Stranger Who Changed My Life

The Stranger Who Changed My Life: The Horse Whisperer

The road was wet, our dad had been drinking—and we crashed, flipping our horse trailer. Then a mysterious man appeared out of nowhere.

The horse whisperer
Illustration by Keith Negley
It was a Saturday morning in early June, a day my sister Karma and I believed would end in triumph. For weeks, we had been preparing for the gymkhana at the county fairgrounds, sponsored by our local riding club. My horse, Tonka, was a sleek pinto with patches of white and brown, long white stockings, and a star on his forehead. Tonka and I could run a three-barrel race faster than any kid in the county, or so I thought, and I hoped to bring home a blue ribbon. Karma’s horse, Comanche, was a pro at pole bending, a timed race that involved galloping between tall poles. My sister also hoped to win a blue ribbon.

Clouds began to gather in the sky. Not a good sign. A little rain could turn a riding arena from dust to mud. “It won’t last,” Karma said. I hoped she was right.

My mother usually drove us to our riding events, but on this day, my father emerged from the house, briefcase in hand. He spent a lot of time at his law practice, even on weekends, and he planned to drop us off at the arena with the horse trailer. My father counseled people with all kinds of legal problems, big and small, and he accepted barter if they couldn’t pay their bills. His clients loved him, but the father we knew was distant and troubled.

Although we never discussed it, my father’s struggle with alcoholism had become the silent center of our family life. My three siblings and I were accustomed to the scent of bourbon that clung to his breath. My mother was paralyzed with fear and indecision. Her salary as a part-time nurse couldn’t possibly support four children, and no one talked about alcoholism in those days. It was our family secret.

We couldn’t talk about feelings either, but we all loved animals, and we shared in the joys of taking care of our ever-changing menagerie of dogs and cats, as well as our horses. For Karma and me, Tonka and Comanche were constant companions.

We hitched the trailer to our Blazer and led the horses up the ramp. I shut the trailer gate and got in the front seat. Karma sat in the back. We wore identical outfits of jeans, T-shirts, and dusty brown cowboy boots. My hair was in pigtails. The rain was now falling at a steady rate. My father pulled out of our driveway and headed toward the fairgrounds, picking up speed once we hit the main road. The pavement was dark and wet.

It wasn’t until we felt a big bump that Karma and I realized the car was out of control.

For a moment, I thought we were flying. The road rose up an incline to a railroad track and then dipped, and we soared out of the dip like a launched rocket. I glanced at the rearview mirror and could see the horse trailer swinging back and forth.

My side of the vehicle, the passenger side, hit the shoulder of the road, and the trailer broke off. The car and trailer rolled and tumbled away from each other as if in slow motion. There was an eruption of metal, glass, and dirt, and then all was quiet.

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