For Christmas One Year My Mother Bought Me A Pony That We Couldn’t Afford to Keep

credit: Michelle Cruz Gonzales

Most little girls, even poor Mexican girls, want a real pony and never ever get one: too expensive, too big, where would we keep it, why don’t you just get a dog instead? I wanted a pony too, and when I was ten, after a lot of begging for a beautiful sleek horse, with a long mane, I got a pony named Patches for Christmas.

Patches was a stubborn, overweight, twelve-year-old, Shetland pony whose body was divided into different colored patches like oddly shaped pieces on a quilt: white, caramel, dark brown, and black.

Anything but sleek, she was the only pony my single-mother could afford if we could really afford her at all, but she was mine.

At first, even though the ground was covered in a layer of crunchy white frost, I spent a great deal of time outside, brushing her long, dark mane, feeding her alfalfa and oats, and on warmer days, moving her tether to different parts of the yard where there was a bit of green grass for her to munch on. I was aware that my mom must have had to sacrifice a lot to get me this pony, had to worry about where she’d live, if I could handle the responsibility, or if we really had the money to buy all the oats and alfalfa necessary to feed her. But having grown up avoiding turf-wars in East Los Angeles (she at least once, literally, carried a razor blade in her bouffant), my mom was now living out her pastoral in a tiny gold rush town, and the chickens hadn’t worked out.

She had raised those chickens from pollitos only to wake one morning to another kind of turf-war, the sounds of barking and squawking. By the time my mom got on her shoes and ran out the door, all that was left were feathers and bloody carcasses.  From that day, the shed had remained an empty reminder of her failure to protect the chickens who had followed her around when she out to feed them and gave us eggs. The shed became Patches’ home – a place to stay on rainy days and cold nights.

My mom wasn’t the only one with a fantasy. Before Patches, while dropping hints, then all out begging, I had romantic horse riding fantasies. I’d be on the back of my black horse, galloping along, the background all around us blurred in motion, my long, dark hair floating behind me. Riding Patches never went the way I imagined; she didn’t like to gallop at all, and she scared me a little. If it hadn’t been for my friend Rachel who had also gotten a pony for Christmas, I probably wouldn’t have ridden Patches much at over the next year at all. Rachel’s pony was a couple of hands taller than Patches, younger, black in color, and named Stormy. In spite of her name, Stormy was much more cooperative than Patches. On our many trots to town, Stormy never came to a dead stop, lowering her neck to eat a patch of grass. She never sent Rachel flying over her neck, or clinging to her mane sliding sideways in slow motion before landing on the ground with a thud.

Before getting Patches, my Tía Judy, a true horsewoman, who was not my real aunt but my mom’s best friend, had taught me quite a bit about horses. She also showed me where they most liked to be rubbed or scratched, and she introduced me to the wonder of the velvety soft spot between a horses nostrils. She taught me how to feed them carrots, without getting bit, how never to stand behind a horse, how to get them to lift their hooves and check for rocks that had gotten stuck inside, and how to brush them without touching the flank which would startle them. She taught me that horses sometimes startle for what seems like no reason at all, that they were wild animals, sometimes loyal, sometimes unpredictable, always strong-willed and powerful.

These were all things my mom wanted me to learn, but being on the back of an animal who wielded so much power, scared me a lot more than I liked to admit.

I could never tell this to Tía Judy, who herself was wild and strong, and beautifully masculine with her sandy blond hair, and cowboy hats and skirts, and sun-bronzed skin from always working outdoors, and a laugh that rasped in the best unladylike way. Since Patches was slow, fat, and old, I thought I’d become less afraid, more courageous around horses, but I didn’t.

