Tag archive: Stephen Loren Illsley
Have you ever loved a horse so much that your entire life was altered by his very existence?
And have you gone to bed dreaming of him before you ever met him and then spent the rest of your life reminiscing about him after he was gone?
I have . . . and so did my father.
The following is an essay my father wrote in 1946 when he was thirteen years old and home sick with the measles. It tells the story of a boy who desperately wanted a horse of his own to love, ride, and teach tricks to, and the little black stallion that fulfilled his childhood dreams.
About 2 years after he wrote the essay, his 9th grade English teacher, Mrs. Brooks, read it and asked him to re-write it for an essay contest, which he never did do. It’s worthy to note that Mrs. Brooks was quite fond of my father because he and his trusty stallion chased down her runaway horse and saved her one day, quite like another story he relays in the essay.
My dad and mom are full of tales about life with their horses but it’s a special blessing for me to have a copy of my dad’s original handwritten account regaling his love for and adventures with his all-time favorite steed. I didn’t edit the content of the essay; I only added some punctuation marks and a few stray words here and there that he inadvertently left off in his original writing. I’ve even left the paragraph structure intact exactly as he had written. He’s fully aware of my additions and has approved the minor edits. I wanted to leave the story as original as possible so that we are reading exactly what he, as a thirteen year old boy, had written in 1946.
There are footnotes below which give insight to the timeline of events and offer details rounding out some of the circumstances of which he writes. Of special note is number 9 – he’d like the reader to be sure to understand that he knows you don’t beat a horse to train it. Those words came from an inexperienced child and he went on to learn the finer art of communication with his horses. If reading footnotes aren’t your “thing;” I urge you to at least read that one.
And now, I present to you….
A True Story of a Horse
Written by Stephen Loren Illsey, 1946
Edited by Colleen Ann Guest, 2013
This is a story of my colt and I. But I must start at the beginning.
I was a boy at the age of thirteen  and I had always wanted a horse of my own. My mother had had several horses since she was a little girl and she thought that it would be nice for me to have one of my own, but little did either of us dream that it would come true.
My mother went one day to visit her sister who also lived on a farm. They got to talking and she told my mother about a little colt they had on the farm. He had been tied there most of the winter and they carried feed and water to him because they were afraid as he was a stallion, and he had tried to strike them when they tried to lead him.  Then mother went to the barn to see this little fellow who was only six months old at the time. On first sight she fell in love with this pretty little black colt for he was black as coal. Mom wanted to take him outdoors but her sister said that he would strike her; but Mother took her chances and fixed a twitch and put it on his nose and in no time she led him from the barn.
Oh yes, he did try to act up, but Mother was too smart for him, and the first thing he knew was that he was sitting on the ground. Then she called my cousin who was about thirteen, very light for his age, and sat him on the colt’s back. Once more she started leading him but what happened is he laid down. My cousin jumped and rolled away from him; he was scared. Mother said to him, “Where are you going? I’ve still got a hold of him.” But he only answered back, “I’ve heard stories about stallions before and what they’d do if they got you under them.” Mother laughed and said to herself, “They are really afraid of this little fellow.” Then she thought to herself, “Why don’t we buy him for ourselves?”
Someone had named the colt “Highboy” so we kept calling him that although the name didn’t quite occur to me. 
Mom came home and talked to Dad about getting the colt, but Dad didn’t seem very enthusiastic about it. Then Mom, seeing that she wasn’t making any progress with Dad, said, “He is a nice little colt and has the most intelligent looking head and every bit of him is pure black.
It was about a week after that and Mom and I hadn’t been making progress with Dad about the colt, or at least we didn’t think so, when one evening Dad and Mom were reading the paper and my brothers were playing or something, and I was thinking about how good it would seem to have a colt of my own to teach tricks to. I never realized how hard the task would be.
Then before anyone realized it, a truck stopped in front of the house. A man knocked on the door and my father went to see who it was. I could hear them talking in low tones but I did catch a few words. “Surprise” was one, and then I heard “he” and “fine” and a few others that didn’t make sense.
Then Dad called Mother and me out to the truck. And there it was – a small horse about the size of a pony. “There,” said my Dad “is your colt. Now let me see you unload him.”
At first I started to walk right up in beside him, but then I stopped all of a sudden, thinking, “What if he should kick?” Then I looked at him again and said to myself, “Well, if I’m going to handle you, I better start now.” Again, I started to walk up in beside him, but this time I didn’t hesitate. I untied the rope that held him and thought that I could push him out of the truck backwards, but that was useless. So I turned him around and tried pulling him out, but still, he wouldn’t budge. Then Mother said, “Here, let me help you,” and the next thing I knew was that he was standing right on the ground beside me. “How did you do it?” I asked looking very much puzzled. My mother explained, “Oh it’s quite easy when you know how.”  Come to find out, Dad had hired the man to go and get the colt. 
