The Shetland Refugee

ImageMe with my first customer in 1991.  He was a lightweight.

As Told To Bob Litton 

I’m a pony. A Shetland pony. A Classic Shetland pony. In other words, I’m high-class, not one of your “run of the mill” coal-toters.

My great-great-grandsire, however, was a coal-toter. He was brought over here in 1908 from the home country — the Shetland Islands — to work in the Virginia mines until he died from lung disease or overwork: we never could determine which. He was only twenty years old when he died. The humans stopped that nonsense in 1971 — for ponies anyway. But that, of course, was after he had sired my great-grandsire, who, along with my grandsire, ploughed on a small farm in Iowa. Now, as for my sire and dam, they were taken up by a traveling carnival that included a petting zoo and a pony ride, something like a carousel.

My aunts and uncles and cousins have been all sorts of things: children’s pets, harness race horses, and even guide and therapy horses. But most of my relatives, I suppose, have been used like me — by carnies and itinerant photographers: the first let kiddies ride around on us in small circles for a few bucks, and the latter take us through residential streets where small children can sit atop us with chaps, a bandana and a cowboy hat to have their picture taken for a few bucks. I’ve probably earned enough for some guys’ retirements that way over the years.

O, but don’t take me wrong: We like kids. That’s why we are popular with the parents — those, anyway, who can afford pony pets for their children. We Shetlands are the most intelligent, hardy, patient and generally gentle breed of horse in the world, although we do sometimes have our moments of contrariness. Let me relate to you an incident early in my own life when I proved just how contrary we can be.

I was once a member of a trio of ponies who traveled about in a small carnival from one community to the next where small children could pet us or ride us around in a circle. Our master was a big-bellied fellow with a flushed faced, and gray hair only on his temples; he dressed kind of loud in a red Hawaiian shirt with pink flamingos printed on it, and dark yellow pants. He didn’t feed us right or otherwise take good care of our bodies. He never really beat us, although he swatted us with a folded newspaper frequently enough and yelled at us silly things when he got drunk at night.

On one such night, the pot-bellied sot neglected to let down the latch on our portable pen, and I noticed it. I waited until just an hour or so before sunrise, then I neighed to the other two ponies to follow me as I nosed open the gate, but they were either too tired or not adventuresome enough to leave the confine.

The carnival had been set up in a couple of large vacant lots between a lumber yard and a gas station. In the other two directions were a two-lane road and a wide, shallow creek. I crossed the creek cautiously, and a good thing, too, because the rapidly flowing water was trying to tumble me, and the slippery round rocks on its bed were trying to assist it in its mischief. But I got to the other side all right and stumbled on up the muddy bank. My not being acquainted with the area, of course, created another problem; still, what else was there to do but head for the pinkish rise of the morning light.

After penetrating a couple hundred yards of brush and saplings, I came to a spillway where water lightly flowed over into the creek I had just traversed. To my right was a four-lane highway with as yet not much traffic on it. I crossed the highway and soon found myself on a narrow street with houses and tall trees on both sides. The street wound oddly for some reason I could not even guess, but as the sun rose higher and heated the day, the numerous tall pecan and oak trees stretching over the roadway provided a nice, cool, shady arcade for me to wander in.

After a brief pleasant walk on that avenue, I noticed a blue bicycle coming toward me from a side street. Riding it was a red-headed boy of I supposed about ten to twelve years; he was wearing khaki shorts and a white T-shirt and flip-flops. I didn’t know where he was going or what he was up to, but I figured it would be prudent to pick up my pace. I geared up to a trot and, when I heard the bicycle tires on the road behind me, I moved into a gallop. Still that youngster was gaining on me. There weren’t any paces left except an out and out run, so I put my heart into it.

Soon the street became downhill slightly; that helped, although it helped my pursuer, too. At the bottom of the hill, where the street became a bridge over yet another creek and then climbed upward again, was a gravel drive where another boy, this one a cotton-top and of about the same age as the boy on the bike, was just entering the street. He was dressed in a tan T-shirt and blue denim jeans and was shod in tennis shoes.

