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The true story of noble Star, a 'people' horse

He was six months old when he came home with us, all long, skinny legs and wide, frightened eyes. We pined with him when we had to leave his mother behind in Maryland. But Ned, my farmer-husband, rode in the horse trailer with him, for he was a very small colt and needed gentle reassurance. With our four children in the car I drove home carefully, to keep the trailer steady.

Alice, just a little girl herself, had wanted a horse. She had saved her money to buy him. We'd learned of a horse farm with beautiful horses where the little fillies were kept to raise, but lovely colts could be bought affordably by those who guaranteed good homes.

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We named him Star. Ned and the children had prepared a stall for him on our Delaware farm. But while he was little he romped in our yard with the children during the day, so he promptly became a "people" horse.

Star quickly learned to open the back door and follow the children into the kitchen, where he discovered apples in the fruit bowl.

This entry involved a certain strategy and expertise: Star would climb the three steps to the screen door of the summer dining room, then he'd grab the door handle with his lips and pull just enough to get his head inside. Tossing the door with his head, he'd get one shoulder inside, then step triumphantly through the door.

He had to negotiate a second screen door to the kitchen. Unfortunately, Star didn't know the difference between an apple and an orange until he took a bite. This made a very messy fruit bowl. Star soon grew too large to turn around in the kitchen so he could go out the way he came in. He had to be ushered through the dining room, the living room, out onto the front porch, and down the steps. None of this disturbed Star - he had his apple!

An unexpected guest

One Sunday afternoon some friends stopped in unexpectedly. We had just settled down in the sun room to visit, when there was the familiar clump-clump - Star was in the kitchen. I excused myself without an explanation. One guest exclaimed, "Oh, goodness, what was that?" Four-year-old Kathy piped up, "Oh, it's just our horse coming in the kitchen." "What a precocious child!" our friends thought. But there was Star in full view, very much a horse, being led by his forelock out the front door, contentedly chomping his apple.

Like all young animals, Star was frisky and mischievous. One day, as I came into the yard with a bag of groceries, he ran up to greet me. He grabbed a bottle of ginger ale out of the bag and ran off with it, holding it firmly by the top and shaking it teasingly, as a puppy would. I didn't want to grab it, as the top might pop off and startle him. I took the bag into the house and brought back a carrot, another favorite treat. Star and I traded. Crisis averted.

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Growing up with our young boy and three little girls, Star learned to come when his name was called. As he grew older, we let him go out in the pasture. If he got out of the field and I heard him galloping down the road, I'd call his name. If he heard me, he would turn around and gallop back. This was fine; he earned a carrot.

But when he ran out of earshot, it was another scenario. A stable of racing horses was several fields away. The entrance was on the other side of town. Star longed to be with other horses, and he'd simply hurdle the fence. For me, though, it meant someone had to drive me into, through, and out of town to the stable so I could woo Star out of the herd. Then I had to walk him all the way back to town, through town, and back home. It was a considerable hike, never planned by this busy mother.

Soon the time came to teach Star what was expected of a horse under the saddle. Contrary to my husband's and my plan that he would be the first to work with Star, I had to train the horse. I worked with him slowly, with Ned coaching me. At first I merely used a halter to hold his head while we put a saddle blanket on Star's back. Soon, we added a saddle and bridle.

When Star accepted these without prancing around, and we were able to lead, turn, and halt him with the bridle, we guided him to the large flat stone we'd chosen as a mounting block.

Ned held his bridle, speaking quietly to Star. I took the reins, stepped into the left stirrup, threw my right leg over the saddle, and fit my foot into the other stirrup, talking all the while. When I was securely in the saddle, Ned let go of the bridle and patted Star's neck, walking around with us as I guided Star with the reins and touches of my heels.

We worked very slowly. Star was a large horse, and strong. We wanted him to want to do what we were teaching him, rather than forcing him to. We'd praise every obedient response, ignore the few refusals, and patiently repeat the request until it was obeyed. Then we'd praise him again.

Ned said the secret was to have Star understand what was expected. Soon the horse and I were leaving our farmyard, going down the lane, and out along our country road. Traffic included cars, trucks, and an occasional piece of heavy machinery. I was more concerned with this traffic - especially when it came up behind us - than Star was!

Gradually, I gained confidence. Star and I began to enjoy our rides. He developed the habit of stepping along smartly, one ear forward, alert to what lay ahead, and one ear back, trying to sense what I was expecting. (To conquer the fear I sometimes felt, I would sing hymns. I think Star enjoyed that - not my singing, certainly, but the communication.) The few times I had to insist that Star do something he was reluctant to do, he would give his head a toss, kick out his left leg gently, and proceed to do it anyway! Soon our children were riding him, too.

Star's truck-riding hen

I can't write about this special member of our family without telling about his friends. One was a perky brown chicken that deserted the hen house to sleep in Star's manger every night.

She would also jump into the truck every chance she got. I don't know how it came about, but soon the hen was riding happily with us to town. She would sit contentedly on the floor on the passenger side, wait while we did our errands, and jump out only when we returned home. We were flattered to have such a faithful, undemanding pet.

Star's other friend was an old, velvet-eyed mule that belonged to a man who lived in a shack up the road from us. He used his mule to plow people's gardens in the area.

At night the mule would run away and come down to our barn. We would open the door and let him in to be with Star - and where there was food! The mule and Star were wonderful friends. The mule's owner would appear each morning, asking if we - by any chance - had seen his mule. Yes, we'd reply: He's in the barn with Star. The man would get his mule, and the two would go off to work.

I lost my heart to this mule - looked into his eyes and melted. We had always wanted Star to have a stablemate.

One dark, early fall evening, when we came home from a movie, we could see a hump in the barnyard. As we drove around the bend in the lane, we saw it was the mule, lying patiently beside the barn door. I was so happy to see him! We opened the door and in he went for a long, happy winter with Star: out in the field during the day, snug in the barn at night, always together. We wouldn't see the mule's owner again until spring. We smiled at this, but the situation was to everyone's benefit.

Time went on, and we had to leave our farm. We found a lovely home in Chappaqua, N.Y., with excellent schools, but we would have to give up Star. (Kathy, our youngest, had a hard time understanding why we couldn't just fence our new front lawn and keep Star there.)

One day a friend called to say that a retired Army cavalry colonel was looking for a horse. He and his wife both rode, and they wanted to retire one of their elderly horses. The colonel himself called to ask if his stableman could handle Star for a month to try him out.

This was great, because Star would receive better care than we were able to provide. At the end of the one-month trial, the handler reported that "This horse is a perfect gentlemen. He hasn't a single bad habit!" (Obviously he did not consider that gentle side-kick a "bad habit." Bless him for understanding our Star.) We charged the colonel only for what we had spent to transport and board Star. We couldn't just sell him.

So Star moved to Connecticut. We were invited to see him in his new home. It was wonderful. There was a beautiful meadow, with a running brook - and a small apple orchard! Each horse had its own box stall in a beautiful barn, spotlessly clean.

Star lived out his life among other horses. The colonel and his wife were delighted with him and especially pleased that he came when they called - and the other horses would come running, too! I could ride him whenever I wanted. He still went right along - one ear forward, one ear back. And when we were out of human earshot, I would sing hymns to him, not now because of fear, but for deep gratitude and joy.

The colonel wrote us later to say how much he and his wife had loved our horse. He added, "Star was a noble animal."

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