Horses hold a unique place in human culture. They may be domesticated but there is nothing servile in them. War horse, Trojan horse, horse of a different color, nightmare, buck the system, Mustangs, ponytail, stallion. Our language would be less colorful without them. We love them, we fear them, we bet money on them. Horses have carried not just people, but hopes and dreams. The settling of the West would not have been possible without them. Unlike pets, horses are truly partners with Man. I was four the first time I rode horseback. Wasn’t much of a ride, just clinging to her mane while some male relative-uncle, father, grandfather, I don’t remember-lead her around the yard. It was glorious.
I rode several horses after that first equine experience, but I was simply a witness to my most powerful and surreal encounter with them.
It was a few years after we moved to Claremore, I was 11, maybe 12. We were waiting for the bus on an early Spring day. I hated that bus, but for just one day I was glad that I was there.
Anyone who has ever lived in Oklahoma in the Spring knows how interesting the weather can get. That day, Mother Nature gifted us with the thickest fog I have ever seen. The stop sign feet from where we stood looked ghostly, and the houses just yards away were completely invisible. It was already an unnerving situation and we were unnaturally quiet.
In our own quiet, we began to hear a strange sound. The fog thickened and distorted all sound, including the one approaching us. Hearing what sounded somewhat like a train, we looked up. In Oklahoma, in the Spring, when you hear a freight train and there is no train, you are about to die. Or to come so close to death as to touch its hem. Even though there were no storm clouds in the sky, only that thick fog enshrouding us, we still eyed the ditch. It was a deep ditch.
The sound grew louder and closer, and then the ground itself began to tremble. Had we been California kids instead of Oklahomans, we probably would have thought it was an earthquake. What happened next seemed improbable and had I been alone I would’ve doubted my senses.
The fog parted like a curtain and a herd of horses burst through. Maybe a dozen of them passed close to me, so close I could smell horse sweat and hear them snort with the effort. They jumped the ditch and disappeared across the road. As the hoof beats faded into the distance, we heard something new-voices calling and whistling. The horses were being chased by cowboys! Real cowboys! As they chased the horses across the road, they took no notice of us.
I have always wondered if, in the fog, we were somehow seeing something out of the past. It seemed so strange, so unreal, yet it was real. It really happened. Not a single one of us talked about it when the bus finally arrived and we had to go back into the present. The experience was too fragile and exquisite to talk about. To speak of the horses in the same way we might talk about teachers or other kids or what we did on Saturday would have been incredibly profane. I didn’t speak a word all the way to school and the rest of the kids who saw them were strangely silent as well.
Of course, life went back to normal but I will never be the same. The horses gave me an incalculable gift that day, one which I can’t even describe in words. Sometimes I wish I could touch somebody in the middle of the forehead and show them what I saw, impart the beauty I received. Alas, this gift remains mine and mine alone and I will never forget them, the horses out of time.