He stood surly in the barn as my 11-year-old, pony-tailed daughter meticulously groomed him. Most horses enjoy the attention. JJ acted tortured. When, with hoof pick ready, Emma stroked JJ's left foreleg, the chestnut paint pony with a wide blaze leaned his 1,000 pounds toward her 80. I shoved his shoulder, forcing him to shift so Emma could lift his hoof and pick it clean.
My mother, as she lay dying, brought Emma and JJ together.
Emma had struggled during fifth grade. "Unfocused," her teacher for gifted kids said. "Doesn't use time wisely." At home, she spent free time playing "Howrse" or perusing Horsetopia online. She could recite the physical and temperamental strengths of a Warmblood versus a Thoroughbred, but couldn't grasp the mathematical concepts behind associative and distributive properties.
"Get her off the computer and on a horse," my mother said.
"The last thing Emma needs is another distraction from school!" my husband said.
"Trust me," my mother said, pressing a $500 check into my hand.
The check paid for the first month of the lease.
JJ was passive-aggressive. He didn't hurt Emma. He just worked against her, even if his actions also worked against him.
He was a rescue horse. What happened behind the closed barn doors of JJ's previous owners, we could only guess. When offered a carrot, JJ pinned his ears and bared his teeth, warning off any dog or pony that stood too close. When Emma attempted to pet his nose, he thrust his head high, out of her reach, the whites of his eyes blazing. Our trainer discovered the marks around his ears. "Most likely from a broom handle," she said. Similar lines hash-marked his rump.
More than 100 pounds underweight, JJ was on his way back to health when we began our lease. Only his heart seemed permanently broken.
JJ's mood in the ring was no better. When Emma spurred him to trot, he bucked. When she slid back her outside leg to canter, he spun circles. Two weeks into the two-month lease, I vowed we wouldn't renew.
In the meantime, we still went to the barn, but my mind was elsewhere. I joylessly graded college English papers as Emma worked JJ in the ring, or he worked her. I graded as she hosed him off. I graded as she led him to his stall and cleaned her tack.
One evening, I looked up to an empty barn aisle. All was quiet except for the occasional murmurs from horses impatient for dinner. The air smelled of alfalfa and fresh shavings. I called to Emma. No answer. I walked to the ring. Deserted save for a squirrel scurrying across the 2-foot horse jump. I looked in the wash rack. Empty except for the hose that looped across the wet concrete floor. I surveyed the pasture. No JJ, just hidden cicadas oscillating their song. I checked the tack room. No Emma, just the smell of oiled leather. Finally, I headed for JJ's stall. As I approached, a breeze carried my daughter's cadence to me. She was talking . . . no, reading.
" 'If you become a little boy and run into a house,' said the mother bunny, 'I will become your mother and catch you in my arms and hug you.' "
I backed away, hurried to my white Malibu and waited. Five minutes later, Emma slid in next to me, smelling of horsehide, sweat and glycerin soap.
"What were you doing?" I said.
"Reading to JJ."
"Yeah, he likes it." She turned her chocolate eyes to me and nodded.
"Yeah, I think his favorite is Click, Clack, Moo." The book unfolds a rebellion staged by typewriter-proficient cows. "Today I read him The Runaway Bunny."
"Did he like it?"
"Yeah. He liked how the mommy loves and takes care of the bunny no matter what."
"How do you know?"
She shrugged. "Just do."
After some thought, she added, "Sometimes, I pause in the middle of the story. If he ignores me, I know he doesn't like it. But sometimes he nuzzles me, so I know he wants to hear more."
As JJ's behavior changed, so did Emma's. We demanded she keep her bedroom clean, do her chores and earn B's or better in school to continue riding. The pile of dirty clothes and school papers on her bedroom floor slowly diminished until it disappeared. The bathroom towels journeyed from the floor to the rack. The cat's plaintive meows over forgotten dinners faded into well-fed purrs. Then, seven weeks into middle school, Emma brought home her report card: Straight A's.
"It's a miracle," my husband said.
"Trust me," my mother had said the day before she died.
One fall afternoon, I was grading papers at the barn when a smacking noise caught my attention. Emma was covering JJ's nose with kisses. And he was letting her. I studied JJ for the first time in weeks. The surliness had left his eyes. His stance in the cross ties was relaxed. At the slightest brush of Emma's fingers, he lifted his hoof for her to pick.
"What are miracles," my mother once said, "but a manifestation of love." For the first time in months, her laughter nudged me.
My mother's last gift came after her death. A generous inheritance. I used part to purchase JJ.
Charrie Hazard teaches writing at the University of Tampa and is author of the novel "Falling into the Sun." She lives in Safety Harbor.