As I was growing up it seemed to me that life for Grandpa mostly revolved around two things: his love for Grandma and anything to do with horses.
He would spend hours working on leather projects of all kinds. He collected saddles, harnesses, and bridles, spending many evenings fixing and fiddling with the equipment that was necessary for someone to ride a horse or drive a team. Ranchers and farmers from around the province would send him their broken leather to get fixed or adapted. Grandpa went to auctions in surrounding towns and picked up bits and pieces of tack, as well as an assortment of wagons and sleds. He filled many sheds with his collections!
One his favourite projects involved collecting and building box wagons. Drawn by a pair of horses, these wooden wagons were utilitarian vehicles designed to transport goods. During the economic devastation of the 1930s, this practical piece of equipment provided essential services to farmers across the prairie. In an act of defiant beauty, Grandpa would paint the boxes a bright Christmas green and the wooden spoked wheels a bright red. No one is quite sure how many Grandpa managed to put together, but if you drive the Trans-Canada Highway between Regina and Calgary, you will occasionally see them parked proudly in front of farmhouses and near old barns. The green and red works of art stand as distinct reminders to each passerby of another time and another way of life.
Grandpa seemed most at home when he was seated atop a horse. Perhaps it was the feeling of life and power beneath him. Maybe he loved the freedom of travel. Whatever inner satisfaction riding brought him, it was clear that the view that Grandpa enjoyed most was the one he saw when he was settled in a saddle. It was a view that he was eager to share with anyone who indicated even the slightest interest.
When I was a young boy, Grandpa would gather all the necessary equipment to make sure I could experience the joys of riding horseback with him. A saddle built for an eight-year-old, reins that were the right length, special stirrups for my new cowboy boots, and of a course a hat that fit the occasion. Getting ready for a ride with Grandpa was an experience of feeling special. “Is my saddle ready Grandpa?” I peppered him with questions that just reminded me how much time he put into making our rides special. “Did you put that new button on my bridle?” Many spring afternoons, I would race from the school bus stop at the end of the lane, drop my bags near the barn door, and see if Grandpa was ready to go. He never was, but he was always working on it. In his slow way, it always felt like he had spent his time preparing the tack just for me. For a lonely boy struggling with the structure of school and homework, this was affirmation of the most powerful kind.
Riding with Grandpa did not necessarily require a destination; the journey itself seemed to be the point. Riding with others was always far more utilitarian than with Grandpa. Other riders needed to somewhere to go, some task to achieve. With my uncles and Dad, we were always riding for a purpose: to go check or move cattle or to have a picnic at some destination. With Grandpa, it seemed as if the purpose was simply to ride together. I never knew where we were going or why, and I didn’t really care. It was wonderful.
Many years later, on a cold winter evening when Grandpa was in his early nineties, I stopped by for a brief visit. Grandpa was at his chair reading the Regina Leader Post, a Toronto Blue Jays ball game playing on the fuzzy television in the corner. He must have been sorting through books recently because an old album containing pictures of the horses that the family had owned over the last seventy years was open on the shelf nearby. There must have been close to a hundred photos; many were black and white images that had been blurred and yellowed by time. I brought it to Grandpa and asked if he could remember any of them. Of course, he remembered them all. All their names (Fly, Flash, Speedy, Butterfly, Buttercup, Champ, Quapelle, Silver, and on and on), all their unique personalities (feisty, fast, ornery, gentle, stubborn), and each had a story of a rider who enjoyed them.
It was clear that every animal mattered to Grandpa – almost like they had been a gift to him and he was now able to re-open and enjoy them again. As we paged through the album, I watched him take delight in each horse, regardless of whether they had been able to perform well or had been good to him or for him. I realized that he was the only one would ever remember these animals. He knew each of their names and each of their stories. He spoke with a deep pride and compassion for each one. It didn’t seem to matter to him if they had been good or useful animals; they were important because they were his, and they were part of his life. The simple reminder of their presence was continuing to bring him joy.
In the light of that television set, on that cold night, I glimpsed a way of receiving life’s experiences without evaluating them – simply taking them each as a gift. I was given a vision of a place where worth comes from who we are and not simply from what we are able to accomplish.
Could that be what Grandpa saw as he sat atop those horses for all those years?
What a beautiful view!