“Bobby! Bobby!” shouted the bike rider. “Stop that horse!”

Well now, at least I knew the cotton-top’s name. He started running after me — not the fastest kid in the world, but he could cut across lawns and down alleys and thus keep up with us. In fact, he was just ahead of bike-boy when we turned onto another tree-lined street.

Off to my left I saw a middle-aged woman in a light blue blouse and aquamarine Capri pants raking new-mown grass in her front yard. She watched us with amused surprise as we came her way, then she stepped quickly into the middle of the street and held up her broom like it was a gate bar. Out of habit, I guess, and not wanting to run over this busy-body, I halted.

Bobby ran up, out of breath, and said, “Thanks, ma’am. We’ve been chasing that pony for at least six blocks.”

Then the red-headed kid, dismounting from his bike, added, “I’ve been chasing it twice that far!”

“Is he your pony?” the woman asked.

“No,” replied Bobby, who sounded perplexed. “You don’t know who owns him, do you, Carlton?”

“No, I don’t,” said “Red”, now identified as Carlton. “I saw him first up on San Benito Street, and I’ve been following him ever since. I think he’s lost.”

Only in a minor sense! I wanted to say.

“We’ll take care of him and try to find his owner,” Bobby said.

“Okay, boys,” said the woman, smiling doubtfully. “Hold him by his halter here while I go rustle up a rope. I think I have one in the garage.” The woman transferred the halter to Bobby’s hands and walked up a driveway towards her garage.

All this time I had noticed a slight expression of anxious irritation on Carlton’s face as he stood holding his bike upright: he couldn’t hold my halter because he had to tend to his two-wheeler.

The woman brought a clothesline rope, tied one end to the halter and gave the rest to Bobby. As Bobby led me away, with Carlton riding slowly and wobbly beside us, I felt like this was the end of my world. Wouldn’t you? I had known freedom for maybe two hours, and it had been exhilarating but strange. I probably could have broken loose, for Bobby was not exactly a husky lad; but I was tired out from the run and I had developed an overwhelming sense of bewilderment due to the confusing streets. And probably more people would be out and about by now with even more effective means of catching me. My lassitude, as it turned out, was wiser than I.

They took me back to the graveled driveway by the creek. Along the way, Carlton related to Bobby how he had spotted me after finishing his newspaper route. The graveled drive led back thirty yards among some pecan, redbud and persimmon trees. The creek wound around and partly through the property. The house was a small, white-framed, ranch-style structure with a green roof.

Bobby tied the rope to a small redbud tree in the middle of the yard. Some Bermuda grass was there, but it was sparse and recently mowed, so it did not seem delectable to me, even though I was hungry. I snorted my disdain, which, of course, Bobby and Carlton could not interpret.

“Mama! Mama!” Bobby yelled.

A woman with gray-streaked brown hair parted in pigtails, wearing a light blue housecoat, appeared at the screen door and asked, “What in the world have you two done now? Where did you get that pony?”

“Carlton saw him on San Benito Street and chased him over here where I joined him. A lady down on San Leandro stopped him for us. Boy! Was she brave, Mama!”

“Well, hells’ bells! What are you going to do with him? You can’t keep him.”

“We don’t know. We were hoping that between our two yards there would be enough grass for him to eat.”

“Yeah!” Carlton said, claiming his half.

“I’m sure Carlton’s mom and dad won’t be any more welcoming than I am.”

“Okay,” Bobby said, sounding crestfallen. “But we ought to try and find his owner, shouldn’t we?”

The woman’s voice softened. “Yeah, that’s true,” she said. “Wait. I’ll get a bucket of water.”

That struck a note with me. I’d been through one creek and near two others — maybe the same one in different places — and hadn’t taken one lick: Now I was as thirsty as an un-nursed colt.

Carlton laid his bike on the ground, and then he and Bobby stroked my back and withers and ran their fingers through my long tangled mane.

All of a sudden, Carlton exclaimed, “Bobby, look! His dong is chapped! It’s all crusty-looking!”

“What do you mean, ‘dong’?” Bobby asked.