About a month after that, Dad told me that I had better start teaching my colt tricks because pretty soon he would get too big for me to handle, By the end of five months I had taught him quite a few tricks. Each one taking more patience and time, until I thought that he was the dumbest animal that ever lived; but one by one he caught on, and finally I had him so that he responded to each one of my commands. 
Soon after that I thought that it was about time I started in riding him, so one day I went to the barn and fixed my mother’s saddle and bridle to fit him. He didn’t mind my putting either one of these funny looking things on, but when I got them on him, boy, did he ever look awkward! Then I took him outside and before he realized what was going on I jumped aboard and hanged on for my life, expecting any second to go flying and hit the ground, but to my great surprise, nothing happened. Then I patted him and tried to urge him on but that didn’t go so good. So I kicked him in the ribs and yelled but he still wouldn’t move. So I got off and took him to the house to show my mother how he acted but this time, things were different. Instead of me jumping on I just took my time and the moment I was in the saddle I was out again. I picked myself up out of the dust and blinking my eyes, I looked around and there stood Highboy. I think that if he could have laughed like a person he would. “Why you tricky little mule,” I hollered as I went up to him. “You wait until I get a strap, I’ll teach you to buck when I’m not expecting it.”
So I got myself a strap and once more got on. But instead of just standing still or bucking he took me for one of the scariest rides I’ve ever had. All of the way down hill he ran just as fast as he could go, jumping everything in his way until he finally reached the main road, but not stopping for cars or anything. Neither talking nor pulling on the reigns did any good. But finally he did stop and when he did, he did it so quick that I found myself on the ground sputtering and yelling at my colt. I was so confused and puzzled about my new experience that I hadn’t stopped to think about what would have happened if we had collided with a car or if he had fallen. I was still so shaken up and every bone ached that I decided not to beat him and the expression on his face showed that he was sorry. 
A little while after that I got a new bridle and pretty soon I had him responding to each turn of the reigns.
After that my mother and I rode often together because she also had a horse.
One day two of my mother’s friends came up and wanted to ride although neither one of them could ride very good. We had four horses, so we let the girls ride, but we only had two saddles so we let the girls ride in them, so my mother and I rode bareback. Mom warned me that I shouldn’t ride Highboy bareback, but I finally succeeded in telling her that nothing would happen; but I was wrong.
We were riding through the fields, when one of the girls started running her horse. Then we all started.
We were going pretty fast and Highboy was in the lead. I wanted to see if anyone could catch me. I had forgotten that the girls couldn’t ride too good but I guess that luck was with them. All of a sudden highboy turned around without me expecting it. I didn’t have time to catch my balance before he turned again and then I fell.
All that I remembered is that somebody was talking to me. I woke up again to find myself home. The doctor was there. I asked what had happened but before anyone had time to answer I found out. Pains shot through my right arm and into my head. The doctor told me to lie still; that my wrist was broken.
Three or four weeks after that, my arm healed quickly. Highboy was turned loose in the pasture. My brother was walking in the pasture when all of a sudden Highboy started to chase him. My brother turned and ran toward our dump rake in the pasture. First Highboy would run one way and then the other way around the rake. My brother yelled and hollered hoping that someone would hear him.  Just by luck, I happened to be outdoors and I ran to see what the trouble was. I crossed the fence and ran down to the rake. Highboy stopped all of a sudden and looked at me. I knew at once that he meant to chase me also, so I ran right up to him before he had a chance to move and hit him. At once, he cowered and moved back .I hit him and then I had him in my power because sometimes if you show a stallion that you’re not afraid (of) him, he’ll calm down.  After I assured Highboy that I wasn’t still mad at him, everything was alright.
One day when I was riding, my saddle appeared too tight for Highboy, so I got off and loosened it. My mother said that we had better water the horses so we rode over to the creek. Highboy naturally just put down his head to drink. All of a sudden I felt myself slipping. Before I could do anything about it, I landed into the creek. I never heard anyone laugh before like my mother did. I guess that she laughed all of the way home.
Another time my mother was riding a horse that we boarded on our farm. The horse got to running with her towards home and she couldn’t stop him. We had ridden up to the neighbor’s house to buy a dozen of eggs and I was carrying the eggs when the horse that my mother was riding got to running. I didn’t know what to do, so I started after her on Highboy. Luck certainly must have been with us both that day. The road was slippery but yet I urged Highboy on. I knew that if the other horse ever tried to turn into our driveway at the speed he was going, he would fall down. Faster and faster Highboy ran. The wind blew hard against my face and made tears come into my eyes. But before I knew it, I was reaching out and pulling on the other horse’s bridle. I guess Highboy saved the day. Oh yes, I mustn’t forget tell you that not a single egg was broken.
