The heartwarming true story of a woman and the horse who changed her life.
Jana Harris had always dreamed of having a horse farm, and she knew the horse on whom she could build her dreams the moment she saw her on a ranch in the Eastern Mountains of Washington State, where a herd had been corralled to be sold: a beautiful, deep dark red-colored mare standing about sixteen hands, with a white star on her pretty head. Something about the way this mare guarded her handsome foal spoke to Harris. The mare was named True Colors.
When True Colors was delivered to Harris’s ranch three months later, however, she was unrecognizable: head-shy from the infected sores on her face, and lungs damaged by pneumonia, she sensed demons hiding in everything from the scent of fabric softener on clothes to a gate in a fence. This injured, traumatized horse existed between two worlds—wild and domesticated—and belonged to neither.
Remarkably, the other horses fell in love with her on sight. And true to her name, True Colors would never pretend to be something she was not; with her wise, intuitive nature, she would end up changing the lives of everyone she encountered. This is the story of True Colors and how, with her quiet wisdom, she became the heart of the range and farm. There is a famous horseman’s saying: A horse never lies about its pain. But maybe we should also consider: A horse never lies about love.
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Jana Harris is a poet, novelist, short story writer, and essayist who teaches creative writing at the University of Washington and is a Washington State Governor’s Writers Award and Andres Berger Award winner, as well as a PEN West Center Award finalist. She won a Pushcart Prize for poetry in 2001 and is editor and founder of Switched-on Gutenberg, one of the first electronic global poetry journals. She lives in the Cascade Mountains with her husband, where they raise horses.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :
I’ve always had a hard time making decisions, especially decisions that involve spending money. I waffle, obsessively weighing the pros and cons, and eventually exhaust myself, in the end deciding nothing. But on this particular spring day over two decades ago, at a horse ranch in eastern Washington, I saw and knew exactly what I wanted.
It was May 1986. She was a deep red mare known as a blood bay, standing about sixteen hands—sixty-four inches at the withers, where the neck meets the back. Her arched neck flowed gently into her chest; her pretty head had a white star and a narrow stripe dripping down her face into two black nostrils. Something about the way she guarded her foal, an ebony two-month-old two-hundred-pound colt, spoke to me.
The rest of the Rocking D’s herd of twenty Thoroughbred mares and their foals stood placidly in the intense noon sun. The mares—bays and chestnuts mostly, one gray—raised little puffs of smoke whenever one of them stomped a heart-shaped hoof in the dust. All the foals looked black, though they had a few white hairs like frost around their eyes and furry ears. It was hard to tell; my husband and I couldn’t get closer to them than the corral fence. The mares had just been driven in from the range adjacent to the Rocking D, owned by Duke and Patsy, and weren’t used to being handled; foals are timid by nature. How had these mares survived the hard winters in the rugged Okanogan? They were thin-skinned and fine-boned, their legs as narrow as my forearm.
As I was about to ask Patsy, who was standing next to me, the mares suddenly pricked their ears, all looking in the same direction at once. Behind an eight-foot-high barricade of telephone poles stacked next to a barn with a sagging roof, a gray stallion trumpeted, then furiously plowed the ground with a foreleg. Fine dust engulfed him, a Percheron from champion work-horse bloodlines. The massive crest on his neck foamed with sweat; his thick white tail cascaded to the ground, the ends caked with manure. I couldn’t see his expression because a white forelock covered his face, but his anger was palpable. Again my eye scanned his herd of mares.
“That one,” I said to Patsy, pointing at the blood bay. “How old is she? Could we see her and her baby move around a little?” My words crackled in the clear dry air.
At that moment, the mare and her baby sauntered away from the rest of the herd, where they were all corralled in a barbwire enclosure built below a granite outcropping mottled with sage and tarweed. The foal stopped, dropped his head, then crooked his neck to nurse, taking shelter from the high desert sun in his dam’s shadow. The mare’s tail whisked rhythmically across the foal’s sturdy back, sweeping it of flies. Not a hint of unhappiness in her expression; they were the perfect architecture of mare and foal.
Mark and I had just driven our Honda Civic six hours east from the coast to the Rocking D. Leaving the black-green rain forest and gloomy skies of the Puget Sound, we’d traveled an open-in-fair-weather-only highway over a treacherous mountain pass. Emerging from the countless white peaks that disappeared into a fog of clouds, we plunged around hairpin turns into the desert side of the state, the change in altitude making my ears pop. I squinted in the light from a different sun, a disc the color of the already dry grass it overlooked as it hung in an endless sweep of amethyst sky.
At the eastern foot of the Cascades, we turned north up a narrow valley heading for Duke and Patsy’s ranch, which—according to the directions I held in my hand—was located on land leased from an Indian reservation near the Canadian border. I saw almost no houses and could count the trees, spindly pines, on one hand. The only shadows were cast by angular moonscape rocks jutting out from the benchlands. The air tasted as dry as ash, the visibility so clear I could believe that we were seeing all the way to the Northwest Territory.