“Just look down there under his belly,” Carlton said, pointing.

“That’s not any ‘dong’! That’s his pecker!” Bobby said, trying to sound better informed than he obviously felt.

“My dad calls it a ‘dong’,” Carlton retorted.

“Well, Pappy calls it a ‘pecker’!” Bobby persisted. “Anyway, what does it matter? The thing looks in pretty bad shape to me, too.”

At that point, Bobby’s mother showed up with the water. She placed the bucket on the ground, and I lapped thirstily.

“Mama,” said Bobby sotto voce, “look there.”

The woman followed the direction of his arm pointing at my penis.

“What’s wrong with him, Mama?”

“How would I know?” replied his mother in a tone of annoyed perturbation.  “You’d have to ask a veterinarian that.”

Carlton joined in. “What’s a veterinarian?”

“An animal doctor,” the woman said.

“Can we take him to one?” continued Carlton.

“I can’t,” Bobby’s mother replied. “They’re not cheap, and he’s not our horse.”

All this while, Bobby kept running the palm of his hand nervously over my shoulder and along my back. “I wish he were mine,” he said.

“Hey, I saw him first,” interjected Carlton.

“Your folks can’t afford a veterinarian for somebody else’s horse any more than we can, Carlton,” the woman said in a soothing tone. “And, besides that, both of you guys will be too big in a couple of years to ride him anyway. He’s not going to get any bigger, but you will.”

“Yeah, she’s probably right, Carlton” said Bobby. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

The boys stood silently a few moments, looking sadly disappointed.

“Well,” Bobby’s mother said. “We’ll try to find his owner. I’ll check in tomorrow’s paper to see if anyone’s seriously looking for him. If they’re not, we’ll probably have to turn him over to the county agent or the animal control people. In the meantime, you boys can watch after him, maybe even ride him around the yard. However, he looks tired to me, so maybe you should just pet him. I’ll go see what I can find for him to eat.”

She went into the house and came back a few minutes later with a large box of tire-shaped cereal, three large brown potatoes and a head of cabbage. As she returned to the house, she shook her head: That was probably three breakfasts and a lunch for her and Bobby.

While I was munching at the tire-shaped cereal bits, Bobby ran his fingers through my mane and Carlton unknotted my tail.

“Bobby,” said Carlton, pensively. “Don’t his tail look awfully long to you?”


“Think we should cut it some?”

“I’ll go get my mother’s scissors.”

So they trimmed my tail, not knowing that Classic Shetlands are noted for their long, thick manes and tails. I didn’t care. I appreciated their positive attention.

Bobby and Carlton’s friends came over throughout the day to see the strange pony. The only names I recall are Alan Ray, Billy and Jay. No young girls in that neighborhood, apparently. They all petted me but, oddly enough, not a single one mounted me. Being city boys, they probably didn’t know how without a saddle and were ashamed to admit it. Or maybe they thought I would buck. Neighhh! Wouldn’t that be a show!

Before the boys took off for supper and their TV shows, they were conscientious enough to tie the rope at the base of the redbud tree so I would have enough tether to lie down. But I didn’t do that for a few hours. Rather I stood on three hooves, as horses are wont to do, and looked up at the stars in the broad night sky. And I wondered what real freedom is like, for I felt that my adventure had involved a bogus freedom full of anxiety and confusion. I wondered if there even is such a thing as real freedom.

The next morning was what humans call “Sunday” — the day when people can sleep late and even the afternoon paper is delivered before dawn. Odd customs! But, naturally, Bobby came outside just as the sun rose. So did his mother. He came to see if I needed any water and to comb my mane with his fingers, while she picked up the paper from the driveway and went back inside.

“I don’t know what to call you,” Bobby murmured behind my right ear, which I shook on feeling his breath there. “Bet you have some corny name, like ‘Reginald’; but if you were mine I’d call you something grand, like ‘Champ’.”

Soon, Carlton showed up. “Is he okay?” Carlton asked as he dismounted from his bike. “Did he sleep all night?”

Bobby chuckled and replied, “I guess so. I wasn’t out here….but I didn’t.”