Not many more things happened after that. Highboy was conquered and was at last ready to obey me.
Not hardly a day passed last summer but what my mother and I had ridden.
We are looking forward to a colt from our mare of which Highboy is the sire. 
It’s my great misfortune that I never knew this horse because he died in the spring of the year I was born. The mares on our farm had several foals sired by him, so I knew quite a bit about his temperament through his offspring. My mom had a feisty horse named Penny and the foals they threw were quite mischievous. I remember vividly one incident in which my brother and I had gotten chased down by one of those horses; it seems that chasing was apparently in their blood! She was a mare named Pride and I fondly recall her living on the farm and even which stall she occupied in our barn. At some point she had been sold and we went to visit her a few months after she left us. My dad sent my brother and me up the hill in her new pasture to call her down, and when she saw us, she came barreling down the hill after us. No matter which way we turned she snaked behind right on our tails. We thought for sure she was going to catch us and KILL us! We ran for our lives and bolted through the fence rails just as she was about to catch us. But when she got to the fence, it appeared that she was in fact happy to see my dad, despite how antagonistic she appeared to my brother and me. He had her trained to rub her muzzle on his cheek when he asked her to “give him a kiss,” and she happily obliged when he asked her on this occasion. It was the last time we visited her, and although I really liked that mare, I was glad we didn’t have to go through the chase ever again. Whew…my heart still beats fast in my chest when I think about it and I can almost feel her breath on the back of my neck to this day. I’ve got other, perhaps more harrowing tales with horses, but I was never more scared of a horse in my life as I was that day running for my life down that hill. If you ask him, I think my brother will attest to the same.
For the Love of a Horse
I am so very blessed to have been given a legacy of the love of horses and the ability to communicate with animals. When my dad speaks of his mother saying that it’s easy to handle a horse when you know how, I get it! My grandmother and parents taught me how to communicate non-verbally with all of our animals and that knowledge transcended simply training them. A phrase my dad used while working with me and the horses was, “Horses and kids – it’s all the same. If you can raise a horse you can raise a child.” I took that to heart and I’d like to think that it was valuable information which aided my parenting skills. But before I was a mom, my horse Sugar was my child, my best friend, and my soul mate. When everything else in my world went wrong, my horse would always be there to make it better.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that my mother is an accomplished horsewoman herself and she spent countless hours helping me train the new foals on the farm and breaking the horses. She too has her own stories of how horses were the saving grace in her life. Long before I did the same, my mom, being troubled and not able to sleep, would go to the barn in the middle of the night and grab her horse for moonlight ride. I find it humorous and fitting that I sought solace in the same exact way.
Growing up on the farm with a barn full of noble creatures at my beck and call was an enviable position and I can’t imagine how different my life would have been without horses. It’s a shame that we’ve come so far in our civilization that these beautiful companions have been relegated to either occupying a place in history or their company is only enjoyed by a select few. They could teach us all so much about life, love, and loyalty, and their mere presence is therapy enough to give us the courage to face life and tackle our mental, spiritual, and physical foes.
The wind of heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears. ~Arabian Proverb
 My dad was born in January of 1933 and he and his family moved to the farm (the same farm I grew up on) in 1944. He was 11 when he got Highboy in 1944 shortly after moving to the farm, despite his telling that he was 13 in the story. He is about 6 months younger than his cousin who he also tells is 13. But after confirming the details in a phone conversation on 02/09/13, my dad and mom agreed that Steve must have been 11 at the time of acquiring Highboy and not 13 as he wrote, which means that his cousin was probably 12 and not 13 either. Steve must have written the story at age 13 which would make sense given that the horse had matured at least two years during the course of events he described. This time frame works out as my mom is certain Highboy was put down in the spring of 1966 which would make Highboy 22 years old at the time of his death. And that rings true to both of my parent’s recollection.
 Another of my dad’s cousins lived in Pennsylvania and raised Standardbred horses. One of his mares had been bred by a Morgan stallion and Highboy was the resulting foal. And there was a reason his aunt and her family were a bit scared of Highboy even though he was just a young colt. He had reared up and struck his aunt’s husband in the head and they had wanted to get rid of the horse after that incident.
 The truth of the matter is that the horse was named Highball, after the alcoholic mixed drink. My dad strongly disliked that name and had a devil of a time convincing his father that he had to change it. They finally came to an agreement and the name Highboy was settled upon.
