Thelma Lumpkin’s mare Crickett, being ridden by neighborhood kids ages eight to five, taught them all to ride (photo accompanies the story by Thelma Lumpkin, "The Roses").
PHOTO BY THELMA LUMPKIN
BY THELMA LUMPKIN
It’s done. I’ve put it off long enough. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I knew it would be a heart-wrench. And so I put it off until today when for some reason I just did it. No forethought. No hesitation. Just walked through the back yards, through the empty paddocks, past the empty barn, opened the barway, then the big shed door, hooked it open, and walked into the pasture.
I wish I could say that I saw them, all four of them, pawing the ground, snorting, rearing, galloping off, circling around and coming back, necks arched, walking on tiptoe, nosing me lightly, searching my hands and my pockets for carrots or ginger snaps… I wish I could say that they were all there, alive and well.
Three of their graves are in a row, one after the other: Limestone Road, Crickett, and Jet’s Jumbo, my magnificent Jet. The ground where they lie is slightly sunken– they’ve been there that long– but I don’t need that clue to find them. I know where they are.
A little farther away is the mound not yet settled, a long way from sinking, not yet overgrown with whatever green things dare to take on the nutrient-starved ground. That’s Jimmy Buck, lying there since January.
I’m standing by Lime, and this is harder than I thought. What I’m doing here… this fond gesture, this memorial to the horses I loved… has another deep-seated meaning that I’ve been trying to avoid.
I remember each one of my horses. They are indelible, imprinted in my mind. How could they not be? Each of them was unique, not because of color, or size, or markings. Of course, they had some common inner horse-traits: the fear-flight instinct; the wariness of shouts, loud noises, rough handling; the mistrust of something new or different; the craving for sameness. Like people, each of the four had a personal identity beyond the obvious, but unlike people, the revelation had to be courted. They do not trust lightly.
Limestone Road was a fast walker. On group rides, she was the front runner. She came from Lancaster County, PA, from an Amish farmer who lived on Limestone Road. She was a light bay, 16.2 hands high, and she became mine when she was five years old. I always wondered why the Amish farmer gave her up. Did Limestone not take kindly to pulling a carriage or a plow? Was she too beautiful for the ultra-conservative Amish? Was the Amish farmer fearful that owning such a beautiful mare might seem to involve him too much in worldly pride? Whatever the reason– which I would never know anyway– it was his loss and my gain.
Lime arrived in style. She was brought in a six-horse Pullman, the only horse in the van, and when she walked down the ramp onto my driveway, I had the urge to apologize for the simplicity of what was to be her new home. As she was led past my house to the barn, she surveyed the property with a high head, flicking ears, and wide eyes, and I wondered if she might have found her new home wanting. Ensconced in her 10' x 12' stall, which was larger than most in those days, she made it seem small.
Her barn-mate was Floradora, my first horse, sold to me as a nine-year-old, vetted as a 13-year-old, and who the horse dentist determined was at least 26. Floradora (Flo) and I rode with the Middlebury Hunt Club twice. The first time, I arrived at the meet decked out in Western dress and Western saddle– a bit of chutzpah as I think of it now, but then it was naiveté. The second time, it was the Thanksgiving Day hunt, and I was properly presented in hunt costume that had arrived special delivery from Miller’s in NYC the day before. On that second ride, Floradora proved her mettle.
It was a cold day, and there was ice on the trails, but Flo had winter calks on her shoes which gave her traction. We were on a narrow downhill trail, single file, boxed in by trees on both sides. As we rounded a bend in the trail, I saw horses’ heads going up one by one as they reached a certain place in the path. Suddenly, I was at that certain place, and almost below me was a ravine that ran across the trail. It was too wide for horses to step over it, and I could not see bottom.
I froze, but Flo did not. Calmly, without fuss or fanfare, Flo jumped the ravine. I, on the other hand, bobbled around in the saddle, lost my stirrups, and landed on Flo’s neck with my hunt cap at a rakish angle. While I collected my wits and myself, Flo trotted along with the rest of her buddies, and thankfully, so did everyone else, with no reference to my sorry horsemanship.
Put down at the age of 33 or thereabouts, Floradora was buried on a friend’s property many years ago. Standing in the paddock next to Floradora, 15.2 hands high, the newly-arrived Limestone Road towered.
