That's her, on the left, with one of the other most important females in my life--my best hunting partner, great rifle shooter, and sometimes (when Dad breaks loose to take her) excellent fishing partner.
The other important female in my life opined as to I would probably be arrested for animal abuse for posting such a photo. And come to think of it, our 21-year-old daughter is not going to be very happy about the photo with herself NOT all gussied up, and bad hair to boot ("Dad! You didn't post THAT photo!")
But I don't know how you show a picture of a 35-year old mare without the bad hair, bony structure, and the look of pained but resolute acceptance shown here--and it's probably the best we are going to get of an animal that suffers the chronic aches and pains of advanced age. We could probably do better about displaying Jessica, but I wanted the two of them together, and it is getting difficult to even move Joker around.
Joker has been with me since she was a young mare of eight. She has given me a colt ( but never a filly, dammit.) She was, and remained until she became too crippled with arthritis, the absolute best ride on a horse I or anyone else ever experienced. We watched once as a trainer put her through her paces, and spotted four--count 'em--four different gaits.
She remains the only horse on which I ever experienced that almost Zen state of existence, becoming one with the animal, where the contact between horse and man became one flesh, and the blood flowing through her veins flowed into mine, and vice versa.
At a run, it was as if I were a part of her, and she me. It was the closest I have ever come to the feeling of becoming a centaur, but I felt it on several occasions. At a run, I could not be pried from her back. I could not fall, I could not be lifted nor thrown. I doubt I can really explain this very well, but it was as if I was attached--a living part of the horse--and I have never felt that with any horse before or since.
She made me believe I was a far better rider than I ever hoped to be, and because she was so easy to sit, I gained a minor reputation as a knowledgeable rider--one vastly undeserved, except when I sat on her. As a younger man, I would go into the pasture, throw a makeshift bridle over her head, climb on her bare back, and nudge her into a run, the wind blowing through her mane and my hair--I had a lot of it back then--my knees creeped up on her withers, sitting her like an Indian, holding nothing except balance as I rode leaned over her neck, exulting in the ride, the wind, the experience.
She gave me several deer, one a nice buck, before we retired from hunting from horseback--the original purpose for which she was begged, practically stolen from the young man who raised and trained her. He knew what he had, but almost anything has a price, and he was young, married, and expecting. Unashamedly, I bought his most prized possession. She would become mine.
Thinking back now, I am amazed to realize in nearly thirty years, she never bit, kicked, bucked, or threw me off. She never fell with me. I never hit the ground in all the years I rode her, and I have to sit here now thinking on it to appreciate how unbelievable that is.
She wasn't perfect. Far from it. It took years, but I finally gave in to the knowledge I was never going to be able to give her a bath without her turning into a mass of nerves, and shying everytime the running water from a hose got near her. As she aged, we just quit trying to wash her. If she was happy with the stink, we could put up with it. She earned the peace.
And yet, she would, before all the other horses, go wading in the pond, stirring it into a brown stew, sloshing it over herself, playing in it and pawing it like a youngster, splashing it over herself like an elephant exulting in its bath. She would unhesitatingly wade into a stream with me on her back, and joyously paw the water, huge geysers of it slinging skyward, drenching me, the saddle and tack, and both of us laughing uproariously, each in our own way. But you couldn't bathe her. Go figure.
She couldn't stand to ride in a posse. If we were with other riders, she would stretch those long Walker legs, and glide to the front, leaving everyone else in the rear. It was aggravating to not be able to visit with other riders, but Joker would not share the trail alongside anyone--if it crippled her, she would lead the way.
She's not doing well these days. She still has an appetite, and finishes most of her food, but she rarely leaves the stall. Every morning I go out to feed, and look for her head to be carried above the stall wall. When I don't see it, I prepare myself, steeling myself for the encroaching inevitable.
The mornings she does feel better, I see her head hanging over the stall, waiting for me, her small mutterings the only voice she has ever given to indicate her desire for anything.
Jessica learned to ride on her, graduated to younger and faster horses, and she and I have grown old together. I have another horse, Velvet, who looks so much like Joker at a younger age, I was practically driven to buy her by everyone that knew me and the horse--I had to have Velvet, she would replace Joker.
And I love Velvet, and her ride is good. And I walk out of the house in the morning and of all the horses, she is the one that will leave the grass and walk to the fence, hanging her head over for a rub or scratch--we have bonded.
But no matter how much I have come to love Velvet, and love to ride her, she will never be the ride I experienced with Joker.
There cannot be, there never will be another Joker.