When I wasn’t being thrown from Patches by abrupt feeding urges, it took all my strength to pull her head up. I’d have to pull and pull on Patches’ reins, make clicking noises, and tap her sides with my heels several times before she’d even consider leaving.  Even though Tía Judy would have disapproved, I found it easier to wait until she had finished. Sometimes I could get Patches to trot by shaking the reins, clicking my tongue and tapping her near the flanks with my heels her gait was jerky and off-kilter, causing me to bounce up and down on my tailbone. But there were times when I almost liked Patches, times when she would almost gallop, out on the open land at the end of Apple Colony Road, where Rachel and I sometimes took the ponies, and where Aunt Jude had once ridden with me on the back of her horse. Maybe it was the long stretch of wide dirt roads and being somewhere slightly unfamiliar and a desire to keep up with Stormy, but I was sometimes Patches would go from a slow trot to a near gallop, and my hair would lift off the back of my neck, and everything would rush past us, blurring as it slid by. It was like being inside time while everything else raced by.

Rachel’s pony Stormy had a dark side too, and Rachel and I spent a lot of time chasing our ponies around the neighborhood after they’d somehow get loose from their tethers. Thinking about the bloodied chickens,  made me worry that something happening to Patches. One evening after a bit of riding, Rachel and I had the ponies in her yard and Stormy got loose. It was a warm summer night, and there were already a couple of stars twinkling in the eastern sky, the westward sky still providing a bit of light to navigate the weed-ridden yard. We first tried coaxing Stormy to us with a carrot but wound up chasing her all around the yard. Rachel worked one side of Stormy and I worked the other, both of us trying to catch her rope which trailed along on the ground. Finally close to the end of Stormy’s rope, I tripped and fell, immediately jumping back to my feet. Everything went black. I had fainted. I came to a few seconds later tangled in barbed wire that made up Stormy’s enclosure. Blood poured out of a hole at my hairline and down my forehead, and there was a puncture wound under my chin, and a huge gash on my leg.

A few weeks later, after riding to town, Rachel let me ride Stormy who inexplicably bucked me off and kicked me hard in the thigh. It made me wonder if Patches would ever do such a thing. She had tried to buck me off once or twice, but she was too old to care to exert such force. She wasn’t, however, too old to keep from breaking loose from her tether and making her way back across town where she lived with the Delmer’s before my mom bought her for me for Christmas.

The first time Patches ran off, my mom and I were in a panic. We ran down to Rachel’s house, thinking that she might be hanging around near Stormy’s pin, but she wasn’t there, and after walking to town, looking into the shrubs or groves of trees where there might be patches of yummy green grass along the way, Mom had the idea to go across town to the Delmers’ and there she was with the other horses grazing on the tall dry weeds – she looked so content. I wondered how long it took her to get to her old pasture, plodding along at her own pace, stopping whenever she wanted to eat without interruption.

At first, the Delmer’s were nice about giving Patches back to us.

Mr. Delmer said, “Yeah, I saw her outside the pasture, eating and looking for a way back in, so I went and let her in, thinking you’d come around for her soon enough.”

But it kept happening. Patches kept getting loose, making it clear to everyone that I couldn’t keep her safe, couldn’t tie her tether tight enough, didn’t have a nice pasture, and couldn’t handle the responsibility of an animal that we couldn’t really afford.

It was an early lesson on the limitations of poverty.

The conversations with the Delmers, got shorter and shorter each time. Soon, I began to dread having to go get her at all.

“Yeah, she got up here early this morning.”

She was there when I got up to feed the horses.”

Eventually, we stopped going back across town to bring Patches back home. My mom didn’t explain how giving Patches back to her original owners went down; we simply stopped going back to get her. I had stopped drawing pictures of horses too, stopped collecting miniature horses, their legs stuck in long strides, or a front leg lifted in an elegant prance, their mane always floating behind them. We couldn’t afford those either. And when Tía Judy offered to allow me to ride her horse on my own, so I could get used to riding a full-sized equine, I declined without explanation.

On our way to swim in the river that next summer, I saw Patches grazing in the large pasture. I could see her black, white, and brown spots as we passed by, and I looked away with shame for feeling such relief, for having been so foolish to want something that I should have known we couldn’t afford.

Before long, I stopped looking for her at all.


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