Riding Lime became the challenge of calming her down to a flat-footed walk and maintaining it for more than a few yards as I tried to keep my eyes on the path ahead visible only between her ears. Her up-headedness was a Standardbred characteristic, apparently the stronger of the mix of breeds in her genealogy.
Grooming her and tacking her up were equal challenges. Her withers were above my head, and her head was unreachable except by bribery with a carrot. As she bent to take the bribe with queenly acceptance, I had to bridle her fast. Her queenliness lasted only until the carrot was gone. She was with me for 17 years. She died at 22.
I didn’t really choose Crickett. Floradora was gone, and I wanted another companion horse for Lime.
A friend came with me to look at some horses for sale at a nearby stable. The horses were eating hay that was spread in a long line on the ground, and my friend quickly picked a little black mare out of the lineup. I listened to all the reasons that the mare was perfect for me, and because she was to be Lime’s companion and “none of my own,” it didn’t matter that I was not drawn to her as I had been to Lime, and I said okay to the deal.
What I didn’t know about the mare, and found out to my surprise, was that she loved kids, and she was good at showing it. She had been foaled and raised by a family with four children who had crawled and climbed all over her for the first five years of her life. When I bought her, the seller told me that the kids had begged him not to change her name, and so her name, Crickett, came with her.
I taught my four-year-old great-niece (who is now in her thirties) to ride on Crickett, and Crickett’s light shone. She nibbled my great-niece’s hair, nuzzled her, and when my great-niece was on her back, Crickett never let her slide off balance. I marveled at the subtlety with which Crickett helped her to stay centered.
Over the years, Crickett, just 15 hands high, taught all the neighborhood kids– there were four girls and two boys– to ride. I have a photograph of Crickett with four of those children lined up by height on her back, from the tallest down to the smallest, ages eight down to five. With those kids on her back, Crickett was in her element, standing quietly. Nothing unusual about this to her. She was mine for 20 years. She died at 25.
About Jet’s Jumbo, he was all the superlatives I can think of. At 17.3 hands high, he was already the tallest horse that anyone who saw him had ever seen. He was a Thoroughbred who had no heart or legs for racing, and when he flunked out of training at two years and two months old, I bought him.
Because he had been pushed so far and so fast when he was so young, I laid him up for a year before working with him, and then I started with long lines. There were many days during the winter when my dear friend Percy and I lost touch with our hands and feet, walking up the road to an indoor arena in the bitter cold to work indoors with Jet. He was so tall that he had to walk through the closed-in entryway with his head ducked down.
There are so many stories about Jet and me that it’s not easy to pick and choose which to set down here, so I’ll précis a few.
The only thing that Jet would not do is go through water. I attempted to “cure” him of this by trotting him toward a puddle on the theory that the momentum of the trot would carry him through the puddle. It seemed to be working until the last second when, in one leap, he sidestepped, and it was I, on my knees in the puddle, who was “cured.”
There was a pretty trail off the dirt extension of Sperry Road, and without thinking of Jet’s water-phobia, Percy and I, with Jet on long lines, decided to take Jet on that trail. At the beginning of the trail there was a small stream crossing it. Jet stopped at the stream, and no amount of urging moved him forward. He backed up and turned every which way except straight.
Percy, wearing new yellow leather boots, thought that if he went across the stream first, Jet would be more confident about doing the same.
Watching his new yellow boots turn wet and dark, Percy crossed the stream, but Jet did not.
I, holding the long lines behind Jet, persisted with voice and flapping of the lines with no success. Finally, Percy said I had to hit him, and I smacked the lunge whip decisively on Jet’s rump.
Jet cleared the stream in one bound never touching the water. I, on the other end of the long lines, was pulled through the air, also never touching the water. Percy was the only one who waded that day.
I was riding Jet in an indoor arena which was long and narrow, too narrow, I found out later, for a horse of Jet’s size. Rounding a corner at a trot, something happened and Jet went down and started to roll over onto my right leg. I couldn’t get my feet out of the stirrups, and it seemed that Jet was about to roll over on me. Suddenly I was thrown clear, landing about eight feet away from Jet who was still on the ground. He had thrown me clear and was now in the process of getting up. I re-mounted, and we rounded the corner at a trot again, omitting the fall.
Jet’s former owner came to see him about a month after I had bought him. I was in the paddock with Jet, and the former owner came into the paddock and began to play with Jet as he told me he had when he owned Jet. He crouched down, swinging his arms, walking toward Jet and calling him. Jet tucked in his chin, ogled the former owner, then wheeled around on his hind legs and galloped back to me. He swung around behind me to a safe vantage point and stared at the former owner over my shoulder. Got to love a big baby.
