I was seven when I first worked up the courage to get on the back of a horse. Not that it needed too much courage to climb aboard a twenty-year-old pony who was not even five feet tall. It was at one of those pony rides at the county fair, nothing special. Me and the little pony, named Cash, walked once around a little paddock, me holding the mane with white knuckles, and the old man who ran it leading the little horse. After the first trip around, I decided I had had enough, and I climbed down. My mom was putting the digital camera back in her purse; she had just snapped a picture of me on top of Cash, and my dad beaming brightly through his beard. My parents then took me to get some cotton candy and ride the merry-go-round. When I climbed onto the deck of the ride, I chose the white horse with a harness of flowers and chipped paint. I had ridden that one since the first summer of coming to the county fair; it had always made me feel magical. But as the horse went up and down, I found that it couldn’t replace the sensation of a living creature below me, my body moving with it, even if I had been terrified.
That was probably the most important day of my life. That was the day I decided to ride. The very next summer, I was already cantering. And the summer after that, I got my first horse. I named her Cherish, though while I was riding, I called her Cher. She was sixteen hands tall, and was two when we got her. She had a buckskin coat and was my perfect companion. I told her more than I told my friends. She stayed in our little barn behind our house, and was with us when we moved to Kentucky I still remember my anxiety about leaving her alone in a cramped trailer behind us. But the seven-hour drive was completely worth it. We moved from our little house in the country of Sewickley, Pennsylvania, to the rolling pastures of Greenland, Kentucky Dad was gameskeeper for a property owned by Mr. Wester, the owner of the legendary racing stud, Black Thunder. Black Thunder had sired nearly seven other racing legends. Now, in his old age, the ten-million- dollar horse shared a pasture with Cherish. I always pretended they were boyfriend and girlfriend.
As I grew older on the farm in Greenland, I rode more and more. I became a very good rider, and was always winning trophies and such at little shows scattered around the area. The shows were my mom’s idea, I never really cared for dressage or jumping on Cherish. I wasn’t like the girls at school, they claimed that dressage was for proper ladies, or that jumping made them feel like they were flying. I could jump and do dressage just fine. But what really got my heart racing was not dressage or jumping, but racing.
I needed to run. I needed to race. At the stable where I rode and was instructed, we had a little thing called Game Sundays. Now, I didn’t have time to ride every day, no matter how much I wanted to. But I did ride on the weekend, so I was there for Game Sunday. On that day, the kids riding could choose a game to play on horseback, like polo, or racing. Of course my vote was always for racing, and sometimes it won. And during those times, I truly knew what was so wonderful about riding. While Cherish ran her hardest, time seemed to slow. I could feel her every movement, every little increase in muscle tension, I could hear her breathing and my breath came in and out to match hers. We won almost always. My thrill of the race only increased as time wore on. Soon, I was pressing my parents to enroll me in county-fair races, instead of wasting time on dressage and jumping. After about a month of nagging (not mentioning the hours of chores I did to make Mom pleased), they finally agreed to enter me in one cross-country race. It wasn’t much of one, only a quarter mile through the pasture owned by Edgar Greenwell, but at least it was something. I remember the day of the race was clear and sunny, perfect for racing. I could see the finish line, an orange sign stretched across the small space between Mr. Greenwell’s house and barn. It read, “Finish.” I apologize for talking about the finish line so obviously I’m not questioning your intelligence of the word. But while Cherish and I were lining up on the starting line, I could only see that one thing. When the pop gun bang rang out, I gave Cherish a nudge. I believe still to this day that Cherish loved to run. She did that day All it took was a nudge, and she was off, running as fast as possible. There was a gelding who was leading, but Cher and I were right behind him. Cher kept her pace the whole half I figured that was all she had, she couldn’t run any faster, but I was wrong. Around halfway there, she began to run faster. I could feel her body aching to move faster and faster, and she did. We slowly began to pace the gelding, whose rider probably couldn’t tell whether we were going faster or if they were going slower. Then Cherish broke free. It was as if she was breaking free of a thin layer of film; now she could really run. We ended up winning the race. My parents, always supportive, were thrilled. I took the little medal that was the prize home. I set it apart from my other winnings. I put it in the barn next to Cherish’s stall. That way, every time I saddled up, I could see it, and remember our first run.
* * *
It was the biggest cross-country race in the state. I had won the local and the county cross-country races. I won the local first place and the cross-country third, and now I was going to the regional semifinals. If I could win this, it would be straight on to the states and then to country Truth be told, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to be a racer for a career, or to pursue becoming a dancer, which had been my dream for a while. However, I was only dumbfounded by this for a while because, after winning the local, I easily chose riding over ballet. So now, I was waiting for the weeks of summer to pass, waiting for that day of June 14, 2005, when the Junior Regional Semifinal Cross-Country Race would take place. And almost every day of the week (except Sunday, swim meet) I was practicing on Cher, out in the pasture, running over green hills and jumping over creeks. Every day she seemed to get faster and faster. I couldn’t wait for the race.
