Just me and Dan

I lost my horse Dan last week, or “Ginger Dan,” as some of us affectionately know him because when my daddy showed up with my horse on the front door step we thought the horse was a girl. I excitedly named him Ginger; I had always wanted to name a horse Ginger after the mare in Black Beauty. My horse was a big brown sorrel just like Ginger. I thought it was the perfect name until my Aunt Susan and Uncle Marvin came over and said,“That ain’t no mare! That there is a gelding!”
And so he became Ginger Dan! I remember standing in the front yard just staring at him, having no idea of the special bond that would grow between us. That was 1995; I was seven years old and in the second grade. Twenty-three years later, he was still one of my best friends, and I got the unique joy of watching my own little cowgirl ride my old horse around when she was 6-7 years old. We got to go on a few trail rides together, and he took care of her just like he always took care of me. That was really something.
I remember feeling so independent and free when I rode him as a little girl, cause the reins were in my hand and I was the boss, but I guarantee you the more I think about it, the more I realize he was watching out for me the whole time.
I was always wanting to ride through the narrow brushy trails because it was more scary and therefore exciting. Dad had killed plenty of hogs out there before, and he told us how vicious they were. He always told us to climb a tree if we ever heard hogs coming, but of course I day-dreamed about how me and the slowest horse would take off running if we rode up on a pack of hogs. Sure enough, one day a hog came running out of the brush beside us. Dan didn’t take off running, but he jumped to the side a little, and I got a mouth full of dust. My heart was sure pumping, and that horse taught me all about courage and trust that day. I imagine most other horses would have run off after that hog scared us the way he did, but not Dan. He just leaned down and gave me a little nudge. He stood right there by my side until I got the guts to climb back up. I think I cried all the way home, turning around to look over my shoulder the whole way, as if that hog was gonna come chasing after us.

Kayleen with Dan, 1996.

Everyone thought he was the slowest horse in the world because I could hardly get him to go faster than a trot, or even get him to trot for more than a few steps, but that horse knew how clumsy and unbalanced I was. Here I was seven or eight years old and I wanted to run like the wind, round up the cows, and compete in equestrian jumping events, but he was impossible. I kicked and kicked and tried and tried, but he just wouldn’t move any faster. He’d never buck either; he’d just keep on walking or stop altogether.
My dad eventually got me little spurs and a pig whip so I could get him to move, but he’d just keep on walking nice and slow….until one day, we hit a plowed field full of soft dirt, and he finally ran when I begged him to go. I guess he knew I’d fall off but I wouldn’t get hurt too bad there, and he was right. It sure shook me up and brought me to tears though. It was just me and that 1,000 pound horse standing above me out there in the middle of a big field that seemed to go on forever to a little girl, but he didn’t leave me out there alone. He just stood and waited for me to climb back up again. Thinking back, I know he must have stood there awfully still for a long time in order for me to climb back up, because I could barely reach the stirrups. And that was the way he was forever…he would only run in that plowed field.
Another time, somebody lifted me up in the saddle, but had forgotten to tighten the cinch all the way. I must have kicked and screamed at Dan to go for fifteen minutes, but he could feel that loose saddle and wouldn’t move one single inch with me on him. When I finally gave up and got off, the saddle came sliding off with me.
Daddy always told us the only things we had to worry about out in this area were “Rattlesnakes, hogs, and mountain lions.” I already told you about our encounter with a hog.
As for rattlesnakes, well we saw plenty of those too. We rode right beside, behind, and right overtop of at least half a dozen rattlers in 23 our years together. I can only imagine what would have happened if he would have spooked and thrown me off, but he just kept on going, carrying me safely past them.
He was a tough old horse. The mountain lion bit that my dad always told us was more of a far-fetched story dad liked to tell around the campfire to get our adrenaline running, but low and behold, my horse Dan did have to beat up a mountain lion one day. I wasn’t with him when that happened, but I’m sure he would have protected me just like he did in all my dreams after hearing dad’s stories. It happened just a couple years ago when Dan was about 30 years old. That mountain lion must have thought Dan was old, weak, and slow, but my tough old horse fought that lion off somehow. We could see where the lion had jumped on Dan’s back and sank his teeth into the top of Dan’s neck around the mane, and deep claw marks down the side where he slid off. There’s nothing else that could do that kind of damage to a horse, but not even a mountain lion could take down my Dan.
Those rides around the ranch made me who I am in so many ways….taught me patience, to hold on tight, gave me grit, gave me lots of time to think and dream about who I wanted to be. I made all kinds of plans and dreamed all kinds of dreams out there while I rode my horse and dad worked on the tractor. I talked his ears off and I sang; I sang at the top of my lungs, as we rode through fields of sunflowers and through the brush. That poor horse must have heard me sing my favorite song “Strawberry 17” hundreds of times when I was just a little girl—dreaming about being a teenager.
Those rides also gave me an appreciation for all the pretty things God made. I’d take an old red dirt road over a paved one any day. While my friends were at home playing Mario Brothers or PlayStaion whatever, I was soaking up the sunshine. When you ride a horse as slow as mine you have lots of time to notice the big blue sky above us and the dirt beneath our feet. You don’t just feel the breeze, you can hear the wind blow out there. I’d look at the pretty cactus, flowers, the sun sparkling on the stock tank, and wonder about the huge Oak trees.….and because a horse is so quiet, you get to see all kinds of animals too. Turtles and jackrabbits peek out behind the cactus, and I’d hear the birds chirp and watch them disappear into the big blue sky. I’d search all the trails for arrowheads and animal tracks (always looking for that mountain lion) and even watch the red ants hauling things around now and then. I don’t guess many kids like the peace and quiet or take the time to watch the sunset until they get a little older, but when you ride a horse, you learn to appreciate the beauty of just being in the middle of nowhere.
There’s a line in that song I always sang that says, “I remember when 30 was old.” Here I am 30 years old now, and just lost my childhood horse. Every time he greeted me at the gate or peeked through the glass of the front door I remembered when I thought 30 was old. His ears would perk up when he saw me and I’d go straight to him feeling just like a kid again. I’d wrap my arms around his neck and kiss the big, pretty white star on his face, and pour him a scoop of feed. That horse sure loved to eat!