“Me neither. Think we’re going to have to give him up?”

“Almost certain of it, even if we don’t find his owner. We can’t afford to keep him. Mother was right. And we don’t have a yard big enough. Or a fence. It wouldn’t be fair to keep him pegged to a tree day and night. He needs some roaming room.”

“Yeah,” said Carlton thoughtfully. “I getch’a….Still, I hate to see him go.”

“Bobby!” There was Bobby’s mother standing in the front doorway, holding the screen door open with one hand and waving the newspaper with her other hand. “Bobby, there’s a twenty-five dollar reward for that pony! I’m going to call the owner in a little while. Got to give him time to wake up.”

Bobby and Carlton looked at each other with faces reflecting the features of condemned men. I actually felt sorry for them. Can you believe that?  A horse feeling sympathy for humans? But as for me, I was already resigned; I knew where I was going. But, really, I didn’t.

Bald ol’ belly came to Bobby’s house just before noon. He was driving his ten-year-old maroon pickup truck and towing a four-horse trailer.

“How d’ye do, ma’m,” he said to Bobby’s mother when she came out to meet him. He took off his straw sombrero and shook her hand and introduced himself, “I’m Buster Monahan.” He glanced toward the boys standing beside me a few yards away under the shade of the redbud leaves. “I’ve got twenty-five dollars in cash right here for you. I sure appreciate your finding my pony for me.”

“Those two boys were the ones who found him, not I,” the woman said archly. “My son asked me what was wrong with your horse’s….uh, penis. I told him I didn’t know, but I think maybe I should mention it so you can do something about it. It bothers the boys very much”

“Oh that!” said Buster. “That’s nothing serious, ma’am. That pony — all my ponies — are geldings, and geldings don’t get erections like stallions do, so they sometimes don’t get enough sunshine down there. Sunshine’s a great cleaner. So the geldings develop this film on their members, and when they roll around in the dirt their members begin to look flaky…or chapped. Just a little bit of soapy water will take care of the problem. I’ll do it soon as I get back to my riding pen.

“Hey, we’re right up near the spillway. I’ll be there two more days, then we’re leaving for New Mexico. If you’d like to bring these two boys up there, I’ll let them ride around a couple of times gratis. Additional reward, you know.”

“I’ll think about it,” said Bobby’s mother, “but I believe the boys are a little too old to get much of a thrill riding around in a circle on a Shetland pony.”

“Suit yourself,” Buster said, as he untied me and gave the rope to Bobby and led me to the trailer. He took me back to the carnival lot. Boy! Was he ever mad at me! He swatted my flank ten times with his folded Sunday paper. “I’m tired of messing with you, Jeremiah, you stupid critter,” he yelled as he backed me out of the trailer. “I’m going to sell you as soon as I can.”

Well, fortunately, it was soon enough. He advertised in a few daily papers and a horse lovers magazine, and a middle-aged fellow named Ralph in a town not far away came the following month and hauled me away in a nice single-horse trailer. Ralph was a photographer of sorts. What I mean by that is that he didn’t take artsy type pictures. He just used a Polaroid camera to photograph kids generally younger than Bobby and Carlton as they sat on my saddled back decked out with chaps and a cowboy hat and a bandana. That was a good racket for ol’ Ralph. He prospered by it for about ten years and he fed me well and took care of my ”dong” or “pecker” or whatever you want to call it.

Then, in about the year 2000, some human invented a small portable phone that also had a camera in it. The “customers” began to try to cheat Ralph by taking their kids’ portraits as soon as Ralph had the little tykes in the saddle. Ralph began to counter by standing in front of me and whatever child was on me. He had a bunch of quarrels with the cheating parents, a couple of which reached the fisticuffs stage. Finally, he gave it up as a lost cause and retired me to this nice pasture in the hill country. I love it here. I see this as real freedom — a freedom that satisfies me, anyway.

Ralph was an all right guy. He recognized my proper dignity. Even gave me a new name: “Champ”.


NOTE TO READERS:  The next post on this blog site will be on or about August 18 of this year.

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