By Steve Burt
Lordy, my sister Whinny loved horses. Momma said they’d be the death of her.
When she was little, Whinny’s bedroom was all porcelain horses, paint-by-number mustangs, and magazines about thoroughbreds and cow ponies. She had maps for a trip to Assateague and Chincoteague, where she’d to meet Misty and the wild ponies from the newsreel. She loved the movies Gallant Bess, National Velvet, and a Disney flick called Tonka, which led her to Native American spirituality.
Her name was Winifred, but at nine she started signing her name Whinny with an H. She devoted her life to learning about them and living with them.
Whinny never took horseback lessons. She felt climbing on a horse’s back was cruel and demeaning to the horse. She wouldn’t even get on a merry-go-round or let a carnival attendant lead her around a roped ring on a pony ride. She’d pet their manes and flanks, though, and would coo over them for hours like a mother coos and sings to her baby. I once saw her run into a parade and scoop up a fresh horse turd that was dropped by the Grand Marshal’s steed. She took it home and let it stink up her room for three days before Mom made her put it outside.
When Whinny turned twelve, she blew out the candles on her horse-shaped cake and announced she was going to live on a farm in Vermont when she grew up. Just her and horses. Maybe some chickens. We weren’t surprised. My single-minded sister organized her life around that dream.
She attended Sterling College, a tiny alternative school in Craftsbury, Vermont. In one class students learned to plow a field using oxen; in another the learned sheep shearing. Her roommate’s class show-and-tell was skinning and cooking a rabbit.
When she and five other seniors graduated, they were introduced by the professor who taught them horseshoeing, Whinny gave a speech on the spirituality of horses, closing with a moving poem about a man’s bond with his plow horses, Blackie and Bill. Mom, Dad, and I were moved to tears at Whinny’s horse theology.
After graduation, Whinny lived on a Vermont hill farm outside Derby Line, near the Canadian border. It belonged to the Parkers, a couple who lived in Florida and summered there. Whinny was the caretaker, keeping the house, barn, and outbuildings heated and repaired. She improved her chainsaw skills and worked with the Parkers’ draft horses sledding logs in from the woods to where she cut and split them for firewood. She had six goats, milking two, and wrote a column, The Solitary Life, for the local newspaper. She published a piece on maple sugaring in Vermont Life magazine, the photo of her and her horses gracing the cover. Dad had it framed. Whinny and her horses.
The first year after her graduation, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I visited Whinny on the farm. She’d been there six months by then. She took me snowshoeing, my first venture. It was exhausting. But Whinny fluffed along on the soft snow as if she’d been born and raised in the Klondike. I finally caught up to her near a stone wall, one of four enclosing an old cemetery.
“This is where I want to be buried,” she said, pulling the knitted cap from her head and shaking out her hair. Seeing my surprise, she amended, “Someday.” She pointed out a half dozen graves dating back to the 1800s.
“Just think,” she said. “These people never saw an automobile. They were horse people.” Her eyes were stone serious, her look reverent. Then she pointed to something above my head.
I looked up. Nailed to a board above what had been the entrance gate was a horseshoe.
“The tips face up,” Whinny said, making the same U-shape with her thumb and fingers. “To hold the good luck.”
“Is it still a real cemetery?” I asked.
“Sure, it’s a real cemetery. See the graves? It’s part of the Parkers’ farm. They said they’d like to be buried here, too. Just think, no one’s lain down here in a hundred years.”
There was something poetic—no, breathtaking—about the way Whinny said it. Not “no one’s been laid downhere,” but “no one’s lain down here in a hundred years.” What a feel my sister had for the language of drama and beauty. I sensed it came from being so focused, so single-minded, from loving horses.
Before we left, Whinny recited Robert Frost’s Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening so beautifully that I went home and memorized it myself.
Six years later Whinny died in a stable fire at a fair. It was late, and the fairgrounds had just emptied out. Suddenly there were flames. Whinny and another woman ran in and threw open the gates to free the horses. But the animals were terrified and bolted, knocking Whinny down in their panic. A hoof must have struck her in the head. The other woman got out. Eight horses died in the fire.
When Mom, Dad, and I got the news, we were devastated. At first, I blamed the horses, because they had made Whinny care enough to jeopardize her own safety. Then I blamed her, again for caring too much and causing her own death. But that stopped when Whinny came to me in a dream and said, “No, Steve, it wasn’t the horses’ fault.”
We held a service at the Parkers’ farm cemetery, burying Whinny close to the lucky horseshoe. I tried to recite the Frost poem aloud—whose woods these are, I think I know—but grief stole my voice. Moments later I heard Mrs. Parker’s soft voice pick it up, ending with: and miles to go before I sleep, miles to go before I sleep.
Whinny’s words came back to me—No one’s lain down here in a hundred years—and I thought, she’d have liked this: lying down with the horse people.
Lordy, didn’t my sister Whinny love horses.
Pastor Steve Burt is a retired rural New England Congregational minister who splits his year between Maine and Florida. He has written for Chicken Soup for the Soul, Reader’s Digest, Family Circle, and Down East.
His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org