 My grandmother had a gift of communicating with animals. She could seemingly talk to any animal she came across and I recall many instances where she would have wild creatures eating out of her hands. She took the time to observe their body language and respond to them in ways they understood, and she was patient beyond measure. Several of us have inherited her gift and have benefitted from her mentoring, but she was truly was The Queen of the Animal Kingdom.
 My grandfather traded a tag-a-long trailer for the colt is how my dad’s family came to acquire him.
 I asked my dad to tell me about some of the tricks he had taught Highboy as that was such an integral part of the early pages of the story. He said that he taught him to shake hands, kneel, lie down, sit up, and stand back up. While the horse was lying prone on the ground, my dad would back up several paces, run at him, place his hands on Highboy’s body, and doing a handspring flip over him and land on his feet on the other side. This was a favorite trick among the neighborhood kids in town. He also taught him to answer yes or no questions. To teach him that particular trick my dad had to prick Highboy in the chest with a pin. Highboy would bend his nose to his chest to rub it as if he had been bitten by a horsefly. After some time of repeating this he got so that my dad would only have to make a motion towards his chest and he would nod his head in a “yes” fashion. Similarly, my dad would take the pin and prick him between his ears and Highboy would shake his head as if to shake off a biting fly. Again, after he was trained my dad just had to make a slight motion towards his head to get him to shake his head “No.” My dad’s very close friend helped him and together they taught both their horses to do all kinds of tricks. I believe one of them was putting them both on a teeter totter together, but they stopped doing that one for fear of hurting the horses as Highboy had slipped off the board a couple of times. They took their horses to perform at schools and other local events and the kids would love to ask Highboy questions and get his yes or no answers. If the children got a yes or no response they weren’t expecting, my dad would quickly reply that Highboy didn’t understand the question and they needed to ask it again. And this time he would come up with the right response much to everyone’s delight.
 My dad also told me more of the story surrounding his first “ride” on Highboy. His father slapped highboy on the rear which launched him on the runaway ride. They ran down the hill, across the road and continued down to the creek on the other side. The creek wasn’t as deep as it is today but it was still quite deep. The reason they came to a stop is that Highboy couldn’t jump out of the creek and slammed his chest into the side of the creek bed. This sent my dad over his head and landed him on the ground.
 I’ve been raised around a lot of horses with my dad and mom, but my dad maintains that Highboy was by far the smartest horse he ever knew. My dad could take Highboy to the horse shows and never had to worry about him being a stallion around mares. Even when a mare was in heat all he had to do was whistle and Highboy would always come right to him. Apparently though, he was also the craftiest horse he’d ever known. Highboy would chase someone down in a heartbeat and he just knew a non-horse person when he came across one. My uncle, who was chased in the story, was apparently a constant target of Highboy’s and he was chased quite often. My mom recalls a few incidences when Highboy was being devilish. One time they were fixing fence and my dad set a hammer on top of a fence post and Highboy took the hammer right off the post and ran off with it. Another time my dad set down his shirt and either the dog, Samson, or Highboy picked it up. One thing led to another and shortly the two were playing tug of war, each with the shirt in their teeth, which culminated in Highboy lifting the dog off the ground while spinning around in circles.
 It is very important to note that this story is written from an inexperienced boy’s perspective and that he didn’t ever really “beat” his horse in a manner in which would be considered harmful or abusive. My father has long since gained knowledge and understanding of how to communicate with and train horses that don’t require hitting, beating, or other methods of intimidation. He would be mortified if the only impression left after reading his essay is that he understood little more of horse training than physical violence and brute force. Horses are highly intelligent creatures with feelings and are quite capable of understanding what we ask of them if we ask in a manner they can comprehend.
 The mare was a large, gentle work horse; perhaps a Percheron, named Mary. She had actually been pregnant with twins and gave birth to a filly and the remains of the twin were found in the afterbirth. Highboy had also been kept for stud purposes and besides the horses on the farm I remember, there were plenty of his offspring spread around the community. Through them, I know he lives on today.
Once upon a time, when my brother and I were very small, we used to get terribly excited over the prospect of the first snowfall of the season. When it became that time of year and the first flakes started to drift to the ground, my mother would announce in a very excited voice, “Come look, it’s snowing!” and my bro and I would run down the hall and press our faces against the glass on the storm door and gaze with wonder at the magical flakes cascading down from the sky. Inevitably it was after dark when this would happen which only added to the mystery and enchantment. It seemed so magical then. There was a palpable sense of something ethereal unfolding and a profound happiness bore down to the very core of my soul as I witnessed those sparkly gems float to the earth.