I’d found Patsy’s ad for a herd dispersal in a flea-market newspaper: Thoroughbred mares with half-draft foals, sold together or separate. The price: too good to be true—an incentive to drive halfway across the state into the middle of nowhere.
I’d lived and breathed horses as a child and felt lucky when I’d been given one as a teenager. During college and graduate school, and the next decade of being a poet in Berkeley, I’d hardly seen a horse, my lust for them going dormant. Then, when Mark, my research-scientist husband, landed a university position, we found ourselves living in rural New Jersey’s horse country. We were so isolated that if I hadn’t taken up riding again, I don’t know how I would have found even one new friend. Now in our late thirties, we were back in the West with new teaching jobs, two riding horses, and some acreage we’d just purchased. Our new barn and covered riding arena (a costly affair but a necessity in Rain-land) left only a tiny budget, if that, for breeding stock, should we decide to breed horses. Did I say decide? It had been my childhood dream. I had to pinch myself to make sure it was actually me living this life: horses, a farm, and now maybe a mare-in-foal with this year’s foal at her side.
As our car approached a smudge of a town, I rechecked the directions that Patsy had given me and looked at the map. We drove past a row of clapboard houses with pole beans growing in the front yards. Neat stacks of cordwood reached to the top of the eaves of cottages on either side of the state highway. Across a swift narrow river, rows of apple trees frothing with white blooms stretched toward bald hills dotted with brown-and-white cattle. We drove slowly past a row of brick two-story storefronts built in the 1920s; a grain elevator rose up to the west.
“When we come to a traffic light, turn right. Drive five miles, then start to look for a gravel road heading north,” I told Mark.
He squirmed in the Civic’s utilitarian bucket seat, his long back fatigued by our journey. “ This traffic light?” he asked as he pulled up at a gas station.
“According to Patsy, it’s the only one in the county.”
“What’re the chances of getting a triple espresso macchiato?” he asked, looking out the car window and scratching his high forehead. He yawned, running his long fingers through his pale blond mop.
“With an organic biscotti?” I joked. “I’ll get us a Coke. After we find the gravel road, it’s seven more miles.” Clearly, we were headed to the end of the galaxy.
“Is there some way we could see her trot? And the foal?” I asked Patsy. It was a balmy day the temperature of bathwater; the sun warmed my back.
A short, sturdy woman in her sixties with a lined face the same color as the brown hills, Patsy shaded her gray eyes with her hand, a thin gold band on her ring finger her only adornment. She turned to Duke, who had been standing laconicly behind us, the heel of his cowboy boot dug into the dirt. He was lean, silver-haired, and stood six feet, taller if not for the stoop in his back. Stubble the color of the granite outcroppings shadowed his jaw. Removing the battered cowboy hat from his head, he wiped the sweat band with one hand, then spat in the direction of the wire fence, his marble eyes fused to the flinty dirt near where I stood.
“What’ya say, Duke?” Patsy’s tone was motherly. “We could move the mares down to the creek pasture for a graze so Jinny—is that what you said your name was?—can see ’em run around. Those other buyers’ll be here soon—want a horse for their little granddaughter. Probably they’ll ask the same.”
Duke pursed his lips into a line so thin it looked as if his mouth were a gash in his face. He nodded. “Yeah.” He smiled. “Let’s give ’em elbow room.”
As he strode off to open the wire gate, I studied the letters of his name tooled into the back of his leather belt. When we’d first arrived, coming to the end of the gravel road and Duke and Patsy’s bunkerlike cinder-block house with a bearskin stretched across one side of it, I’d tried not to stare at Duke’s huge belt buckle, with its territorial-era silver nugget set in the center. It made me feel as if we’d driven to a different century. After I’d pried my gaze away from the shiny buckle, I’d taken in the panoramic view from the Rocking D’s ranch house, perched on a treeless bluff above an unpainted two-story barn, a stallion pen, and one corral. Below stretched the Valley at the Top of the World, its shoestring river fed by spring coulees and creeks rushing down from the white pinnacles that fenced the valley on the west. Before Washington became a state, this part of the country was known as the Chief Moses Reserve.
As Duke opened the gate, the mares crowded together, eager to get away from the barn and into the open space. When they hurriedly moved away en masse, the stallion bugled after them, then threw himself against his telephone-pole barricade. The stockade shuddered; the mares broke into a trot. Plunging down the loose dirt of an incline, some began to canter as they fanned out, stopping at the edge of an almost dried-up freshet. They dropped their noses to the ground and began looking for grass. Some of the foals were huge, already the size of yearlings. A few had begun to turn from black to steel gray. The largest one limped. I searched for my mare and found her guarding her timid colt—in equine parlance, a young unneutered male horse is called a colt, a female horse under age five, a filly.
“What’s her name?” I asked Patsy. She and Mark and I had followed the herd into the open space, pausing to watch them graze.
“That’s True Colors. When we go back to the house, I’ll show you her papers.”
