The great black stallion moved restlessly under me, barely able to hold himself back, within my restraining reins. His head darted forward, yanking the reins and my arm. At the touch of my left hand on his shoulder, he slowed from a side-stepping jig to a prancing walk. “Easy babe, sloooow” my voice stretched, dropping to such a low note—more vibration than sound. Twitching his ears back, he relaxed a little. He would always listen—and understand—that voice he knew so well. Like a couple grown old together, more was said in touch, tone of voice, than with words.
And he transmitted to me in that ancient, unspoken language of Horse, everything he felt… “Now, now I must run.” Dancing under me, he so wanted to sweep me away, take us flying once again… and remind me who he was.
Beneath the glistening black coat powerful hindquarters bunched and flexed, bringing legs forward to coil and spring below his loins. I could feel the muscles in his arched neck, shoulders, sliding under his skin… under my soothing hand. Below my seat and legs he moved with the strength and grace of a ballerina—ready to take flight. His left ear cocked back, hearing the intimate whisper—“Easy big man, slooow…”—meant only for him. He slowed. Before I could say whoa, the stallion felt my request and halted—stood motionless—surveying his kingdom… I waited for him.
The great flanks moved out, then let go a sigh. He walked—calm now—knowing soon I’d release him. “Ok, big man.” We flowed forward to his trot, moving as one. Several lengths later—not bothering with words—I thought, whenever you’re ready…and we glided into a gallop.
With each lengthening stride his pull on the bit, the reins increased, straining my arms to their limit. Though still contained, my stallion’s desire was clear: “Fly… we must fly…” I folded—ok, big man— until my chin lay inches above his withers—body melding with his—now!—and the big black shot forward.
Finally released beneath me, his great strength, power, again took my breath. Within a few strides we were flying, his legs pistons devouring the distance ahead, his movement fluid, effortless. At each stretch of his stride my arms followed his head forward and back; as he gathered himself again my legs were springs, absorbing his upward movement, keeping my head and back on one motionless, horizontal plane. Perfect unison. We moved together as two dancers who’d spent a lifetime practicing this art of controlled abandon.
No matter how many times we flew together it was always new, exhilarating…always like the first. And each time his unspoken message the same: He was known everywhere… the fastest horse in the world… and I trained him…
Can I really be feeling this? Are his feet truly touching the earth? I can always tell, in the middle of a dream, if it’s real or not. This is no dream—my black stallion is real. We slowed. I can feel his neck under my hand, hear him nicker, feel his body dancing beneath my seat and legs—sense my oldest friend. Why do I have to see him? Luxuriating in us, I resisted the urge to look at my great dancing steed; with bliss so complete, what more could heaven offer?
I can’t stand it; I’ve got to see him! My eyes opened. There below me—as always—were only my own two legs, straddling a broomstick. Overwhelming disappointment woke me from the dream.
My ten-year-old mind thought, Dad-gummit! The same broom I ride around the orphanage! Why do I always have to look down and spoil everything? I control my other dreams, do whatever I want—fly all over the Home. After having the exact same dream for years—six zillion times—why can’t I remember? –Next time I gotta remember not to look down!
He’s so much like the Black Stallion—except I trained him… He’s my black stallion. I closed my eyes, chased away disappointment and pulled back his delicious memory.
But soon the six o’clock bell called me and forty-four girls to rise. We lived in the huge brick “middle-size-girls’ building” of the Junior Order Home for Children, outside Lexington, North Carolina, and my grandmother—“Nannye”—was our housemother. The orphanage was home to over two hundred children with nowhere else to live.
After breakfast of cornflakes, fourteen of us congregated outside. “Let’s play horses—I wanna be the Black Stallion!”
Barbara Lovell admonished, “Paula, You always wanna play horses—you always wanna be the Black Stallion!”
My favorite tomboy and idol, Lois Padon, piped back, “That’s not true; sometimes she wants to be Alec…” And with Lois as back-up we played “horses” again, Lois and I choosing up sides: the girls on mine would be my “herd” while Lois would lead the “cowboys” trying to capture us…
Shaking my long mane, I pawed the ground with one leg, snorted and reared—striking my arm-forelegs in the air—and whinnied, loud and long—just like a stallion—summoning my band. The moment my front feet touched ground this Black Stallion wheeled and galloped away, followed closely by the herd…
North Carolina, May 3, 2002
My groom took the young racehorse and handed me a phone. It was a writer-friend, Jody Scott, whom I’d asked to critique my article on training Seattle Slew. “I finished the article—so you named him Baby Huey—that’s part of his legend.”
“Yeah, how was—”
“You know there’s got to be Slew retro on Saturday’s Derby coverage. After all, he is the only living Triple Crown winner—not to mention, undefeated. –I can see it now, camera picks out old Slew Crew members “—and there’s Slew’s first trainer, Pa—”
“—No. That won’t be happening.”
“What? Why not?”
“First of all, I’m not going; second, they wouldn’t remember me.”
“Wait. ‘Only woman—I ever heard of—to play a vital role making one of history’s greatest racehorses, but you’re not going to the Derby on his twenty-fifth—”
His voice dropped. “It’s your anniversary too…”
Don’t sound so impatient. “Hey, how bad was the article?”
“Paula, I can’t belie—why not go?”
Hiding my exasperation was hopeless; words came quick. “I don’t go to the racetrack. –How was—”
“—But… it was your world… for so long.”
“Let’s just say I moved here to be forgotten, ok? —So what about the article? Have I got three days of editing?”
Resigned, Jody sighed, “Only two. ‘Sure you won’t reconsider Kentucky?”
“Seriously, does it need major revision?”
“Well, I’m sure you’re sentimental, but isn’t it a bit extreme?”
“What do you mean?”
“Here, where you wrote, ‘One day the phone will ring…’” As he read I remembered the difficulty of writing those lines. …and I’ll hear the words I dread, that my boy, Huey, is no more. And black will be my color, for we were not meant to outlive our children. “Paula, isn’t that stretching it a bit—for a horse?”
I stared into the distance, silent.
Eyes closed, my voice went soft, low. “No… It’s not…”