The striped mane that never lay flat

At age 11, I became that kid. That ever-envied, presumably senselessly spoiled girl who had her very own pony. After years of taking riding lessons, devouring every equine book in sight and wishing on birthday cake candles, my life unexpectedly took a turn for the magical one day in mid-September. “So I’ve got this pony,” the manager of our stable announced to my mother over the phone, “and I think you might like it.”

My brand new dream pony was covered in black and white patches, with a zebra-striped mane that stuck out stubbornly in every direction. A streak of white ran down the length of her nose and finished at the tip of her velvet muzzle, which twitched slightly as she peeked her head out over the stable door, blinking her long lashes and gazing at me bemusedly with intelligent brown eyes.

Despite her adorably tiny white hooves and endearing off-white bottlebrush tail, Polly had a remarkable talent for mischief. Her shoulders reached only a grand height of thirteen hands (just over four feet, for those of you who don’t speak horse), but size was no barrier to such feats as stamping repeatedly on my toes, dragging me powerlessly on the end of her lead rope, and leaping out of her electrically fenced-in paddock on a weekly basis.

On one memorable occasion, Polly nosed her way into my nanny’s handbag and grabbed the tip of her umbrella in her teeth, pulling it out and galloping around her paddock with it, refusing to be caught for at least 15 minutes. As soon as we stopped chasing her, she walked over to the gate and dropped the stolen item, her little black ears pricked forward ever so casually as if to say “who, me?”

For the first year or two of our relationship, it was quite clear who was in charge. Polly barged past me out of her stable, pinned me to the wall, and gave me many a rope burn in her search for a nice clump of grass, or to go touch noses with another horse. She refused to stand still when I tried to climb into the saddle, and during our rides out in the fields frequently would spontaneously decide to start galloping home. My best reaction was usually to cling on for dear life, gripping the wiry black and white mane in my fists and yanking on the reins with all my might, my helmet askew.

When we tackled courses of wooden jumping obstacles out in the sand arena, if Polly didn’t fancy the color scheme of a certain jump she would test my resolve and veer off to the side at the last moment, leaving me either in the dirt or off balance and clinging to her neck with my knees. I arrived at each jumping lesson with pursed lips and determination all over my freckled face, pushing my heels down in the stirrups and kicking with all my might to feebly exert my dominance over Polly. It took me some time for my savvy to match hers.

Over the 5 long years that Polly was a part of my life, we eventually worked out the kinks in our relationship. Both of us matured and learned, or so I like to think; she to respect my personal space, and I to give her more clarity and direction in what I wanted from her, both when on the ground and in the saddle. Unfortunately, there came an inevitable time when my legs seemed dangerously close to the ground, and it was undeniable that I’d outgrown her. With the help of Polly’s fanclub, which was quite extensive and consisted of children, Pony Club mothers and vets alike, we managed to find her a wonderful new home with a family who still have her today.

Now my daily reminders of her come in the form of an old email address and username (“polly-pony-lauren”) that elicits laughs without fail if ever a passer by catches me surreptitiously typing it in to my computer. I also acquired an extensive collection of photos, drawings and stuffed animals in her likeness. (The two main criteria: must be a horse; must be black and white.) But the memories of weekends and holidays spent adventuring out in the countryside, galloping and leaping over hedges and logs, and hugging Polly’s soft neck will stick with me forever.

~

Lying down in the stable, her little white legs are tucked up neatly beneath her body and thick tail fanned out in the wood shavings in an attempt to beat the winter cold. I enter quietly, opening the stable door inch by inch, and sit myself down beside her, leaning my back onto her soft black ribcage, stroking her fluffy winter coat, scratching her gently between the eyes. Sitting in the quiet, I hear nothing but her soft breathing, the sounds of birds chirping. The sort of stillness and peacefulness impossible to find around other humans.

Stamping the mud off of my boots, I climb over the iron gate, shaking a worn plastic bucket of grain pellets and yelling “POLLLLYYYYY!” over to the far end of the tree-lined paddock. A few seconds pass before the inevitable faint thundering sound as she pelts towards me, a monochrome lightning bolt, locking her knees at the last second and skidding in the mud to prevent collision. The excitement of dinnertime never seemed to wear off.

Riding out in the woods we venture past the ruined miniature castle, jump over fallen branches and logs, bravely stride past the barking dogs in the village, clip clop past the pub and thatched rooves, canter up and down the pine-strewn trails, splashing through puddles. Adventures and imagination abound: we are unstoppable.

We gallop at full tilt through the recently cut hayfields, or back towards home next to the little creek,  both of us leaping sideways in fright when a stray pheasant flaps suddenly from the hedgerow, clucking and shrieking.

I wrap my arms around her head with its puffy forelock streaked with red-brown, like a woman with highlights. Her whiskered lip nudges gently around in my pocket looking for a polo mint.

Preparing for our first ever show, I bend down to trim her white feathered legs with a comb and kitchen scissors, my hands red and chapped in the cold. After several hours of wrestling with the spiky mane, I tame it into into golf ball sized braids. Eventually, after years of competing, in our finest hour we win first place at the county championships and beat all of the much larger horses.

My attention wanders and Polly walks beneath an overhanging branch. The oaky limb catches me clean on the helmet and knocks me off backwards, tumbling over her her rump to land with a plop into the grass.

Riding bareback with no saddle between us, we venture through the field on a summer’s day through the long waving strands of green grass. I struggle to keep my balance on her slippery back, look down to her neck, and grasp a tuft of the striped mane that never lay flat.

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