Horse Love

Written By: Mary  O'Brien

On January 17, 1991 the world changed. Operation Desert Storm began and I involuntarily became a horse owner.

That first night the bombs began dropping on Iraq. I sat in the parking lot of the Southampton 7-11, too scared that I might miss some information if I started the engine, I listened spellbound to the radio coverage. Luckily I didn’t know that my brother, piloting a radar-jamming EF-111, was among the first to fly over Baghdad that night or I would have been paralyzed with worry. I found out a few weeks later, right around the time that I learned my daughter, Catie would be aboard the USS Scan, working for the Military Sealift Command delivering ammunition, fuel, tanks, and supplies to the war zone.

Catie had graduated from the SUNY Maritime College the year before with a Mate’s license and snagged a great shipping job. Before college she’d been one of those horse-love besotted teenage girls who mucked out stalls to pay for riding lessons. She always swore that the first thing she’d do when she got a job was buy a horse.

After quite a few months at sea Cate had saved up a decent-sized nest egg. During one leave she showed me a photo of a horse. “What do you think of this beauty?”

I saw an ordinary looking brown horse with a white forehead-mark. “He looks nice.”

“Nice! He’s gorgeous. Wait until you see him. I just bought him.”

I never was into the horse-love thing. To me they are big, smelly and scary.

The first time I met Catie’s horse he was outside and thought it was great fun to have us chase him around the sunbaked, dust-laden paddock before he deigned to allow us to put on the halter and walk him into the stall. We brushed and watered him, then she taught me to pick his hooves. She told me he was a thoroughbred named Carbon Copy, born to be a racehorse, but after a career of one win he began training as a hunter/jumper.

The two of them trained together and made great progress. Catie’s dream was to become good enough for the Hampton Classic. Although a bit skittish at puddles, Copy was fast and didn’t spook at jumps. They worked in the show ring, repeatedly practicing the jumps, but also amused themselves with long rides along the miles of fields and power lines through Southampton and Water Mill.

Then the Gulf War began. Catie and my brother left. I had never been a worry-wart type person—I figured things would work out and worrying didn’t help. Now I was the person left at home imagining the worst. Anxiety instantly took over part of my life. I watched CNN constantly during waking hours then dreamt of sinking ships and burning planes. I wondered how the women left at home during World War II coped with it.

I also worried about Carbon Copy. A horse can’t look after himself when you go to war. Catie asked me to take care of him and I began to go to the barn after work every day. I had no idea what to do or how to do it. The barn manager arranged for one of the young girls to give me lessons in Horse Care 101. I bought back issues of Equus, Horse and Rider, Horse Illustrated. Magazine by magazine I learned about diseases, injuries, food, management.

I was mostly afraid of him. He was big and rambunctious. He wasn’t mean, but one misplaced hoof, one sudden flick of the head and I could be seriously injured. I approached gingerly and because of that was clumsy and inefficient. As a racehorse he was used to being handled by competent professional grooms.

Copy knew I was a rube and took full advantage. I’d pick up a leg to pick his hoof and suddenly he’d lean all his weight on me until I was scrambling in the hay. When I tried to put on his halter he’d clamp his teeth shut, but if one of the barns girls came by he would open his mouth like the most cooperative animal in the stable. I know he laughed at me. I often saw his eyes twinkle when he pulled a stunt on me.

Catie’s letters home were filled with chit-chat about the ship, the heat of the Middle East, and the tedium of waiting to load, unload. She talked about boredom, but my anxiety took no comfort. I had a constant, non-specific, untargeted sense of worry and dread.

The winter was cold and frozen. There was some rain then the big freeze started. The ice-covered paddocks were far too dangerous for the horses to go out. Carbon Copy was in horse-years like a fraternity boy,  a college kid full of piss and vinegar, but with nowhere to put all his energy. My how-to magazines said this would come to no good end. If I had been a good rider I could have worked the energy out of him, but Copy was too keyed up for me. The barn people taught me to put him on a long leash-like line and lunge him around the indoor ring.

I worried about my brother; I worried about Catie. But I had no idea what to worry about. What were they doing on the other side of the world? By the time I woke up and started worrying, their day was over and whatever could have happened had not. And I worried about Carbon Copy. His problems were in front of me.

I was frantic that he would have an accident or lose his conditioning so I lunged him around the ring then walked him up and down the aisles. One thing I was good at was brushing and grooming and he loved the attention. I read about acupressure and practiced on him. Whether I did it properly or not, Copy never complained. He had no problem with the sweets and carrots that I brought him either. “You’re gonna spoil that horse,” the barn manager grumbled.

“So…he’s my grand-horse. I’m supposed to spoil him.” I’m pretty sure she rolled her eyes.

When the Spring thaw came we roamed the paths. Exercise, fresh air and all brushing made him look healthy and shiny. Now when I came to the paddock with his halter he picked up his ears and trotted over to me. One day another horse walked up to me and Copy ran over and cut him out. “That’s my person. Don’t touch her.”  A barn girl said he was protecting his carrot, but I knew better. In the summer Cate wrote that she wanted to enter him the Classic. She contacted the barn and hired a trainer to get him ready.  Joe had many wins to his credit and would ride Copy in the Classic. Copy didn’t like all the training, but his jumping improved and he loved the extra grooming. Now he needed cool-down walks, baths and more rubdowns. His tail and mane were brushed and braided and his hooves gleamed from the Super-Shine that I put on every week.

Cate thought she’d be home for the Classic, but she was stuck at the Naval base in Diego Garcia, an atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean. She wrote that it was just one monotonous day after the other and Saudi Arabia wasn’t any better. The women crew were not allowed to disembark.

I drove in through the Hampton Classic exhibitors’ gate flipping my pass as I went by the guards’ booth. I joined the barn girls bathing and primping the horses. Carbon Copy was a powerful athlete, but he had to be trimmed, braided and polished like any celebrity.

I took notes and hundreds of photos to give Catie a sense of what she was missing…and what her hard, boring work was paying for. On the day of Copy’s ride I walked around with a video camera. From the owner’s seating area I filmed his turn through the jumps. The trainer was disappointed that they came in 18th  of 55, but I was elated. I bought a poster for Cate and had it framed at Morris Studio. She deserved something.

The Gulf War wound down. My brother came home, retired from the Air Force; his taste of war had left him shaken. The USS Scan made it back to Philly and Catie, with a new boyfriend in tow, made it back to Southampton.

Catie and I went over to the barn to see Carbon Copy. He was on the far side of the field, but came running right over when he saw us. He immediately started nuzzling me; Cate was crestfallen. “I’ve been away too long.” I slipped the hidden carrots to her and stepped back so they could begin the reacquainting process.

I really miss that horse. I had somehow fallen in love.