Cucumber

Cucumber Rhode Island Reds are a sturdy breed of chicken – reliable layers and never temperamental. My nine-year-old brother, Charlie Marder, started his entrepreneurial career with two dozen Reds he hatched in our cellar in an old incubator. The next batch arrived in a shallow cardboard crate and matured quickly. Within a year, he was in the egg business. He collected eggs from the nests daily and set them in corrugated cartons for sale at his roadside stand on Fireplace Road, fifty cents per dozen. They were a big hit with the tourists. He banked his profits. His financial independence made him my obvious choice for an interest-free loan: $150 borrowed in May to be paid back in full no later than July 1, signed and dated with sober deliberation. With his stack of singles and jar of quarters plus the $100 I had saved from birthdays, report cards, and the tooth fairy, I began my search for a horse. I had been swung up on my first horse, Molly, at George Miller’s barn in Springs at age three and had never forgot her musty, intoxicating smell. As soon as I learned to read, I immersed myself in horse stories, imagining myself galloping bareback aboard the black stallion. By age eleven, it was no longer enough to read about horses: I had to have one. My horse shopping was limited to biking distance. I wrote letters and made cold calls to all local barns and backyard paddocks. I pined for Silky, the dark bay horse the Talmages owned across the street, but he wasn’t for sale. Two miles down the road, I found a cream colored pony speckled with brown polka dots (an appaloosa), staked to a post in the yard. The prospect was stunted, thick barreled, and short necked, a large head and pink wrinkled nose. Wisps of hair dangled from his tailbone. I knocked on the door, and an elderly man emerged. I explained my mission. He told me that he was too old to ride “the little brute.” Would he sell him? “How much do you have?” the old man asked. We both stared at the animal in question as he swished his meager tail in a vain effort to ward off flies. Then I laid out my bills and jar of quarters. “Yes,” he said, “That looks about right.” The farmer gave me a faded red nylon halter and a lead rope with a broken snap. I tied on the rope and pulled him along with me, two miles back down Fireplace Road to home. Behind our house stood an old barn with a few stalls. I had found a mildewed cavalry saddle in the loft with a western pad and a string girth. With a makeshift bridle, I was ready to tack up. I pulled him into the stall, waited for him to drink from the red plastic pail. Then the training began. The pony braced against the stall wall with his teeth clenched as I pulled on his jaw and pressed the bit hard between his teeth. As he cracked his mouth open slightly I wedged in the bit and slid the bridle over his ears. With one arm through the reins, I slipped the old pad and saddle onto his back as he circled me in the small stall. Once the girth was tightened I upended the water pail and climbed from the pail to the saddle. He stood braced as I clucked and pressed him with some small kicks. Then he leaped forward, slamming me into the stall wall, and planted himself again. I hiked up my leg and sat quietly waiting for his next move. After a half hour of coaxing he was walking around the tiny circumference and sometimes stopping on command. I progressed from stall walks to riding him out of the barn onto our circular dirt driveway. I carried a branch pulled off one of the trees and swatted him regularly to keep him down the middle track as he tried to dive right or left to reach lush grass in the yard. I propped my textbook on the large rock: Learning to Ride Hunt and Show by Gordon Wright. The pony was strong, but he wasn’t highly motivated. Bucking and bolting would have taken energy and he must have sensed that I was a relentless fanatic – even at this early age. At first my small kicks were met by his ears pinned back and short tail slapping against his sides in protest. According to Gordon Wright, the rider was to cluck, squeeze the leg, and then, if followed by no response, apply stick. I applied my piece of branch and the pony leaped left, then right, and began trotting more or less around the driveway. I was elated and through ensuing weeks we worked our way through the book, chapter by chapter. The pony lived in a turn out pen next to our garden. My mother, an avid gardener, threw any oversized cucumbers over his fence. The pony leaned over the boards waiting for her tosses in anticipation of garden leftovers. He was thus named Cucumber. Once Cucumber began to trot and canter under duress around the circle, I began his jumping career, Chapter 4. His disdain for flatwork did not extend to jumping, which seemed to genuinely excite him. We popped over the benches from our picnic table and I dragged in fallen limbs, but soon his schooling progressed into the neighborhood. I would scout for homes with no cars in the driveway and point him at the hedges or yard fences. I envisioned Gordon Wright diagrams: two-point contact, hold mane, and go. Cucumber soared. Unfortunately, these outings were short-lived as Cucumber, the pony of distinctive markings, and I, a local kid, were easily recognized, and my mother was called. Restricted to our yard again, I turned over garbage cans and constructed a haphazard course. After working through the last chapter of Gordon Wright, I believed I was ready to open my own business. Our house was around the corner from the Springs School, providing ample foot-traffic for walk-ins. I charged $2.00 per hour lesson. The children of my brother’s egg-business clients signed up. One of my early customers, Lisa deKooning, enjoyed her lesson so much that her mother advanced me $20. I soon paid back my brother and was making a profit. With a chain-lead shank, Cucumber reluctantly cooperated during each lesson as I jogged next to him, chanting, “Up down, up down, look up, heels down.” Yet Cucumber was too cocky to tolerate beginners and proved very untrustworthy. Once I removed the shank, he would rub off six year olds on big oaks in our yard. In spite of Cucumber’s lack of professionalism, my client base was growing. Parents were happy to pay to keep their kids busy at the barn all morning. I then found an old gelding for $125. He relieved Cucumber of duties, allowing me to take him to local horse shows. Appaloosas were not well thought of at the time for English riding. He was a pony of untraditional color and build. I was undeterred. With his mane tightly braided in rubber bands and his wispy tail wrapped, I entered the large pony hunter division. Three foot jumps were easy. As a warm-up, I galloped over solid coops from the 3’6” division and hoped to hold his interest long enough to win the class. Before long, we were collecting blue ribbons. He had the scope and athleticism to teach me what the book could not. My dream was to show in the Southampton Horse Show, years later reincarnated as the Hampton Classic, but on the eve of the show, he binged on cucumbers. I spent the next day walking him through mild colic. Six years later, Cucumber followed me to college. He died of old age after many years of fox hunting in Maryland. I have him to thank for my love of and addiction to horses, and fifty years of horse bills.