Red, Green, and Gold: A Christmas (Horse) Story
Red, green, gold.

Red was his color, a bright coppery sorrel.

Green was his level of education, just a 21-month-old baby with so much left to learn.

Gold was the sun-scorched, strawlike, grassy winter fields of northeast Texas that made our backdrop, Ladd and me, that Christmas of 1985.

I was 14, a scrawny misfit teenager with a head of coppery sorrel hair myself. It wasn’t “cool” in the ’80s to have red hair, and it wasn’t really “cool” to like horses, either. Especially not in my rural high school where the popular girls, decked in dark indigo Wranglers and ostrich-skin boots, showed lambs, not horses.

I lived on the outskirts of a midsized city, but due to some obscure school district zoning rules, I got bussed nearly 20 miles to a tiny school with fewer than 200 students spread over 100 square miles of farmlands and trailer parks. That might sound like perfect Texas horse country—but it wasn’t. I was the lone horse-hugger of my freshman class. I came to school smelling like my 14-year-old Appaloosa, Rusty, whom I’d bought a few years earlier with my babysitting money. My horsiness and bright red hair—along with a bizarre passion for science and writing—made me an outcast in the little town of Sadler, Texas.

But at 3:30 every afternoon, that didn’t matter. I was out the door and on my way home to ride Rusty, who lived in my 1-acre backyard with a Shetland mare, Dolly. I’d never had a coach—I just learned from the horse magazines I read cover-to-cover every month, at least twice.

That freshman year, though, things changed. My high school offered an ag class geared toward future farmers. Against the advice of guidance counselors (who wanted to push me toward an academic career), I signed up for the class. I learned about every breed of cattle, pig, sheep, and goat. I learned how to castrate cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats. I learned about farm animal management, nutrition, breeding, showing, judging, selling, and even butchering. It was fascinating. But when the teacher announced that we’d have to do a year-long animal project, I chose horses.

Mr. Boston was a good man. A tough and round good ol’ boy from the heart of Texas, he knew everything there was to know about farm animals. But horses weren’t his thing. Still, when I came to him with my horse project proposal, he kept an open mind. Perhaps he had compassion for this awkward redheaded misfit in his classroom, who knows. He said to me, “You’ve got to do like everyone else in the class. You gotta raise your animal, and you gotta show it in the spring. Now I don’t know hardly nothing about horses, so you’re going to have to convince me that you do.”

It was a challenge I was more than willing to accept.

I was already showing Rusty in local competitions, and I’d ridden Dolly in barrel and pole racing before that. But I’d never “raised” a horse. And as a first-generation horse person, I couldn’t look to my parents for training advice—as much as they wanted to help.

In my little local show circuit, though, there was an older rider who seemed nothing short of magical. In a world where many riders yelled and fussed at their horses, she was calm and soft-spoken. She communicated with her horses in some mysterious, horse-whisper-like way. In retrospect, it’s clear she had a true mastery of learning theory, although that term hadn’t yet entered the horse world. A multiple national champion with her “wonder horse” Dave, a black gentle giant Quarter Horse with one blue eye, Gerry Snipes still took pleasure in showing up at our local events, with a quiet humility in stark contrast to the collection of medals and trophies she’d accumulated over the years.

Gerry had a simple training facility off highway 75 between Sherman and Denison—on land that’s now the site of major shopping centers. Back then, the katydids chirped, the horses snorted and swished their tails, and the leather saddles squeaked against the faint background of passing cars on the highway as the sun baked down on her 10-acre property. She had seven or eight horses at a time there and only three stalls in a sad little wooden barn that seemed out of context for such a high-level coach. But Gerry didn’t care about image or fashion; for her, horses needed to be out in the pasture. Most of the time, those stalls were empty, and her students had to march out to the field to bring in the horses.

Gerry took me on that year as a new student—a challenge for her, given my background of self-learning. I was really good at some things, really awful at others. She made sure I’d grasped the basics of good riding and especially negative reinforcement. (How many times did I hear: “It’s the release of pressure that trains, Christa, not the pressure”?) Once she felt that was understood, she moved me on to the next step: my ag project.

“I’ve got this colt here, this little sorrel,” she said one warm September evening. “I’m going to have you train him for me for your class project.”

