There are foals on the rangeland. Against the high sky heat of midday they are flopped on their sides, tails twitching and soaking up sun on their flanks, a reminder, I suppose, of mother heat not so long past.
Later, driving by in early evening I watch them cavort. They race about in bursts of speed that end abruptly, suddenly, as though they’re puzzled at the exuberant glee that fills them and drives them to kick up their heels and run.
They pause and look outward at the road with their heads held high and still. There’s pride in them, nobility, and a staunch sense of identity that’s fractured suddenly by yet another crazed dash.
I’ve always loved horses. My people were bush people and never cultivated a horse culture, but there was always something about the animals that appealed to me, called to me.
They’re called Spirit Dogs in some native cultures and I suppose that’s why they’ve always been special to me — that familiar loyalty and good heartedness.
When I was 13, I learned to ride. My adopted family left for a summer vacation and I was dropped off to stay with relatives for three weeks.
Uncle Wilf and Aunt Peg had a small farm outside of a southwestern Ontario town called Teeswater and I’d only been there a handful of times. When I was dropped off I felt out of place and alone.
But they had animals. It wasn’t a large farm, but they had stock, some chickens, a few dogs and a knot of barn cats.
Uncle Wilf assigned me some barn chores to do every day. I loved it. Every morning I gathered eggs from the hen house, shoveled stalls in the afternoon and helped hay and feed the cattle in the evening.
It never felt like work to me. The presence of the animals was comforting and even the huge Hereford bull in the back stall didn’t faze me.
But it was the pony that fascinated me.
She was a small Shetland cross and the first time I saw her, alone in a stall near the back, she was dirty and her tail and mane were knotted.
She started when I approached her, shrank to the back of the stall and eyed me nervously. Still, I felt drawn to her.
Aunt Peg told me that her name was Dimples and that they’d bought her from a neighbour for their daughter Kathy to ride.
The neighbour hadn’t told them that Dimples had been beaten as a colt and that she was unridable.
She was bareback broke and halter broke but the heavy handedness she was trained under had scarred her and made her distrustful of people. They told me not to go near her except to let her out into the big pen every now and then.
“She’ll bite you,” Aunt Peg told me, “and she’ll kick.”
But there was something about her that drew me. I knew nothing of horses or ponies, but at 13 I understood something about feeling displaced and lost and frightened. I saw that in her and I started to visit her.
At first I stood by the rail of the stall and talked to her. She wouldn’t move from the back of the stall, but after a few days of this she seemed to calm.
Then, I opened the gate and stood there, talking soft and low and gentle. It took another few days for her to get used to this and eventually I moved a yard or so closer.
The day I touched her for the first time was magical. She shivered, twitched, but I kept my voice low, moved slowly and rubbed her flank.
I could feel her anxiety but the more I stroked her the more she calmed and settled. Within days she let me curry comb her mane and tail, all the while talking all soft and low and reassuringly.
Uncle Wilf showed me how to put the halter on. He had to use a pillow because she still wouldn’t allow anyone else in her stall.
When I came back alone and talked her calm, she let me slip the halter on. I led her into the big pen and walked her around it slowly and everyone was amazed.
I got on her back the next day. I mounted off the fence rail and eased down onto her. She shivered, shifted her feet nervously but she stood there and let me find my seat. We never moved.
I sat there and rubbed her and talked to her for half an hour and did the same the next day. Then I walked her out into the field.
Riding Dimples was pure joy. We walked around that field for a couple days and she relaxed. Soon, I got courageous enough to push her up to a trot.
And one day, after a week of this, she cantered for me and coming back one evening broke into a full gallop that scared me at first then filled me with glory.
I rode her every day of that vacation and she seemed to come alive and learned to love it as much as I did. Finally, she let Kathy ride her and watching them from the stoop of the farmhouse, I felt like an adult for the first time in my life.
We moved away shortly after that and I never saw her again, but there isn’t a moment when we ride these days that I don’t think of her.
Riding Dimples was a challenge and I met it and I won. But it was more than that. It was the first time I felt a kinship with a creature, a joining that went far beyond mere domestication, a union of spirits that transcended earthly things like loneliness, sadness and hurt.
I felt like a healer, even though I didn’t have the words for that yet.
I learned that we heal each other by our kindness, gentleness and respect.
It works for creatures just as it does for us, the higher beings — or so we tell ourselves.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.