The Truth About Kids and Ponies

Topper could be ornery (you might even say abusive), but a girl who looked beyond his shortcomings found he brought her freedom to roam around Chappaquiddick, taught her about difficult relationships, and contributed to the inner strength that has stuck with her throughout adulthood.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Chappaquiddick was considered the backyard of Edgartown. Not many people had heard of it – before Kennedy – and the summer population was small, including a few extended families. My family spent summers here, along with about fifty relatives in seven or eight houses scattered across the island. People knew each other, and most kids could roam wherever they wanted as long as they came home at the end of the day. When I was young, I played with my siblings and cousins at Cape Pogue Pond, down in front of my house, but as I grew older, horseback riding was a major activity and an important means of transportation.

Back then, private property was not much of an issue, and there were trails everywhere. Horses and ponies were more common, and we’d ride all over the island. For many years, my family had a pony named Topper, who not only provided transportation, but gave me a chance to be in control of something bigger than myself when I was a young teenager. But things didn’t start out that way.

Topper was like a curmudgeonly relative who is tolerated and even loved despite his shortcomings. He had a mouth like a steel trap and a teeth-jarring gait. He had perhaps an exaggerated sense of self – and never held back in letting others know what was his due. He was difficult to control, and sometimes bucked or kicked. His most egregious habit, though, was biting the hand that fed him – literally! But he was a pretty pony with his brown, black, and white markings and long, thick mane and tail. He smelled nice, and his warm, soft body may have been the first reason I fell in love with horses.

Topper came to us when I was four years old, and we were living on a farm across the state in Winchendon. A couple of years earlier, my mother had seen a neighbor training a young horse to pull a cart. Despite having four kids under the age of eight – or maybe because of it – she wanted that horse. So we acquired Domino, age one and a half, who already knew a few tricks (although stopping was never one of them). He could answer yes and no with a nod or shake of his head and could lie down on command. The first time he lay down, he wouldn’t get up, so my mother went to ask the neighbor what to do. He said, “Give him a kick.”

My mother was not a horse-kicking kind of person, and Domino was treated more like part of the family. He was a big horse, but when Topper arrived, it quick-ly became clear who was boss. When there was any food to be had, if Domino didn’t move out of the way fast enough, Topper would bite or kick him. It didn’t take long, though, for Domino to grow attached to him, and he’d whinny and pace the fence if Topper was taken for a ride without him. They lived together for nearly twenty years, with most summers on Chappaquiddick.

Topper was a serious biter, not just a nipper. He had some deep neurosis that made him try to bite the person feeding him by hand as soon as the treat ran out. Just at that moment of feeling a happy connection with him, he’d reach out and bite hard. Once when I was little and feeding him, he bit me all the way through my winter coat, leaving big red marks on my chest. I still remember how that hurt my feelings as much as my body.

When my sisters and I were younger, we would take turns riding Topper while my mother led him with a rope. Once we could ride alone, she rode ahead on Domino. We had to make sure not to come up too close behind, because Topper would nip Domino on the rear and make him jump. When Domino was startled, he tended to break into a full run.

My younger sister remembers going out in Domino’s buggy with our mother driving and a friend on Topper, who was tied to the back of the buggy. My sister, who was sitting up front, kept feeling Topper nibble the back of her favorite purple sweater. When she told our mother that Topper was going to bite her, Mom – who tended to find no fault with any of our animals, no matter what their obvious defects – told her, “Don’t be silly. He won’t bite you with me right here.” As Topper continued to nibble, our mother said, “I’ll give you five dollars if he bites you.” The next moment, he bit my sister right through her sweater, leaving teeth marks on her back.

Mom was of the “climb-back-on-the-horse” school of thinking, whether it was a literal or figurative falling off. If it weren’t for her, I don’t know if I would have become a rider – although, some other mother might have acquired friendlier, easier animals. But by riding Topper and avoiding his bites, I gained a physical self-awareness and, eventually, learned that it’s possible to love another being while remaining constantly on vigil.

Once I was able to ride Topper alone, I never quite felt in control. I’d have to kick like crazy to get him to go anywhere, but then, worn out with the effort, I’d turn around and he’d take off back to the barn with me hanging on for dear life. When I became a better rider, I’d try to slow him down by pulling his head around, but if I pulled too hard, he’d bite my leg.

After a growth spurt the year I was thirteen, sheer size and strength finally gave me the upper hand. My cousin Eric was a year or two younger than I and small for his age, but he had a big white pony. We rode together all over Chappaquiddick that summer, Eric perched on the back of his white steed, I on Topper with my feet nearly dragging on the ground. We’d meet up in the morning and spend the day roaming the island. We’d drop in on relatives to say hello – and be just in time for lunch. No one minded hoof prints or gratuitous fertilizer on their lawns, such as they were at that time.

It was a thrill to finally be able to make Topper do what I wanted. I could get him to go and to stop. I rode bareback then, and I’d swing my leg over his back, give a little hop, and be mounted and ready to ride. Eric and I used to run races, full-out gallops in Pimpneymouse Farm’s back field – and I wasn’t afraid. I think Topper finally knew I was in charge, but I’d like to think that it was somewhat of a partnership. I certainly felt a lot of tenderness for him by then.

After that summer, I was too big to ride him, and besides, I started working summer jobs. Topper and Domino eventually came to live in a little pasture next to my parents’ house when they moved to Sterling. There Topper met his match in their dog Baranov, a big Alaskan mutt with a quirky personality. Baranov would go down to the pasture and jump over Topper’s hindquarters, nipping him in the process. He knew my mother didn’t approve, and he’d look up toward the house afterward to see if she was going to rap on the window at him.

In the end, Topper’s bad manners caused him to have to leave home. The elderly grandmother who lived next door, and from whose family my parents had bought the house, used to come down the hill and feed apples to Topper and Domino. Topper would bite the apple in half and eat one half at a time. Once, the second half of the apple dropped from her hand, and when she went to pick it up, Topper gave her a hard bite. She was outraged, and my father, wanting to keep peace with our neighbors, decided we should give Topper away.

For years, my mother had been joking with a family friend, saying she had a nice pony for the woman when her children got big enough. After the fateful bite, my mother asked her if Topper could go and live on their farm in Rutland, where they were used to ornery animals.

When Topper arrived at the farm, they put him in with the cattle, including a bull. Topper went right over, kicked the bull in the chest, and took over the best pile of hay, thus securing his rank and reputation. He lived until he was almost forty, and the children on the farm rode Topper for many years, glad to have a pony of their own, even one with less than perfect manners.