"Put him into a trot, Louie!" I call enthusiastically from the center of the ring. My husband Ron and I exchange smiles and chuckle inwardly as the big, chestnut quarter horse begins a nice jog. Smiling broadly, Louie continues to sit on the horse like the proverbial sack of potatoes.
Most students in our therapeutic riding program for children with emotional problems come with dreams of galloping into the hills on one of our white Arabians. Louie shows up with presents and treats for his buddy, McKee, with no grand illusions of anything. He just likes to spend time with his horse. My best efforts at teaching Louie the finer aspects of equitation have been in vain; yet Louie and McKee have reached an understanding so that the horse amicably complies with even the most inept of commands. McKee is one of the best things ever to come into Louie's life.
I'll never forget the day that Richard McKee walked into the barn. He was a short, bald man with twinkling eyes and a burning desire to learn how to ride a horse. Another instructor had told him that he was too plump and too old at 72 to learn how to ride. I told him that we'd start the next day. Mr. McKee turned out to be one of the hardest working and most determined students that I have ever known.
After several months of lessons, Mr. McKee and I picked out a beautiful young quarter horse gelding that was both kind and stout enough to fulfill the man's lifelong dream of owning a horse. Our therapeutic riding program had its annual Ride-a-Thon at the Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia, and Mr. McKee couldn't wait to try his new horse, Sundance, on the trails. It turned out to be a very memorable weekend.
The next Monday, Mr. McKee showed up bright and early for what was to be his last lesson. He was eager to show me how well he had trained Sundance to halt "squarely." We talked after the lesson about the weekend at the Homestead and Mr. McKee confided in me that it had been the best weekend of his entire life. He talked at length about how much this horse had come to mean to him in his "golden years" and that he wanted me to use Sundance in my therapeutic program because he knew that his horse had something special to add to it. We were alone in the barn that morning and the conversation was unhurried and relaxed. I realized that this man was more than just one of my customers; he was a true friend and a very unique and special man in his own right.
Without warning, as he walked to his car with his saddle over his arm, Mr. McKee suffered a massive heart attack. I tried desperately to revive him, but my friend was beyond the reach of CPR. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Mr. McKee had no living relatives and through a strange turn of events, I found myself the "next of kin" to a man that I had met just six months before. On the one year anniversary of the Ride-a-Thon, Ron and I rode Sundance and my Arab mare past the Homestead to a lovely field in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We watched as the wind carried the ashes of this gentle soul to become one with the hills where he and his beloved horse had galloped with the joy and abandon that comes with riding a good horse through new and beautiful country.
Sundance's name was changed to McKee's Memory, and he became a full-time participant in our therapeutic riding program. Even today it is difficult to explain just how special this horse is to me, but I can tell you that of all the responsibilities I have in this life, I take tremendous pride and pleasure in being the keeper of McKee's Memory.