When horse fever comes on a wave of sweet nostalgia

May 14, 1999|By Warren Buckler

ONCE the earthy scent of horses gets into your nostrils, it's like a haunting melody that never completely goes away. During this time of year, it powerfully reasserts itself, bringing back to me memories of different times and half-forgotten places.

Many Baltimoreans of a certain age, who grew up before horses were reduced to fleeting images in betting parlors or pawns in the sordid struggle to expand legalized gambling, surely know what I mean. Whether we rode our own, cheered home a pick in the Preakness or drank in the panorama of greening countryside and white fences at the Maryland Hunt Cup, we understood that horses are three-dimensional creatures with strong personalities and a seductive appeal to all the senses.

I got my first addictive whiff at age 5, the summer before World War II began, when my parents sent me to a farm near Cockeysville to study the rudiments of horsemanship.

The horsey set

Why they thought I should learn to ride remains a mystery. My mother, after all, attended a girls boarding school where, from all accounts, the curriculum mainly required students to demonstrate ladylike deportment while perched on a frisky bay. A rebellious sort, she declined to participate in what she thought was a laughable irrelevancy and was not welcomed back her senior year.

My father, meanwhile, viewed the horse establishment as pretentious, backward or, even worse, politically unaware.

But they understood the value of gentility and apparently thought their eldest child deserved a crack at it. And what is riding if not genteel? Horses, some say, have a civilizing influence. And many horse owners seem to have taste, manners and, yes, manors.

For my part, I dreamed that horses might lead me to Elizabeth Taylor, who made all our hearts beat faster in "National Velvet."

Whatever the motivation, I spent a summer learning to slide the bit between my pony's teeth and tighten the girth under his plump belly so the saddle wouldn't slip. And I was taught the painful necessity of climbing right back in the saddle after a fall. Otherwise, I was assured, I might lose my nerve. I even won ribbons in local horse shows. (Of course, all I had to do in the lead-rein class was sit up straight and look fetching.)

After the war, my riding education resumed under the direction of Louise Carey, the guiding spirit of the Baltimore County Humane Society, then on Park Heights Avenue. Mrs. Carey was the kind of woman, trim and athletic, for whom jodhpurs, boots and black riding hats were surely invented. She also had boundless compassion, almost to the point of saintliness, for the children and animals in her classes.

Alas, she had standards, too. I was a gawky adolescent with no sense of rhythm. I couldn't get the hang of posting, the up-and-down motion that takes the hard bumps out of trotting. When the horse broke into a canter, she counseled me to "grip with your knees," but all I could do was hang on for dear life.

I did not advance into the horsey set. Even so, I longed for opportunities to ride. Mrs. Carey's son Tony, now a prominent Baltimore lawyer, was all too eager to provide them once the Humane Society moved to spacious quarters on Nicodemus Road near Reisterstown.

There I learned another of life's hard lessons. While some horses bring grace and gentility into our lives, others bring trouble. Mrs. Carey welcomed many of the latter, unloved and unwanted, to her lush pastures.

Over the years, she assembled a quirky cast of equine eccentrics, retirees and misfits, including old police horses, burned-out thoroughbreds and some too cranky to accept the strictures of human society.

For example, Ruth, a superannuated race horse, loved to run so much she refused to stop until she reached, say, Westminster.

A particularly nasty horse, often offered as a mount to Tony's unknowing first-time visitors, would be nicknamed Slobo today. He enjoyed lurching beneath low-hanging limbs. Then there was the mare with the water fetish. She had an uncontrollable urge to roll over in creek beds, even with a rider aboard.

Horses, sad to say, aren't a regular part of my life today. Yet, occasionally, when a horseback rider goes down our road, I catch the scent on a May breeze and reflect on the horses -- noble, exasperating, kooky -- who enlivened my youth.

Whatever the rewards of our association, however, gentility, martial grandeur and Miss Taylor continue to elude me.

Warren Buckler, a Baltimore native, writes from Valparaiso, Ind.

Pub Date: 5/14/99

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