offer still stood. What else could a grandmother do? When she inquired how much I thought this horse of mine might cost, I told her I thought I could find a suitable mount for $1000. A lesser grandmother may well have expired at that point. Mine paled, but stood tall.

And so the search was on. Here now I must explain an all too common phenomenon of which many first time horse owners expend much energy trying to deny the truth. I thought I knew it all. I believed I could ride anything. Train a young equine (a 1000 pound, stall-bound bundle of incredible life-threatening energy force with an uncontrollable fear of kleenex)? No problem! I had almost ten years of riding instruction under my belt. I was an EQUESTRIAN, and I wanted my young, delicate, green-broke, grey Arabian filly!

Want ads are a mysterious wonder of commercialization, have you noticed? "Class A show record in WP," (sounds impressive enough). "Pony clubbed through C1," (huh?) "No reasonable offer refused," (hmm). "Nice Christmas present," (now there's a novel idea). I know now that an ad reading, "Very spirited! Sell (or trade for well broke trail horse ... )," actually means, "This horse is insane! Trade me for something with a brain ... " Unfortunately, at sixteen I wasn't nearly so wise. I finally decided to abandon any ad which could not be readily deciphered and concentrate on those which did indeed contain all essential information: young, grey, Arabian, $1000 maximum (green-broke and filly were of lesser importance and so did not immediately disqualify a prospective candidate). I made phone call after phone call. Horses were lost to impossible locations, inexplicable price elevations, and unruly temperaments. There were those, however, who passed the initial phone screening. Appointments were made, and the trials by fire begun.

To be perfectly honest, I have a tendency to permanently block from memory those most humiliating experiences of my past, so I cannot offer many specifics regarding the numerous horses I attempted to ride during that time. Suffice it to say that several new truths became tragically apparent: I knew nothing, I couldn't ride anything, and I had no equestrian ability whatsoever. Still, I did have that tenacious and undauntable spirit!

There was one animal who made a lasting impression - Ghengis Khan, a HUGE palomino Anglo(heavy, very heavy on the Anglo)-Arab gelding. Lisa accompanied me on the tryout. I should have taken greater notice of the altogether horrified look on her face when Khan was led out of the barn. He was a rather intimidating creature, but I was not to be dissuaded. I had ridden through nightmare after nightmare in the ensuing weeks. My criteria had so expanded that I was willing to look at anything within the price range and with so much as a drop of Arabian blood. Never mind the fact that I absolutely detested palomino coloration. Never mind that we had here the wrong breed type, gender, conformation, age ...

I watched intently as Khan's owner mounted and took him through his paces. Looked good enough to me. Khan's owner finished her brief demonstration of his talents, dismounted, and looked expectantly at me. I knew what came next, and I must admit that I was just the tiniest bit apprehensive. But I had never in my life turned down a free ride; I wasn't about to start now. I said a brief prayer and climbed aboard. Yes indeed, it looked to be an even longer way to the ground than I had anticipated. The owner pointed to an expansive hunt field replete with cross country fences and suggested I try him out there. "Show no fear" had recently become my inspirational words to ride by. We walked to the field. We walked around the field (so far so good). We trotted around the field (this isn't so bad ... I'm not dead yet ... he even seems to be able to trot in a straight line at a fairly even pace). This was already a vast improvement over any ride I'd experienced in my search up to this point. (Do I dare? Will anybody miss me when I'm gone?) I cued Khan for the canter. What I got was a stride or two of canter which slowly and steadily opened up into an all too energetic hand gallop striding over what seemed acres at a leap. I was breathlessly having the time of my life. I suppose Lisa was breathlessly having a heart attack until I managed to pull Khan up at the field gate.

I was ecstatic. This was the first horse on which I had been able to produce three identifiably different gaits. I was ready to sign papers, hand over the check, sing Hallelujah! Lisa was ready to have me committed. I doubt if anyone except Lisa could have talked me out of that horse. But her understated, "I think he's too much horse for you," left me resentfully convinced and more than a little crestfallen. So much for Ghengis Khan.

I cannot recall how much later Lisa called me with news of a new horse at the stable where she had purchased and boarded Beau. "Laurie, you have got to come out and see this horse Mr. Gilroy just got in. He's the funniest looking thing I've ever seen. He looks just like a bulldog." (Sure. Why not? I'll obviously never find a horse of my own. Not much in the mood for comic relief ... but ... a bulldog?)

Out at John Gilroy Stables, Lisa slid open the door to an ill-lit box stall. There he was, Uncle Albert (so named for the Paul McCartney song popular at that time). Even in the dim light of the aging barn, I could discern the outline of an equine animal nearly as broad through the chest as tall at the withers (bulldog, indeed!). Before me loomed a massive head, statuesque and striking in its bold, bald marking and perfectly proportioned dimensions boasting tremendous breadth between the large, omniscient eyes encircled white with suspicion and huge jowls accompanying a wide, well-aligned jaw and short, tight lips. Staccato ears missed nothing. But I saw little of this at the time. What I saw was the bulldog; short, fat, stocky ... and palomino.

John Gilroy, however, left an altogether different impression; tall, lean, dark, and thoroughly charming. And he knew his business. He intercepted us at the bulldog's stall. "He hasn't been out yet today. How would you like to ride him for me?" Remember now that I never turned down the chance to ride. Besides, there was no commitment here. Mr. Gilroy was making no attempt whatsoever to sell me this wholly undesirable animal (yeah, right). This was just a chance to ride ... a favor, if you will.

The outdoor ring was moderately sized, maybe 80' X 150', completely fenced except for an open section about twenty feet wide along one long side. I was a little worried about that opening. I had ridden no shortage of horses who would take advantage of considerably less inviting escape routes than the one here presented either to execute an unanticipated detour or to simply refuse to move past the opportunity altogether. (Show no fear ... show no fear ...) I took the bulldog into the ring and mounted up. Easy enough. He stood like a perfect gentleman, and after all, he was a good two hands shorter than Khan. As far as I can remember, no one else was present during my ride. It would seem Mr. Gilroy had absolutely no interest whatsoever in the proceedings (yeah, right), and I don't even remember Lisa watching my progress, though she probably did.

A negligible squeeze, and off Albert went into an energetic yet thoroughly amenable walk. We walked on the rail for awhile. A touch of the reins produced an immediate halt. Touch, walk. Touch, halt. Touch, turn and reverse (amazing). Touch, trot (and no ordinary trot; this was a quiet, controlled jog trot). Circle, reverse, figure 8 all at jog (AMAZING). He couldn't really be this willing, this able to interpret my oh-so-novice cues. And now the real test. I delivered my very best canter cue. He moved readily off into the correct lead! Canter circles, touch, halt, reinback (or should I call that run-back). Did I mention that this exalted mount never even seemed to notice his twenty foot passage to freedom (AMAZING)? I was totally, desperately, and hopelessly in love; madly, wildly, and insanely in love; frantically, terminally ... (I was sixteen; gimme a break, okay?). At any rate, I really, really wanted this horse!

Surprisingly enough, Lisa didn't even attempt to talk me out of this one (just like Mr. Gilroy didn't attempt to talk me into this one ... yeah, right). No matter. This was the horse for me ... no question ... well, one question: how much? $450. Oh, could life get any better! Oh, Nana ...

By the end of the day, September 6, 1971, Uncle Albert (Prince Albert or maybe KING Albert) was mine.

Nana

Thanks, Nana

End of part one - Continue to part two
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