There comes a time in the career of every horseman or horsewoman when the urge actually to own a horse becomes overwhelming. I was no exception—it hit me when I was 18 and had been riding for 12 years. But instead of shopping around for just the right horse—I didn't have the sense or the money—I simply went to a neighbor who had bought two mares to breed and had found one of them barren. I watched this mare trot across the pasture for a few minutes and, because I liked the airy way she moved, decided she was the horse for me. I had only $100, but my neighbor was more than glad to get rid of the mare for that sum.
I quickly found that my newly purchased horse had many faults. She was a little mare, not quite 15.2 hands, but there was no delicacy about her, no prettiness. She was short-coupled, with a thick, unseemly neck that was too muscled and too masculine for a mare. Her mane was as coarse as mattress ticking and absolutely refused to lie on the off side no matter how hard a groom might work over it.
Beyond mere appearance, she was a rugged tomboy with a wild and roving eye. She lunged and she bucked and you could almost hear her cursing to herself when things didn't suit her. She carried her head too high, and almost broke my nose each time she tossed it. She tossed it often—in rage at me. She also had straight pasterns and a straight shoulder. These are conformation faults that guarantee rough gaits and an unpleasant ride.
I never knew many details of her life before she came to me. She had been foaled in Oklahoma, and at least she was a registered Thoroughbred, although her antecedents were nothing to brag about. An Army officer had named her, suitably I thought, Doxy Girl.
My early days with Doxy Girl brought friction, to put it mildly. She despised waiting her turn to jump at a crowded panel and took it out on me and adjacent humans by kicking back in all directions. For two years I never hunted her without the scarlet ribbon (badge of shame) braided into her tail. She ran up on the heels of whatever horse was in front of her, too, and when I hauled her back she flung up her head and knocked my teeth loose.
I got rebellious. I didn't like her tone of voice at all—and who was riding whom, anyway? I blistered my fingers keeping a tight hold, keeping her at the rear, taking back constantly to let others go ahead so that Doxy wouldn't damage them with her sharp iron heels. She began to sulk and stop at fences in retaliation. She loathed standing still at any time, but when I was trying to mount her she developed a new dodge: every time I got a toe in the iron and gave a mighty hop she would duck in toward the rail and toss me neatly overboard. Then she thought up something worse. Taking off toward a fence she would give a mammoth plunge—one great leap that, if it didn't unseat me, at least threw me off balance. Diving like a sprinter for the jump, at the last split second she would plant four feet like stakes of steel and stop dead.
In this small hot war I began to weaken. New to hunting and timid anyway, I was first annoyed, then baffled, then downright terrified as each day's performance loomed up. The merry chase after fox and hounds became a dreary horror of public humiliation. I tried to comfort myself by reflecting that the other riders who sailed so superbly across country probably had $1,000 horses and that the Master had paid $3,000 for his well-mannered beauty. What did I expect, grinding along on a cheap western-bred plug? Small comfort this. Inside I knew the truth: I just couldn't ride Doxy Girl.
At last a friendly veteran horseman tipped me off: "You're wasting your time and hers," he said gently. "You're too busy riding her. Try being a passenger on her for awhile. See what you can learn from her instead of what you can teach her."
I gave her her head the next day, and she took it. She went right up front, thrusting boldly ahead of the field but (after she got over the shock of finding I had some courage after all) jumping like an Aintree winner. From that moment on she gave up kicking, and I abandoned the scarlet ribbon. I learned to think with her, not for her, to trust her feet, not guide them, and especially to throw my heart over the fence—as the old saying goes—knowing she would carry it and me and not let us down. From her pace I worried whether she would overrun hounds, but I discovered she had no intention of doing anything so gauche. Doxy Girl knew what this hunting business was all about, and when she knew that I realized she knew, we both got along famously.