As promised, the winner of the Golden Oats Essay Contest was announced at STRIDE’s 2018 Year End Awards and Recognition Banquet. Writers were asked to share their favorite “horse memory.”

The contest was sponsored by STRIDE member and former English teacher, Lonni Bechen, and included a $50 cash prize.

And the winner is… Dale Wade, whose essay appears below.

Just Me and My Horse

By Dale Wade

Horse fever. Many a young girl has been plagued by this malady. Symptoms include a room littered with horse statues, equine magazines, and dog- eared riding books. Often, the illness can be managed with a stint at summer riding camp or weekly riding lessons. In my case, it was evident the infliction was terminal.

Around age twelve, the desire to have a horse became overwhelming. I had been obsessed by horses since my earliest memory. Never did I miss an episode of Fury, My Friend Flicka, or Roy Rogers.

For a long while, my desire was satiated by a friendship with a donkey, PeeWee, who lived on my grandparents’ farm and carried me around dutifully on a lead line. When coal mines became mechanized, Shetland ponies were no longer needed underground. Pony prices plummeted and PeeWee relinquished his duties to a stocky gray pony, Midge. But by age twelve, my long legs and I sought independence. I wanted to gallop off on my own, just me and my horse.

I saved some money and put my proposition before my mom. She promptly dismissed it. Given the problems that accompany an alcoholic husband, I couldn’t blame her. She had a lot on her plate, so I simply began dissolving into the ethos. Life was hopeless. I accepted my fate. I would be marooned in a horseless existence.

But then, one day—a reprieve! We were going to look at a horse deemed reliably solid and safe.

A stout little mare of 14.2 hands, she bore palomino and white markings and had a flowing white mane and tail. Sugar was her name, and she was the sweetest thing I had ever seen. We sealed the deal.

Lucky for me, a bridle accompanied her. I had no tack and would have none for a year or more.

Initially, good ol’ reliable Sugar faithfully dumped me every chance she got. My grandmother, who I found out later had had a role in my mother’s decision to relent, was called in to address the situation.

Grandma was old school. Unless she was doing SERIOUS farm labor, she always wore a dress. When she showed up one morning in bib overalls and sun hat with a borrowed saddle, I knew she meant business. Up went the saddle. On went Grandma, WITH AUTHORITY. Woman and horse traversed the field with ease, circling twice in both directions at walk, trot, and canter. When the exhibition was finished, Sugar chewed her bit, batted her eyelashes, and took the fifth.

Grandma dismounted and handed me the reins. “Your mother calls me crying every time you get thrown off, AND IT’S LONG DISTANCE!!! Don’t be so stupid! Use a whip!”

After that, I debarked a stick and rode briefly “with a whip.” Problem solved.

From then on, my dreams became reality as we galloped into other worlds. Barefoot and bareback, we rode through woods and creeks to collect fossils and picnic at an abandoned limestone quarry. We fought vines and thickets to survey the skeleton of an old mansion rumored to be haunted. We traversed meadows in search of wild strawberries. Sun soaked afternoons often found us at the local sandlot with Sugar resting beneath a sprawling oak tree and me at bat, determined to get a base hit.

Sugar raised me from a hopeless existence. I couldn’t wait to get home on fall afternoons to hop on Sugar and shed the shackles of school. During school, I hid books on equitation and training behind my text books and counted the seconds until the bell.

Come winter, I would ride her 20 miles to my grandparents’ farm where she would stay until the snow melted and the grass became reliably green. I would join her on weekends to romp through snow drifts, then we’d head back to the warm shelter of a hundred-year-old barn and plan our adventures for the following spring.

Eventually, I acquired some tack. Ready for the big time, I hired a man with a stock truck to take us to a horse show. He charged us $7.00 round trip. We won $15.00.

The local 4-H leader spotted us and invited us to join 4-H. We found adults willing to offer knowledge and support. We found like-minded kids and horses and a place to belong.

Now I often find myself adrift in that place between wakefulness and sleep, never alone, never sad. My childhood dog is trailing me. Embraced by the sun, bareback and barefooted, I’m riding the best horse ever— Sugar.