A service man came to the house one day when I was working in the barn. He came to the paddock fence and called out, and I called back for him to come into the barn.
After waiting many minutes, no one appeared, and I looked out to see where he was. The service man was still standing outside the paddock fence, and Jet was standing broadside to a narrow entrance opening between fence posts keeping the service man on the other side. Not until I joined the service man and walked with him did Jet allow him to enter the paddock and walk to the barn.
Whenever someone was in the barn talking to me, we had to talk over Jet’s neck. It was a three-way conversation, even though the third party didn’t do much more than jerk his head up and down. It did no good for us to move away. Jet was a movable feast. As we moved, so did Jet. The only alternatives were to end the conversation or continue to stand on tiptoe in order to talk over that broad, thick neck.
Near the end of his life, he was down in his stall for long periods of time, lying flat, but always aware and, I thought, interested. When he saw me bringing the wheelbarrow to the back of the stall, he raised up on his chest, giving me enough space to set the wheelbarrow down behind him. When I left with the wheelbarrow, he laid flat again.
At the end, he had broken a bone in his upper leg and would not lie down again. He took a position at the front of his stall, leaning on the stall wall. He remained on his feet until he was released from pain and an irreparable injury. He died on the first day of spring, three months short of his 23rd birthday.
Jimmy Buck Taylor was a Quarter Horse who came the day Crickett had to be put down. He was a 16-year-old hunt horse who had become lame and could not be hunted again, and he was to be Jet’s new companion.
I thought it would be nice if they shared their first meal together, and so I hung a hay net filled with fresh hay on a post between their separate but adjoining sections of the barn, thinking that they would become friends as they dined together.
They stood on either side of the hay net, studying each other, neither eating any hay. Were they assessing each other? Were they thinking good thoughts about sharing hay? Were they glad to be together? Were they deciding if they liked each other?
Jet answered all those questions by suddenly lunging at Jimmy Buck and grabbing a mouthful of Jimmy Buck’s neck. I heard the snap of Jet’s teeth clanging together as Jimmy Buck jerked himself away and in the next instant flew back at Jet, returning the attack. Okay. It was to be war and separate hay nets.
They were together for fifteen years, always near each other but never together in the same space. They must have formed some kind of bond, however, through all those years.
About a week after Jet was put down and buried, I woke one morning to see, from my bedroom window, a broken section of fence and an empty paddock. In my night clothes, I ran to the barn to see what had happened to Jimmy Buck. I looked beyond the broken section of fence, and saw him standing at the far end of the pasture.
New grass was already coming up, deliciously sweet in the spring, but he was not grazing. Standing in the corner of the pasture, it seemed that he was where he was, not for the grass, but… I have to say it this way… for something more important, something that drew him away from the barn, through the board fence, over a stone wall, and to the place where Jet was buried. He was standing, immobile and at rest, next to Jet’s grave.
Now I am the one standing next to Jet’s grave, and Jimmy Buck’s grave is very close to where he was standing all those years ago. He lived the last eleven years of his long life alone, here in my barn and paddocks, and he met the end with the toughness of his breed, standing four-square at age 40. How could I ask for more?
I’m here between their graves, and they’re on either side of me: Jimmy Buck and Jet, still separated, but close, closer probably than they would have allowed in life. And it becomes clear to me why I have not come with my roses for such a long time.
I see the years in chapters. Each chapter has a title, and as the focus of a chapter changes, so also does the title, but the change of title signifies not only the opening of a new phase of experience, but also the closing of the chapter that came before.
In early years when I and maybe you were young, the closing of each chapter was an exciting journey into the next. There was so much to be learned and experienced that we couldn’t wait to be shed of what went before so that we could get on with the next and see what revelations it held.
Through the years, we accumulate so many chapters and so much experience that it seems we have “had it all,” and now instead of adding chapters and experiences, we are closing chapters, ending parts of our lives that we can no longer hold onto, with little likelihood of new and exciting revelations to come.
And so, today I knew it had to be done. I could no longer avoid it. With four red roses and some florist’s wire, I walked to my horses’ graves, and as I wired a rose to the fence post beside each grave, I spoke each horse’s name and said what I might have said to them if they were here. When it was done, I had to walk away, leave them behind, close my best chapter.