Mama could not afford to get me on a horse every weekend, and then it had to be when a friend could drive us to one or another of the ragtag rent stables that then dotted the rural skirts of Cincinnati. But I had saved up my allowance (anyone under the age of 60 would fall down laughing if I told you how much I got) and bought myself that $15 pair of kid-sized cowboy boots for which I had been lusting, and boy did I want to ride.
So, somehow or another, Mama found a few dollars and someone with a car and off we went to one of the less ragtag rent stables, out in Lockland, near where the Westinghouse plant was back then. I was about 11 years old and I had boots and I was ready to ride.
Maybe I was not ready to meet Liberty Belle, but in the days before waivers, litigation, and general boo-hooing over every unforeseen booboo, the old boy renting the horses did not ask about that. Mama had seen the writing on the (barn) wall a long time ago and decided just not to watch, so she and her friend sat down on a log to have a smoke and chat while I went for a ride.
The old boy brought out a long-legged, long-backed, square-butted bright sorrel mare with a disdainful expression. This was Liberty Belle. She was a retired racehorse, as I later discovered, but right then I just thought she was gorgeous and very high-class. Of course, I still think that about every horse (and some mules) whom I meet...
I was helped aboard and sent off into the fields. There was no trail, exactly, just brush and trees and tall grass. Liberty Belle was most obliging till we got about a mile out, then began to give me some trouble with wanting to turn around. "Barn-sour" is the term which comes to mind, though I did not know the condition then.
You cannot blame a rent-string horse for just preferring to be back in the corral. Imagine having any number of bouncing, sliding, mouth-yanking, heel-flailing people on and off your back the day long. Me, "sour" would not begin to describe my feelings.
Now, Liberty Belle did not buck, crow-hop, or even hump up - she just kept turning for home no matter how I neck-reined, clucked, shoved with this leg or the other. Eventually she got her way, of course (dang, I was only 11 years old and not much smaller than I am today). Well, her nostrils opened up and boy howdy, we were back on the track!
I should have been terrified. I wasn't. I thought it was tremendous, considering past difficulties with encouraging rent-string horses to so much as trot. I hung onto the saddle horn with one hand, the reins with the other and instinctively got low in the saddle. Good thing the old boy had cinched it up tight, as Liberty Belle did some fancy maneuvering around trees, stumps, and so on.
We thundered down the last hill and I could tell she was headed for the barn breezeway (I told you this place was less ragtag - they had a recognizable barn). I ducked down beside Liberty Belle's neck - love the smell of hot horse, I do - and we clattered through the breezeway and out into the corral.
Liberty Belle slowed up, blew, looked back at me with one eye the way horses do, stopped and waited for me to do something. I had seen Mama out of the corner of my eye, one hand to her mouth, so I thought I had best act as if everything was wonderful. Which it was, really - what a gallop - that old gal was the fastest horse I had so far ridden (and stayed on, to boot).
I went back two or three more times to that stable and asked for Liberty Belle. The results were the same - a dead and delightful runaway back to the barn, then a few sedate turns round the corral and over a log or three.
Liberty Belle was not there one weekend when I asked for her. Even then, I knew better than to pester the old boy in charge about where she had gone. From reading books, I understood what can happen to horses in general, and old racehorses in particular. So I missed her in silence.
But I think about her still, the bright sorrel Thoroughbred mare, with that lofty gaze imperial mares have. I hope she liked me because I did not shriek in terror or saw on the reins when she had done her mile out and was ready for her glorious race back. Barn-sour or not, given the freedom to run without a whip on her butt, I hope she found it as exhilarating as her 11 year-old idiot rider found it.
Thank you, Liberty Belle. See you sometime later.