During one of my many horsey-research stints, I came across mention of the ghost horse or spirit horse of Native American legend. There seemed to be as many variations of the story as there are tribes of Plains Indians, but the one I especially liked is the one about a wild mustang called Wind Drinker.
Renowned for his fast pace, this white stallion was recognised as the winged steed of the prairies, and was considered to be a most exceptional horse. He was known for his intelligence, grace, beauty, endurance and unmatched speed. Native Indian tradition revered him as a potent medicine symbol.
Highly sought after, he was eventually captured after having been chased for about 200 miles by a group of professional wranglers. The legend states that the spirit horse refused to eat or drink for ten nights, and eventually died in captivity. But the ghost horse was still seen at numerous locations after his death. The Native Americans claimed that people continued to see the ghost horse up until the mid-1900s. But when the population of wild mustangs began to decrease in the western plains, the spirit horse vanished with them.
Well, that got me thinking and I came up with this …
The Ghost Horse
“Grandma, have you ever seen a ghost horse?”
That simple question was enough to startle me into a staring silence.
I blinked and focussed on my granddaughter lying on her belly on the rug in front of me. “What’s that, my darling?” I’d heard her well enough the first time, but I needed time to gather myself.
Her gaze flicked back to the book she was reading. “A ghost horse; have you ever seen one?”
Removing my glasses, I rubbed at my watery eyes. So annoying the way they tended to water whenever I focussed hard on something. “Ghost horse … that’s something I haven’t heard of in a long time.”
“But you know what it is?”
I nodded. “Back when I was growing up, we had an Indian maid … Mary–”
“Mary? That’s not a very Indian name.”
“She did have an Indian name … she told me once. Oh, I can’t remember. But everyone called her Mary, and that’s what I remember. She used to tell me all kinds of stories, especially horse ones.”
“Ghost horse ones?”
I nodded. “I remember, I’d always pester her to tell me where I could find one. I must have been about … oh, about your sister’s age.”
She raised her brows. “Fifteen?”
I had to smile at her surprise. “Yes, I was fifteen once. I wasn’t always your old, feeble grandma.”
“Oh, Grandma, you’re not feeble.”
I was very aware that she hadn’t included the word ‘old’, but then she was only eleven.
“What did she say?”
I smiled. “That it was only a story …”
She sighed and turned her attention back to her book.
I turned to gaze out the window, at the fair-sized garden, its borders defined by fences on three sides. So different to the view my 15-year-old self had had. Our garden … if it could be called a garden, merged with the surrounding countryside, back in the day before fences sprang up to divide the land. Back in the day when I took for granted the freedom I had to roam. Back to the day when I saw the ghost horse …
On the horizon it appeared, as if instantly transplanted from elsewhere. I’d lost count of the hours, the days that I sat crouched behind the boulder, waiting for a glimpse of what Mary called the ghost horse. She kept saying it was only a story, yet there was something in her secret smile that told me otherwise … that made me believe it was real. And now, here it was, in front of me, racing towards me, like the wind … no, more than the mere wind. It was a primeval force, racing along, slowing down, dancing to the side, shaking its head, tossing its mane … So much movement, all power and grace. My breath caught, and I realised I was crying.
I wondered if it would run past me, or through me, for isn’t that what a ghost would do? As it got closer, I could see that it was white, but not a plain, boring white. It seemed to glow from within, its muscles rippling, like cream undulating in the milk churn. I swear I’d never seen a more beautiful animal. I had to force myself to pull back, I didn’t want it to see me, but I couldn’t resist peering around the boulder.
It slowed down and stood still … alert, ears pricked forward, nostrils flaring. The only movement was its large pool-like eyes, as its gaze scanned the area in front of it … where I hoped I remained hidden. But my heart was thumping so loudly, I knew the ghost horse would hear it.
Curled tight against the boulder, my head down, I stayed where I was, wondering … dreading what ghost horses did to uninvited spies. I heard its hoof-fall, slow and deliberate, and gave in to my troublesome curiosity. I raised my head a little … I just wanted to see what it was doing … And froze.
I was caught. Only yards separated us, and it was looking right at me. It stamped its foreleg and snorted loudly. If I let myself, I could have passed out right there. But strangely, stubbornly, I’m not sure why, I didn’t want to appear weak in front of so much grandness. Taking a deep breath, I forced myself to stand. The ghost horse half-reared, shook its head so that its mane seemed to float around it. I could feel a scream bubbling up from the depths of my belly; I held my breath, pressed my lips together. If my legs hadn’t felt so shaky, I’d have turned and run.
The ghost horse took a step to the left, then to the right. It kept its gaze on me. It took another step, again to the left then to the right. I had to do something other than just stand there like a fool, so I stepped jerkily from behind the boulder. This time when the horse stepped to the left, I followed; when it stepped to the right, so did I.
It stopped and regarded me with those oh-so-intelligent eyes. It turned and trotted away, stopped and turned. I did the same. It stepped towards me and danced a circle; so did I. Whatever dance it did, I did my best to follow. Before I knew it, we were dancing, the ghost horse and I. And we danced closer and closer.
Until it stopped, right in front of me, lifted its head and blew hot breath over me, parting my hair. I stared at its chest, and slowly raised my hand … I so wanted to touch it. It took a quick step back, and galloped past me, disappearing over the rise, neighing loudly. Funny, but it sounded almost like a laugh.
I stayed where I was for, I don’t know how long, wondering if I’d dreamt the whole thing. But I could still smell the horsey breath … see the hoofprints mingled with my bootprints …
I never saw the ghost horse again, and I never told anyone, not even Mary. But I didn’t have to; I knew she'd worked it out when I smiled in that same, secret way she did.