As I walked toward the mare, she nuzzled her foal, and both quickly moved away. I took baby steps. I stopped, dropped my eyes, looked away. I walked backward toward her. Finally, I got close, but not quite near enough to touch her. I tried to memorize what she looked like: Her only white leg marking was on her left hind, a French anklet with two onyx dots just above the hoof. When I crouched down, she turned her head away, studying me out of her peripheral vision. Her eyes were wide and gingerbread brown. As she regarded me, there was something about the way her eyes softened, the way their warm color feathered into the pink of the sclera where the upper and lower lid met—the color of a desert sunset.
“What a handsome baby you have.” I spoke in a low, singsongy voice.
Her foal had a perfect white star in the center of his forehead and reminded me of a breed of horse called an Irish hunter owned by several of my neighbors in New Jersey. True Colors sighed, then dropped her head and searched for grass. The colt eyed me with a combination of curiosity and alarm. I stared again at the mare’s white hind ankle, noticing an old scar that made an S from the bulb of her heel up to her fetlock joint. She had no other blemishes.
The blood bay chewed a nub of grass, turned back, and considered me. She glanced at her baby, then again at me. I tried to read her expression. Doleful? “What are you trying to tell me?” I asked, inching my foot closer to her.
Duke shouted something from up near the barn, where he’d remained. Patsy stood about fifty feet away, talking to Mark. She called to me, “Duke says, ‘Want ’em to move around a little?’”
“Sure,” I said, but regretted it the next instant when I saw Duke lift a rifle and fire it into the air. The echo cracked back at us again and again.
All of the mares and foals bolted as if shocked with electric prods, some getting separated and then calling to each other hysterically. Up at the barn, behind Duke, the stockade shook as the white wave of the stallion’s mane rose and fell above the top of the barricade. After a long few minutes, the herd sorted itself out as the dust they’d kicked up settled into the marsh. No horse seemed to have injured itself. What I had seen of True Colors’s trot and canter looked acceptable for dressage, the riding discipline I followed. Some of the mares began to mill around each other, anticipating a second blast. Another mare caught my eye: a black bay that resembled “my” mare, but not as refined. The black bay’s belly looked as if she had swallowed a Volkswagen. I pointed to her.
“Ain’t foaled yet,” said Patsy. “True Colors’s sister,” she added.
The dark bay may have taken an off stride or two when she spooked from the rifle shot. The gray mare with the refined Arab head had a chink in her back; she’d either cantered or walked but couldn’t trot. Walking toward the black bay, I noted that she wasn’t as tall as True Colors, maybe slightly over fifteen hands—one hand equals four inches. This mare watched me from the corner of her eye as she grazed, and I had no trouble walking up to her. Maybe not even fifteen hands, sixteen hands being the magic height of a dressage horse. But friendly. When I reached out and touched her shoulder, she flinched only slightly, as she would from a fly, then stepped away from me. Gentle, yes, but common-looking. And maybe lame.
After a few minutes, when no shot rang out, the more nervous mares stopped milling, and the herd calmed. The foals took a tug on an udder, then imitated their mothers, searching for new blades of spring grass. Some were so young that their necks weren’t long enough to reach the ground, and they pawed the creekbed in frustration. My mare positioned herself and her foal at the edge of the swarm, the same way she’d stood at the edge of the knot of mares when they’d been corralled up near the barn.
“I want that one,” I whispered to Mark as we followed Patsy back to the house.
He smiled approvingly. “She’s the best-looking. Skittish, though.” Our eyes met. I could tell that Mark was as stunned as I was by the otherworldliness of this place.
Inside, Patsy pulled out mismatched chairs from a table—planks laid across two sawhorses and covered with a yellow vinyl cloth—that took up most of the kitchen in their two-room house. Mark, Patsy, and I sat down near the metal utility sink. Duke sat at the other end of the table near the trash burner, where there was only one chair. “Needs his elbow room,” Patsy said, dropping her voice. Even though the stove wasn’t lit, I could smell woodsmoke eking out of the knotty pine walls.
“Oreo?” she asked, placing a chipped blue willow saucer of three cookies at our end of the table. She put on her reading glasses and fumbled with the accordion folds of a large manila file. “True Colors’s papers,” she said.
Duke jabbed a filterless cigarette between his lips but didn’t light it. I studied the horse’s pedigree: Round Table was her dam’s grandsire—one of the biggest stakes winners in history. She had very decent bloodlines.
Patsy turned to Mark. “Don’t ya got nothin’ to say?” she asked. “You ain’t said more than two words since you got here. Don’t let us hens dominate the conversation.” She had a high, nervous laugh. “Coffee?” she asked, jumping up and lighting one of the burners of a black restaurant-size stove. “Don’t I got a lotta pep for an old broad?”
Mark’s back straightened, and his eyes lit up. “I’d love some,” he said.
Patsy unscrewed a jar of instant Nescafé with a strong meaty hand, and pushed the saucer of Oreos in front of Mark. I continued to study True Colors’s papers, turning them over to look at the description of the mare’s white markings: face, left hind, one cowlick on her neck.
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