Later, as a teenager I loved to take my horse out for a ride on moonlit winter nights, traversing hundreds of acres of wide open fields and woodlands uninterrupted by roads and other evidence of human existence. My folks live on top of a picturesque hill overlooking an incredible valley, so I would end my ride at the peak, getting off my horse, turning her loose to paw at the snow and graze on anything she could find, while I lay on my back in the snow. I would stare up at the winter stars and moon (btw, there’s no full moon bigger or brighter than a February moon shining over my farm in NY), my view unobstructed by obnoxious light pollution from the city, and if I was lucky, those magical crystalline flakes would silently fall from the heavens, gently swirling around my upturned face. It was so peaceful and serene. I loved those moments! They soothed my soul and quieted any teenage angst lingering in my heart. God Himself spoke to my soul in those sublime hours I lay sprawled out on my back on the top of that snow-covered mountain with my horse pawing and snorting plumes of steam a few feet away.
Then I grew up. I moved off the farm, and made my life in town. And something dark and insidious took the place of the peace and tranquility that used to fill my heart when it would snow. Slowly, I became hardened to the beauty and magic of it all and became depressed and bitter over the gray skies, dreary days, FREEZING temps, and endless mountains of dirty, sludgy piles of frozen misery filling every available space. I had to drive in the stuff, shovel the stuff, and look at the stuff for months on end and it seemed like it would never go away. I learned to curse the stuff. Approaching the Fall of 1997 I had had enough. I couldn’t take another winter of misery so I packed up my family and moved us to the hope of happy times the sultry South offered with her seductive promises of sunshine and blue skies. I told my family that if they wanted to see me for Christmas, they would have to make the trek to me because I would never go back home in the winter as long as I live. And for 15 years I’ve held firm in that conviction and have only traveled back home in the Spring, Summer, and Fall.
Until this year . . .
January 26th 2013 marked my dad’s 80th birthday and a huge celebration was planned. One of my aunts was gracious enough (and insistent enough) to help me travel back home via airplane (I still resolutely refuse to drive through the Poconos in the winter!). I was a little apprehensive knowing that I’d be back home during the dreariest part of the year and the forecasted temps for my visit was to be at or below zero at night and only in the single digits or low teens for the day. ~Heavy sigh~ This was the very thing I moved away from. But it was my Dad’s birthday and I wanted to surprise him (and everyone) with my visit and this was an occasion that I really shouldn’t miss. Sooooo I braved the possibilities of flight delays and cancellations, packed my warmest clothes, said many prayers and off I went.
Well, for the record, simply spending time with my family made it all worth breaking my stubborn vow. I thoroughly enjoyed the fellowship and bonding, but another unexpected joy beyond my anything I could have imagined took me by complete surprise. It began to snow one night. And not just any snow; MAGIC snow!!
That’s right – just like when my bro and I were 5 years old with our faces pressed against the glass – it was that magical snow that makes everything right. It was so cold that the snow looked like crystals in the hovering in the air and it spread out on the ground like a sprinkling of diamonds. The snow, glistening and shimmering, danced to life before my eyes under the glow of the full moon. (You really have to stand in the middle of it to appreciate the magic). Oh, and it crunched under my feet!! I had forgotten how it did that. I couldn’t believe it, but I missed that! It awakened a part of me that I had forgotten existed. The next day the sun shone on the fresh fallen snow so that it blinded me with a myriad of colors reflected from the prisms of the snow crystals. Although the temps were well below freezing, I didn’t feel cold. I was enraptured and felt more peace in my heart than I’ve felt in many, many years. I was 15 again laying on the top of the hill with my horse a few feet away. . .
A trip home in the winter wouldn’t be complete without coming down sick with a sinus infection (they call our area Sinus Valley for a reason) and I caught a doozie! Because my congestion was exacerbated by the hot, dry air from the wood furnace, I couldn’t sleep very well, so I would get up in the middle of the night and just stay up until morning. My Dad (even though he wasn’t sick) would get up and join me in the living room and we whiled away the hours talking and laughing, and in general, solving the problems of the world. In the minutes just before daybreak he and I would stand in the middle of the house and through the floor-to-ceiling windows watch the moon setting on one side and turn around to watch the sun rising on the other. For a brief, spellbinding moment each morning, we saw the light simultaneously reflecting from both heavenly bodies on the fresh-fallen snow and it was BEYOND beautiful; it was MAGICAL. And it was beyond special to share those precious moments with my Dad! Thank you God for snow – magical, beautiful, healing, snow! A part of me I didn’t even know was missing was restored by this unlikeliest of substances.
Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
~Robert Frost, New Hampshire 1923