Thus marked the beginning of my equitation science writing—though I didn’t know it at the time. Part of the project requirement was keeping a journal. Mr. Boston undoubtedly had no idea of the assignment he’d just given this young writer. Every day I wrote pages and pages about what I’d done with Gerry’s colt, how I’d trained him, what he’d learned, what I’d learned.

I was becoming a better rider and, even more importantly, I was becoming a better communicator with horses. Through this experience, naturally, I became increasingly attached to this curious and eager little red colt. Sometimes, I’d get to the training center early, and Ladd would be waiting for me; he’d whinny, and I’d climb over the fence into his pasture. We’d run and play around the trees—a kind of interspecies game of hide-and-seek. In hand and under saddle he progressed well, never bucking, never resisting, just going along with all I was telling him to do through Gerry’s good training advice.

By December, Ladd was my life. Rusty got my attention in the morning, but after school I spent every hour until after sunset with this sweet guy. My horses were my only friends at the time—and I think Gerry knew it and understood it herself. Gerry’s husband was a highly esteemed doctor in Sherman, but she didn’t fit the mold of the small-town-doctor’s-wife-socialite. She preferred to be in her blue jeans out in the Texas dust with her horses. In the horse world she was unique, as well. She didn’t train like other people did; she didn’t follow the “rules” of “breaking in” her horses and “dominating” them. And her results in the show ring certainly set her apart.

Ladd was Gerry’s horse, and I didn’t question it. I didn’t have the babysitting money saved up to buy such a nice horse; I never dreamed I could have a well-bred fancy Quarter Horse like that for myself. Instead, I just took advantage of each moment with him and everything I learned, hoping to apply it to Rusty even in his golden years.

When school let out for the Christmas holidays, it was a relief for me to no longer have to spend day after day being bullied for my quirky passions and my red hair. I spent every minute either writing or riding or playing one of many ground games with Ladd.

My mother had to urge me to get out of the fields and go Christmas shopping with her; reluctantly, I relented. The Dallas Galleria displayed its spectacular festive holiday decorations with sparkle and glamour. The shops played classical Christmas music and smelled like cinnamon and candles. Ice skaters spun and slid and fell and laughed around the four-story Christmas tree. There were glittery packages and velvet-robed Santa Clauses and jingling bells and energetic shoppers in the full glory of a big-city holiday season.

But all I wanted was the red, green, and gold waiting for me back in the pasture.

We got home from the Galleria early, before sunset. My dad had stayed behind to do repairs on the barn. Happy to be out of the car and out of the city, I ran down the golden grassy hill, past the fence and the wood, across the creek, and to my little wooden barn, just big enough for Rusty and Dolly.

The stall door was closed, and a pretty head was sticking out of it. I thought, “What is Rusty doing in the barn? He should be out.”

But then it occurred to me … that wasn’t a speckled appaloosa face I just saw. That was a red face.

I turned and looked again. And there, looking over his stall gate at me, was the most beautiful redhead I’d ever seen, his bright eyes recognizing me, his ears perked forward in eagerness.

Ladd.

There he was, that sweet baby, in my barn. Confused and in disbelief, I turned and looked at my parents, and their faces were covered in their smiles. Big smiles. Not the kind of “happy for you” smile, but the, “Yes, this is a truly great moment, and yes, this is for real” kind of smile.

“Gerry delivered him this morning,” my dad said. “We’ve been planning this for weeks. It sure was hard to get you away from him long enough to get him here!”

There are, I think, moments in life when joy is so unexpected and powerful that the word “happy” just seems absurdly out of proportion. Happy isn’t what I felt looking at Ladd that day in my barn. Happy didn’t fit. I was elated, overjoyed, ecstatic, stunned, and, curiously, overwhelmingly relieved. Although I’d never even dreamed of having that horse as my own, somehow the fact of having him there and realizing he was mine brought me a sense of indescribable peace. I needed this guy, and his timing was just right.

In front of me, staring back at me, and seemingly as confused in a joyful way as I was, stood my Christmas present. Clean, beautifully groomed, and shimmering, he was even “wrapped.”

Gerry’s special touch was the pine cone she’d attached to his forelock with satiny Christmas ribbons.

They were ribbons of three simple colors: red, green, and gold.