On the day of the race, I woke up at six o’clock, even though the starting line was only a five-minute drive south. I got up and went to see Cherish. My beautiful horse had her back facing me when I came in; she was looking out the window. I waited patiently as I watched her ears turn so that even though her head wasn’t facing me, her ears were. “You excited, Cher?” And Cherish turned so I could see her eyes, normally brown, filled with fire. “Really?” I smiled. “Me too.”
I lined up on the starting line. There were seven other horses and riders in the race, they had worked as hard as I to get here, I gave them credit. But in my heart, I knew the medal was mine. My breath came synchronized with Cherish. We both stared ahead, and the world quieted. It was me, and my horse. The pistol shot rang. I didn’t even knee Cher. She was off, running her fastest, I couldn’t even believe it myself. But there she was, tearing away. The race was four miles long, and there was a check-up every half mile. Cher and I were already first, and soon, as we entered the forest path, the world closed around us. I loosened. I wasn’t going to push Cher. She knew her limit, and she also knew if she could beat it. Instead, I concentrated on steering. I had a map, as well as necessary emergency gear in my saddle pack. The map was useless, I had memorized the direct route. I knew every landmark to look for. I knew the track well enough to know a shortcut. It wasn’t cheating, but few racers knew about it. I decided to take it, as we passed a well-disguised deer path. I slowed Cherish to a canter, deer paths can be tricky, but we had to keep our lead. Suddenly Cher stumbled. I heard a loud crack, but I was soon sailing through the air and couldn’t see anything but the ground. I hit with a dull thud. My head was swimming and I could barely hear Cher hit too. I lay like that for a few minutes. Maybe it was a half hour. I was half-expecting my mom to come and pick me up, or give me a Band-Aid or something. But as I watched the sky begin to get brighter with the coming of noon, no one came. I sat up. Stars danced in front of my eyes, but what I could make out made me stand and walk. Cher was on the ground, breathing heavily. I could see sweat gleam through her skin. It took me a moment to realize her front leg was broken. I immediately took action. I undid the girth and pulled the saddle off Cher’s back. Then I rolled my horse onto her side so as to make her more comfortable. I took off my sweatshirt and put it under her head. Then I spoke to her gently and stroked her, and braided her mane until she had calmed down a little. Then I unpacked our emergency tote. There were bandages, and Neosporin, but no other first-aid things. Instead, I found crackers, little rations of meat, and a large bottle of water. Plus, there was my map. I took it out and looked at it. My finger moved to the shortcut. It had been hard for me to find, what if no one else could even do that? I was beginning to feel panic. Usually, the woods was a nice place to me, but right now, every bird call made me jump, and the wind in the trees frightened me. I tried to shake away my fear and returned to aiding Cher. I gently, cautiously, began to set her leg. If there hadn’t been a course on veterinary emergency skill, I wouldn’t have done this, it’s too dangerous for the horse to have an inexperienced person setting their leg. First I felt it. There was an odd bump below her knee, and I judged that the bone had snapped in her shin. Carefully, I got behind Cher’s back to make sure she wouldn’t kick me and set it. Cher whinnied in pain and tried to stand up, but I held her down, desperately. I began to cry. Fighting back more panic, I wrapped her leg with a bandage. Cher was breathing heavily again, but the worst part was over. She would be OK if I could get her a vet, soon. I returned to stroking my horse and relaxing her, but it seemed to take forever for her to calm down again. I stood up and walked over to where my things were unpacked. I picked up the bottle of water and brought it over. I poured some into Cher’s mouth, but I doubt that helped at all. I looked back at the pack. There was one thing I had left in there. It was a flare. It had instructions on it, but I was still nervous as I walked away to set it off. Aiming carefully, I shot. There was a deafening bang as I ran away and dove into a crouch, like those spies in the movies do when there’s a big explosion. Finally convinced that it was all right, I looked. The flare had gone straight up in the air and burst into flame. Kneeling, I prayed that someone would find us soon.
The rest of the afternoon I tended to Cher. I had been waiting for a while for the rescue team, and was beginning to think of a new plan when there was a sound behind me. I twirled around.
“Yep, we got her, over…” a voice came from the trees. A man with a helmet and ranger uniform stepped out of the trees. “You all right, missy?” he asked, walking over.
I nearly fainted with delight. “Are you the rescue team?” I asked faintly.
The man laughed. “Part of it. Let me give our locations to the other officers. You’re going to be fine.” A few minutes later, a team of rangers arrived with a vet and my parents. I flung myself into my mom’s arms, and she and I hugged and hugged. Then I walked over to see how Cher was doing.
Cher had to go to an Equine Center for a few weeks. The vets said it was a minor fracture, and she would be able to walk, trot, and canter a little, but racing was out of the question. My parents asked me if I minded and I said no. I was just glad Cherish could still walk. She came back to live with us a month later, though it was a month after that before I could ride her again. A few weeks after that, I received a letter from the board of judges who ran the regional semifinals. They said I could enter whenever I could race again for free admission. I was delighted. And so was Cher.
* * *
Afternote: Cherish, named Cherish Road after the incident, never-raced again. Her owner, Jesse, didn’t race until after Cherish died several years later. Until then, though, Cherish was honored as much as the horse she shared her pasture with.