A’Dell with Dan, 2016.

I’ve never seen a horse love to eat as much as Dan did. Sometimes it seems like he could barely walk these past few months, but he would come RUNNING when he heard that feed bin slam. When he was young he used to graze in the pastures and only got fed after a ride, but we’ve been pampering him with breakfast, lunch, and diner these last couple years thanks to my mom and dad who live out on the ranch and did so much to help take care of him. My dad even built a big tin barn with an air-conditioned stall for him last summer. I know he gave my mom quite a few slobbery kisses these past couple years as she fought and raced him around the feed bucket, and I know it wasn’t easy for mom or my little sister to carry in groceries or a gym bag with him waiting at the gate, wanting to tear open every bag. In his old age, he learned how to open the gate to the front yard too, so he’d follow you all around the yard or to the front door and stick his head inside reaching for the bread on the counter. He didn’t have much ground manners, but he sure did take care of a kid in a saddle.
He was always looking for a snack. Dan even ate a couple of leftover Thanksgiving pies that were in the back of my aunts van a couple years ago. We also found evidence of him eating rocks, a honeycomb, a Happy Meal, and a piece of a door mat too!
Nothing in my childhood was more fun than riding around the ranch—just my horse and me—with a saddle bag (full of chips and candy), and a canteen (full of Big Red). I loved the feeling of being on my own out in the brush and taking my own food and drinks in case I was to suddenly get lost (yeah right). You can drive around the whole ranch in about 15 minutes. But I rode down the same old trails for hours, and it felt like a big, grand adventure to me every time I packed those saddle bags and a canteen….like I was in one of those old cowboy movies. Sometimes I even took my brother’s BB gun with me. (I think I was planning to kill the mountain lion with that or fight off the Indians or something.)
It was a Sunday night, April 29 when he passed away. We had been right there beside him all day and night as he struggled with failing health, just trying to help keep him company and comfortable. He’d lay down and get back up and walk around over and over. He was so tired and I wondered why he kept struggling to get on his feet again and again. The last time he laid down I told him something I’d never told him before. I said, “I’m going to be okay,” and not a minute later, he passed away. I guarantee down every trail that horse was taking care of me. My dad, husband, and brother all helped buried Dan the next day. My husband built a special travois sled to carry Dan to our favorite trail ride picnic tree, where my daddy and brother buried him with a bucket of feed and some sunflowers. That big brown horse was my first love, and I’ll miss him so much, but I’ve sure got enough stories about Dan to tell my kids until their ears fall off.
I was on top of the world on that horse, hanging on to the saddle horn as tight as I could. It’s my wish that every kid could have a horse, and a friend, like Ginger Dan.
Two of my favorite quotes are “A man driving a car looks worse than he is, but a man on a horse looks better than he is.” And the other is “There’s nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse.” That’s by Ronald Reagan.
If you don’t have any acreage and are wondering where you could keep a horse, that makes me think of a Letter to Santa that a Devine 1st grader wrote a couple years ago. I cracked up when I read it. It said: “Dear Santa, Please bring me a pony. You can just leave it in the garage.”
So there you have it, no excuses! Get your kids a horse! And hey, it isn’t gonna hurt anything if they want to fill their canteens with Big Red either!