The English saddle is draped over the back of one of the dining chairs in my living room. It is a warm, rich brown, so much lovelier than the dramatic black of every other English saddle I’ve ever seen. I was surprised when I saw it in my cousin Rodney’s large hands as he brought it down from where my aunt had kept it all these years. It had been kept in the house, not the barn, so it was in good shape. It is a small saddle, because my mother is a small person, not short, but delicate. My friend who saw it said it was suited for a small horse and I wondered how large Cookie, my mother’s horse, had been. I could find out. Cookie’s photo and papers are framed among the other family pictures in the hallway at my parents’ home.
My mother taught herself to ride English style when she was a teenager. That is why she had an English saddle and bridle. She did it on her own at a time and in a place where everyone rode Western saddles and was more interested in roping calves than high-stepping dressage. I wonder why she did that? She once explained the different in mechanics to me between the two sets of tack, but I never thought to ask her why. She had loaned the saddle to her sister several years ago after Donalee had broken her arm. The English saddle was light enough for Donalee to fling on the back of a horse one handed. Donalee lives on a working ranch, and cattle don’t wait to be moved until bones have knit.
The Western saddle is still in the back of my car. It was kept in the barn and is coated in layers of dust. Donalee had to call my mother for a description when she learned I was coming to collect them, it hadn’t been used in so long. Donalee only had boys, and big boys at that. Her mother-in-law, Jo, a tiny little woman, used to ride that saddle, but her cattle chasing days are now several decades behind her. Donalee knew she was looking for a small Western saddle, but given the thick coating of brown dust, it is no wonder my mother’s description of a yellow seat was unhelpful. I really don’t know if this saddle I have belonged to her or not, but it doesn’t really matter, I suppose. It is a nice saddle and a nice idea, even if they end up to be not the same thing.
“Just scrub it real good with soap and water,” Donalee told me, fingering the embossed leather patterns on the skirt through the grime. “Even the suede seat. Then oil it really well, everywhere except the seat. The guy who does our saddle work, he puts saddle oil on with a brush, so really coat it. Sorry it doesn’t have a cinch. We must’ve used it for some other saddle at some time. But it’s still in pretty good shape. See how this leather here has started to curl inward. When you’re done, see if you can find a barrel or something to lay it over while it’s drying. It should get the shape back.”
They are small saddles for a small woman with narrow hips and long legs. The seats are short enough that such a person wouldn’t slosh around while riding them. Donalee took more after their big brother Dean than her older sister, my mom. She is tall and sturdy, which is a good thing given her occupation. Growing up, she and my mom did the same kind of work around the ranch and in the hayfields, despite the fact that my mother was little more than a will o’wisp of a girl. Though she filled out with middle-age and two kids, you can still see it in her tiny wrists and elegant hands and the narrow blade of her nose.
I don’t know why I decided to ask for my mother’s saddles after all these years. Mom has no interest in them anymore and Donalee doesn’t use them. I was glad she hadn’t sold them or given them away to some neighbor with a will o’wisp daughter or two. But I suppose they are mine by right, as much as I have a right to any family heirlooms. I simply woke up one morning, in the guest bed at my folk’s house, and the first thought in my mind was “I wonder if Donalee still has Mom’s saddles?” I’m the only girl in the family likely to use them, though I don’t know when that would be, but sometimes I wonder if fate is conspiring.
I overheard a conversation while eating lunch the other day. I was by myself and one table away from a booth with two ladies who were discussing horses. The young woman who was speaking had been caring for and training a horse that the owner could no longer afford to keep, dire financial straights, I heard. My ears picked the word “Friesian” out of the air. My friend has two half-Friesians which I have loved riding. This horse was a four-year-old Friesian/Mustang cross, newly broken to the saddle. The unique thing about him was that while he had the beautiful build and long flowing hair of the Friesian, he was under fourteen hands high and not likely to grow anymore. That would take a unique adult rider, the woman explained, or a kid. But he was solid and quiet, slightly clumsy, but not liable to spook. My heart let out a little sigh. He sounded just perfect.
Of course, if fate is conspiring, it is only to torment me. That's nothing new. Even if Donalee would let me board a horse with her, even if she would let me pay her back in a few years for his keep (which I would be certain to do as soon as I could afford), I’d never have the money to purchase a horse in the first place. And it certainly wouldn’t be fair to the horse to be left to his own devices should I end up gallivanting all over the globe. I should love to train up my own horse, even if I don’t know precisely how right now. Donalee’s isn’t too far for weekend visits. I would love for Mom to come with me. I would love for her to be the one to teach me how to ride.
My mother’s saddles represent these two aspects of my life, my past and future, or more precisely, her past which is part of my heritage and my possible future as I someday hope for it to be.
Life really does turn in a circle, doesn’t it?