I remember the first time I met Chief.
An awkward seventh grader, I bundled up and took a three-hour road trip with my mom to check out a young barrel prospect. The barn and house were combined into one metal building (I remember thinking how cool it would be to share breakfast with my horse every day), and I walked out of their kitchen to find a tall, lanky 3-year-old standing patiently on the arena wall. He had quiet eyes, even then.
Within an hour or so of meeting, Chief and I were turned loose in a harvested field across the street—interstate traffic whizzing by just a mile away—while my mom and the seller talked prices. In hindsight, a 12-year-old girl on an unfamiliar 3-year-old in a loose field next to the interstate is the perfect recipe for complete and utter disaster, but Chief was unflappable—his long, rocking strides carrying me across the ground and thumping out a rhythm that became the soundtrack of my teenage years.
I remember coming home one day, heartbroken—so-called friends revealed themselves as bullies—leaping on Chief’s fuzzy, bare back, and trotting through snowy fields while icy air froze my tears. An old soul, Chief was the greatest listener through the hardest times of my 12-year-old life.
Bred for the cloverleaf, Chief never became much of a barrel horse. We were game to try anything, though: English, Western pleasure, drill team, showmanship, trail riding and beyond. The week of the 4H fair was probably the hardest for him—that poor boy did everything—and I’m sure he gave a sigh of relief when my final year was over.
I remember calling my mom up a few years later during a chaotic, over-booked week at Camp Tecumseh YMCA - Equestrian Camp and asking her to bring an out-to-pasture Chief to help out for a few lessons. Patient as ever, Chief took the role of schoolmaster in stride. One week, he even played an impostor, subbing in for another tall chestnut who'd had enough of inept beginners and decided he preferred standing in the corner over participating in lessons, thankyouverymuch. So, Chief became “Bob,” and the frustrated tears of his tiny charge transformed into a confident grin (his little rider never wised up to the swap).
I remember my first summer in Texas—Chief went to Camp without me—and scouring the photo site for signs of his copper coat. I remember tearing up as grinning campers hugged my boy and his kind, soft eyes stared at me though the computer screen.
Chief wasn’t with me, but he was exactly where he was supposed to be.
I’ll never forget the flood of emotions when I visited Chief at Camp this September. He’s a little older than our first encounter all those years ago, but those kind eyes and patient soul are ageless. I’ll cherish this portrait of him—and the memories it holds—for the rest of my life.