It was just about a year ago in late March 2010, my kid’s Spring Break was coming up in the first week of April and my wife and I being good, solid parents… well, we hadn’t planned anything fun to do. No trips to Disney, nothing… barely even any time off from work. It was looking like these poor mistreated kids would have to be home for a week, sleeping in and playing video games… basically just being total slackers all day long for a week. Hey, that sounded pretty good to me, but alas, that is not what family memories are made of! So with the pressure on us parents to come up with something fun to do for at least a portion of the week, my wife organized a trip for us to drive down to Kentucky for a few days, tour around the areas where all the beautiful horse farms are located and specifically to visit the Kentucky Horse Park which is a giant educational theme park/horse farm that celebrates the vast history of horses and horse racing in Kentucky.
Have I mentioned that my daughter wants a horse?
Anyhow, so when the time came, we packed the car, drove down to Lexington, found a nice hotel to stay in and had just an absolute great time making memories that my wife and I and the kids will remember for a long time. While there, we saw a horse race, visited the Park and spent many hours just driving around. Kentucky, if you have never visited, is a stunningly beautiful place, just like what you hear about, rolling hills of green grass, and miles and miles of horse farms lined with white fences, grazing horses and beautiful homes and barns. It is a place we had wanted to visit for a long time and we finally got the opportunity.
On our last day there we visited the park and while planning out our day we decided to purchase a trail ride… seriously, you can’t visit Kentucky without getting on the back of a horse and taking a trail ride. We bought our tickets and scheduled the ride for about 4:00 in the afternoon, so we could spend the majority of our time touring the park and then finish the day with a relaxing ride, letting the horses do the work. When 4:00 rolled around we lined up with all the other folks, the staff assigned us all our horses and we hopped on and got ready to go.
My horse was named Chief. He was a big horse and I thought that was a fitting name for him. He looked like a Chief! The guy that was helping me get on him told me Chief had been a race horse and had won a bunch of money on the Kentucky race circuit, and now he was retired and enjoying a good life here at the park.
“Cool”, I thought!
A few minutes later, everybody was settled into the saddles and like clockwork all these horses, probably 30 or so of them, started plodding along out to the trail, nose to ass and ass to nose… they all knew where to go and they were pretty well-trained to follow the horse in front of them. As we were walking along and everyone was starting to spread out a little, I looked down at Chief and he just looked tired out. “Poor horse”, I thought, “has to do the same shit over and over again every day.” As none of the other riders were really within hearing distance, I looked down once again at Chief and I said, “Chief buddy, you’re looking pretty tired out, are you okay my friend?”
You will never believe what happened next… seriously, I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP… Chief friggin’ turns his head to me and says, “Yeah dude, I’m pretty tired out… I’m kinda sick of this trail riding shit… hey, no offense to you or anything… I’ve just been doing this for a long time. Plus I spent like 10 years racing, working my ass off day after day. It beat me up man, wore down my poor legs and my back. I gotta admit this trail riding has been a pretty good gig for me. I have a good life here, they feed me well and I have a nice place to live… I’m just tired out…you know… maybe it’s time to try something else… or maybe just ride off into the sunset… do you know where I’m coming from?”
After a few seconds of stun and disbelief, I gathered my composure and replied back, “Chief buddy, yeah I can totally get where you’re coming from. I’m kinda in the same place… I’m tired too… I’ve been doing the same job for almost 20 years, it’s a retail job and it has beat the shit out of me as well, my legs always hurt, my back hurts when I try to sleep, I’m always worrying about it… yeah dude, I get ya… must be fate that you ended up being my horse today.
“Yeah, fate… that’s pretty cool… fate, I like that” Chief replied.
We walked in silence for a few minutes and I started thinking I should ask him if he had any thoughts about us getting a horse for our daughter. “Hey Chief”, I said, “my daughter wants us to get her a horse. You got any thoughts about that? Do you think we should? She’s been taking riding lessons and I think she might be ready.”
“You know buddy, owning a horse is a big commitment”, Chief said.
“Yeah, I know”, I replied, “but I think she could handle it… I mean sure, my wife and I are gonna have to help out… I know that, but I’m starting to think it might be a good idea. We have the barns and the stalls and everything already there on the property. So it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to get it all pulled together. We’d actually probably get two horses… you know, one for my daughter and one for my wife.”
“Two would be good”, said Chief. Then he paused for a few moments before starting to speak again. “You know, I think it might be a good idea”, he finally said. “That’s the kind of stuff that family memories are made of.”
We walked for a while longer and after a few moments I said. “Hey Chief, you know… I’m always dreaming about some kind of crazy shit I want to do, finding some kind of idyllic life as a writer or a musician or brewing craft beer in my basement… or whatever… you know… just crazy, unrealistic shit. I’m kind of in one of those places where I just don’t feel like I’m in the spot where I should be at my age… you know… everything that has happened to me is just average. Sometimes I think I should have maybe followed some different paths… you had a crazy-successful life as a race horse… do you ever have any regrets?”
“Hmmmmm… “, Chief mumbled, then paused for a minute or two.
Finally he continued. “Let me tell you something, my friend. When I was a young horse, I had a fucking rock-star life. Dude, we were traveling around to races, hanging with the other race horses, eating and drinking like kings, making money, big money. It was totally bitchin! Seriously… and I thought I had it made… fame and fortune baby. But you know what? Now that I look back, it wasn’t that great… it wore me down, always being in the limelight, never having any privacy. People think that so-called rock-star life is so great, but it’s not really… I would have killed to have a normal life on a small farm with a little girl like your daughter loving me and riding me and taking care of me every day… man, that would have been a dream-come-true… you know what I’m saying? It’s all about life and family, my friend, life and family… you know? You gotta enjoy what you got.”
“You sound like my wife”, I responded. “She’s always preaching that shit to me. I’m always off in la-la-land… and she’s you know… real level-headed.”
“She must be a smart lady”, Chief replied.
“Yeah, she is”, I said. “She’s pretty amazing.”
“Count your blessings my friend”, Chief said.
Once again, we walked quietly for several minutes. Soon we were approaching the stables where we started and the end of our ride. Chief turned to me one more time and said, “hey buddy, I never got your name.”
“I’m Steve”, I said.
“Well, Steve”, he continued. “I hope you figure it all out. You seem like a pretty smart guy, I’m confident you’ll find whatever it is you’re looking for.”
“Yeah I will”, I answered. “You know, life always has a way of working itself out. I wish the same for you Chief… I hope you get your day to ride off into the sunset.”
“Yeah, I will too”, he said. “But I’m okay for now… you know, it’s people like you that keep me grounded.”
We stopped at the stables and I hopped off into the mud. “Thanks for the ride Chief”, I said and patted him on the neck.
“Thank you for visiting the park, he replied. “You know Steve, if you ever come back and I’m still here maybe we can share a little bourbon together… I love good Kentucky bourbon!”
I felt a big smile form on my face. “Will do my friend… that sounds great”, I replied… and I walked away into the sunset.
Disclaimer: All names have been changed to protect the identity and privacy of the participants in the story… well except mine, of course… y’all already know who I am… so I guess it’s just Chief’s name that has been changed… and that picture up there at the top… that’s not Chief, that’s just a really bitchin’ good-lookin’ horse.