Friday, August 5, 2011
I read it and cried and cried, because in so many ways this is MY story. Thank you to Etta for being my "Pat" and to Snapper for being my "Buttermilk"
"Ellen was a fat girl.
She didn't start out that way. but by the time she was halfway through elementary school her lack of coordination and competitive spirit had made her the laughing stock of her more athletic peers.
No matter the game, Ellen was alway chosen last. Chosen last in kickball, because she couldn't catch or run. Chosen last in badminton, because she had never once managed to hit the birdie over the net. Chosen last in red rover, a game even a klutz ought to be able to play>
Junior High was worse.
There was a real physical education class instead of mere playground games, and every day Ellen suffered the indignation of not being able to shoot a basketball through a hoop or skip rope without tripping or even perform a respectable side-straddle hop.
And so she turned to food for comfort.
By the time she started high school at age fourteen, five foot five Ellen was tipping the scales at almost 200 pounds.
Her family's efforts to help her lose weight did no good. She turned up her nose a the special salads her mother fixed for her. She refused her father's invitations to take brisk walks with him. She ignored her sister's warning that a girl her size would never have a boyfriend.
Ellen would toss her head and roll her eyes at her family. Then she'd grab a bag of potato chips or a box of cookies and flounce on the recliner in the den, where she's spend hours lost in the pages of a book.
More than anything, she loved to read about horses. And that's what finally gave Ellen's father a brilliant idea.
'There's a woman at work who's loookinng for a stable hand' he told Ellen one evening. 'Someone to feed her horses and clean the stalls and things like that. I told her you might be interested in the job.'
'She wouldn't want me', Ellen replied.
'Because I have never been near a horse'
'I told her that. But I also told her you've been reading about them all your life. She's willing to teach you everything from the ground up. And she's offered to pay minimum wage and let you ride whenever you want'
Ride? Ellen's heart beat faster. Somebody was actually offering to let her ride a real horse?
Don't be silly, the voice inside her whispered. Had Dad not told this woman that his daughter was a clumsy tub of lard who could barely keep her balance on a bicycle?
No way would she be strong or coordinated enough to ride a horse. And pity the poor animal that had to carry her weight on his back.
'I told her we'd drop by her place Saturday morning to see about it' her father said.
So that was that.
Pat Cunningham lived on a small farm not far from town.
Dressed in jeans and cowboy boots, she was waiting for Ellen and her father as they pulled into the gravel driveway.
'So you're the girl who loves horses' she said to Ellen, smiling and holding out her hand. 'C'mon lets me show you around'
She lead Ellen to the barn and gestured toward a wheel-barrow and manure fork. 'Every day, these stalls have to be mucked out and then spread with fresh sawdust. The water and feed buckets get scrubbed and filled, the tack room swept and tidied, the gates and fences checked. Think you're up to it?'
'Um...I guess so' Ellen stammered.
'Good,' Pat replied. 'The school bus comes right by here every afternoon. When you're done with the chores I'll run you home in my truck'
'Where are the horses' Ellen asked shyly.
'Oh yes the horses' Pat said. She gave a long, low whistle and within seconds, two beautiful horses trotted up to the barnyard gate.
Pat pointed to the bay gelding. 'That's Thunder. Don't let his name scare you. He's as gentle as a lamb. And the sweet mare beside him is Buttermilk. Which one do you want to ride first?'
Before Ellen could protest, Pat had the horses hitched to the fence posts.
She showed Ellen how to lift their feet and use a hoof pick to dislodge sticks and rocks from around their shoes.
She showed her how to use their currycomb and finishing brush and how to remove cockleburrs from their manes.
Finally she showed her how to pu on blanket and saddle, bridle and bit
'I'd like you to ride at least one of them every day you're here,' Pat said 'Both, if you have time. They really need the exercise'
Ellen felt tears welling up in her eyes. How could she tell this kind woman that she was nothing but a fat girl who had no earthly idea how to ride a horse?
'But, I've never...never actually been on a horse. All I've ever done is read about them.'
'Then it's high time you learned', Pat said. 'Stand there beside buttermilk and put your left foot in the stirrup. Then bounce a couple of times on your right foot and spring into the saddle'
But try as she might, Ellen couldn't stretch her leg high enough to get her foot anywhere near the stirrup.
'Hold on a second' Pat told her. 'Let's try the milk crate'. She fetched it from the barn and helped Ellen climb into onto Buttermilk's broad back.
'There are a couple things to remember. Heels down. Hands on the reins like so. Relax. This is supposed to be fun! Now follow me.'
Pat swung into Thunder's saddle and headed toward the pasture. Buttermilk followed, with Ellen gripping the reins so tightly that her knuckles turned white.
But it didn't take her long before she began to relax. Pat was right. This was fun. In fact, Ellen couldn't remember when she'd ever had such a good time.
Pat showed her how to go from a walk to a trot, and promised that she'd be cantering in just a short time. 'You're a natural' she told Ellen. 'I'm sure lucky to have run across you.'
So Ellen became a stablehand. Every day after school, she cleaned stalls and scrubbed buckets and swept the floor of the tack room. After that she rode. Some days she rode Thunder. Other days she rode Buttermilk. On good days she rode them both.
As the days turned into weeks and the weeks to months, Ellen the fat grils slowly evolved into Ellen the equestrian. Her flab became muscle and her clumsiness, grace. She glowed with self-confidence that was obvious to all around her.
It was near the end of the school year when a heavyset girl sat down beside Ellen on the bus one afternoon.
'My name is Stacy. I hear you work with horses' the girl said hesitantly. 'Do you need an assisitant? I've never ridden before, but I read abou horses all the time.'
'Why dont you get off here with me and we'll go talk to my boss' Ellen said, smiling to herself. She was pretty sure what Pat's answer would be.
'We're lucky to have run across you, Stacey. Who do you want to ride first - Thunder or Buttermilk"