I perused the flea market in the old North Vassalboro mill, eyeing the horse-related items for sale.
There were saddles, both western and English, bridles bits, blankets — and all sorts of things such as earrings in the shapes of horses, jewelry boxes with horses painted on them and even bracelets made of horse hair.
This all served to strike a longing deep inside for my carefree childhood days, riding horses; sometimes English, most times Western and when I was particularly brave, bareback.
There were several horses in our Skowhegan neighborhood and when I was 13, I wintered a horse from a stable and kept it from September through June.
He was a large horse, beautiful and sleek, chestnut colored and with a white strip down his face. I called him Heisan on the advice of my sister’s boyfriend, who insisted he deserved a name that sounded regal.
I convinced my father to build a horse stall inside the barn, complete with a door that opened both on the top and bottom like the one in the TV show about the talking horse, Mr. Ed.
That year I contracted migratory arthritis, and all my joints ached. The doctor thought having a horse and riding would help heal my condition and ease the pain. I wore special brown leather shoes that laced up and weren’t very fashionable, but soothed my aching arches.
Those shoes always seemed to smell like horse manure, but I didn’t care. I wore them every day as I fed and watered Heisan, removing them only to change into boots for cleaning the stall and spreading fresh straw. Every day in the fall and spring — and when feasible in winter — I saddled up and took off riding through the fields and woods, up the Malbons Mills Road to my friend Pandy’s house, or to Linda’s or Peggy’s. They all had horses, and I rode with whomever was game on any particular day. The more I rode, the more I forgot about my pain.
I rode through the cool, crisp days of autumn, Heisan ambling through the dry, crackling leaves. I’d take him out in the winter snow if it wasn’t too deep, and he’d prance around the field, blowing steam from his nostrils and kicking snow up into the air.
That winter, school was canceled for several days because we got hit with a huge storm that dumped snow to the tops of our dining room windows. The town’s snowplow paved only one lane down the middle of our long, flat road and the snow banks were high.
One spring day as I was riding in an abandoned cow pasture, Heisan got spooked and took off full bore, bucking me out of the saddle and sending me airborne and landing me on his neck. I held on for dear life as he bolted into the woods, branches and trees snapping back and striking me all over until he finally calmed down and headed home, with me looking like I had been dragged through a rose bush.
By the time summer approached, my arthritis had subsided and I bounced out of bed each day, anxious to get to the barn and saddle up.
Those were happy mornings. Heisan would hear me coming and stomp around in the stall, poke his head out the top of the door and greet me, his intense brown eyes watching my every move. He was as anxious as I was to hit the road.
We’d gallop into the field, canter down the woods road among the evergreens, find a stream where Heisan would take a cool drink and we’d sit for a while, listening to the water run.
Those were simple times. We played close to the earth, aware of every ant and spider that meandered along the mossy woods floor, mindful of every wind that swept our paths, every cloud that moved through the sky and each spring shower that sent us running for cover.
Now, decades later, the horse stall is closed up and used for storage, the shelves and hooks outside it that once held brushes, bag balm and bridles, now empty. There’s no longer the scent of hay wafting through the barn when the front and back doors are open.
As I wandered recently through that flea market in the old mill where saddles were lined in rows, waiting for new owners, for a moment I was back in those sweet days of childhood, Heisan and I champing at the bit to fly away.
Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 24 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]