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By River Stillwood
It’s been a great week. The weather has continued its gentle waltz toward winter, taking two steps toward warmth, one step toward cold, twirling and swirling in wind as it slowly edges down the thermometer. This may be my first true fall-feeling autumn in the Ozarks. All the others have felt more like summer with a touch of winter or winter with a few days of summer thrown in. This year it’s spot on perfect. Everything fall is supposed to be. We’ve had enough colors to light up the countryside, enough downed leaves to carpet the ground, enough rain to keep the grass green, enough cold to make the warmth of a hot coffee cup feel absolutely delicious when cupped in cold hands, enough blankets at night to sleep comfortably bedded down.
I love this time of year, when the air feels charged and electric, smells of home fires, and carries the songs of cardinals and crows and hoot owls. It makes me happy to be alive, to stand in the field and breathe it all in.
My horse, Scout, seems to like it, too. He’s new to the property, though, so what looks like autumn glee to me when he’s loping around the pasture – head held high, feet gloriously pounding the earth – may actually be transitional anxiety. After only three days here, he still has plenty to get used to. Cars passing by. The dogs and goats.
According to Mitchell, Scout’s former caretaker, Scout likes goats. In fact, when he lived on the farm north of Springfield, he had a pet goat who went just about everywhere Scout went. It was the talk of the county until all the locals got used to seeing them together. So far, Scout has stayed pretty close to my goats, but that might have more to do with their being penned in the yard by the barn and the barn being a good windbreak. But who knows? Perhaps he and one of goats will become the best of friends. I can only hope.
Scout is such an amazing horse. He’s five years old and a purebred paint. His coat is magnificently colored with continents of red and oceans of white. He is trained to the hilt. On the Craigslist ad where I found him, Mitchell wrote that Scout was so well-trained that he could perform tricks off of him. He could stand on his bare back and gallop, and spin around, and slide off, tap his feet on the ground, then spring back on again.
When I went to pick him up, I asked Mitchell to show me some of his equine artistry. Without a moment’s hesitation, he dove under Scout, tapped his legs and chest, then swung around, grabbed a bit of mane, threw himself atop Scout, and rode bareback around the yard, guiding Scout with just the lead line. I didn’t need to see any more. A horse that could manage Mitchell’s antics without so much as a shudder was as bomb-proof and sound as they come. A horse for any rider.
A good thing, too. The last time I was on a horse was 38 years ago. I was a beginning rider then and I’m a beginning rider now. Then, I was so scared in the saddle that the only time I loped was just before we sold our horses. I was thirteen then and a year and a half after getting horses, my dad was stationed in Saudi Arabia and we had to sell them. Mine was a giant 16-plus-hand high buckskin quarter horse and loping on him was so fantastic, I couldn’t believe I’d spent eighteen months walking and trotting on him.
Now, I’m fearless. But smart fearless. I wouldn’t even get on an unbroken or green broke horse unless I had others to around to help me if I got into trouble. It wouldn’t be safe. But on Scout? The first morning I had him home, I grabbed the tack, figured out how to put it on (with some adjustments later), then hiked my foot in the stirrup, threw my leg over the saddle, sat down, and away we went – first at a walk, then a trot, then to my enormous delight, into a wonderful canter.
A couple of times, Scout tested my horsewomanship by trying to bolt for the woods, but I gently pulled his head around, faced him back into the pasture, slowed him down, and got him back on track. Later, when we were both getting tired, he tried to scrape me off his back by moving close to trees, but I steered him clear before we got too deep into the bare and scratchy limbs. Honestly, though, I probably deserved the scraping, I was a little hard on his mouth. He’s such an attentive horse, so incredibly willing, and I am such a novice. Still, when we got back to the barn, I think we were both pleased with the ride. Certainly I was. Thrilled, actually.
It’s funny. Two years ago, when I was in Ozark Medical Center in West Plains and Dr. Watson told me that I had cancer, the very first thought that raced through my mind wasn’t, “Not me!” or “What about my family?” or even, “Oh, my God.” The very first thought to race through my mind was: “I can’t die; I don’t have a rideable horse!”
Now I do.
Not that I have any intentions of dying, mind you. In fact, it’s quite the opposite! While the cancer could come back for another life-or-death wrestling match, I have no intention of sitting around to see if it does. I’m fifty. I’m healthy. I’m strong (or at least my will is). I have too much to do. Too many miles to travel with Scout. And family. And friends. Too many seeds to plant and acres to manicure and animals to feed. Too much life to live!
But I’m taking it slowly. Getting to know Scout. Worming and nurturing the goats. Playing with the dogs. Painting the walls in the new house, packing up the old. Staying in contact with family and friends. Writing this column. Each in its good time. All of it a good time.
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If I haven’t told you so lately, I really appreciate your readership and interest in this column. You have urged me back to writing kept me excited about sharing the things I’m doing.
I hope you don’t mind, but since I’m no longer living on the homestead (though I still own it and visit often), I’m going to change the name of this column to “The Stone House Diary.” But that’s the only thing that will change. The contents will still be the same. It’ll still be my weekly letter to you.
And as always, written or unwritten, I hope that each and every column finds you well and healthy and filled with joy.