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The Healing Power of a Horse Named Rocky


By: Dan Kirkland

A child needs a friend who knows them for who they are and loves them anyway. And, if he is lucky, extremely lucky, he will find a few true friends such as this in his entire lifetime. In the 1960s and the 1970s I was the luckiest child imaginable because I was privileged, no honored, to have many such friends. They entered and exited my life frequently. Some sooner than I wanted, and others sooner than I needed. While their faces are somewhat dimmed in my memory, I recall all of their names. They each gave me unique gifts that could be attained in no other way, gifts that I still carry with me.

Those friends came to our barn in trucks and trailers and usually had names such as Princess, Easter, Pretty Gal, Sugar, or Freckles. Some came thin and dying rescued from auctions by my father, barely missing the winning bid of the soap factory buyers, and left fat and healthy with families who pledged to love them. Some came young and untrained and left able to do whatever required. Some were born there, some died there, but all were loved there.

Each had four legs and a heart as big as the child who decided to love them. Each occupies the warmest place in my heart. And in that place they never age, nor do they die. They are the same today as the last day I saw them, the day we said good-bye, usually with tears.

Children need more than friends. Children need families teeming with kindness, overflowing with gentleness, and sharing the kind of gentle love that caresses their soul. If he is lucky enough to have this, he will find multiplied treasures within him self. If he is not, he will look for treasures elsewhere. In the late 1960s and the 1970s I looked for treasures in relationships outside of my home. Most of those treasures lived in our barn, and I cherished them.

None warmed my heart and made me smile more than a quarter horse colt named Rocky. For almost thirty years I have remembered this special sorrel colt and the refuge he provided for me from a world that seemed harsh and unbearable. I was 13 years old on that March morning in 1970 when he was born. I named him Rocky. He was solid like a rock and strong. His registered name was Eternal Reb. Little did I know that this white-faced sorrel colt would one day represent so much in my life, nor did I realize the healing that he would provide.

I do not remember the specifics of his birth. I do remember watching with wide eyes as I stood in that pasture all alone watching this foal protrude in a sack of fluid from his mother. How that mare, Jean groaned and twisted on the ground as she pushed her son's hindquarters out of her body and he plopped onto the earth. I remember her sigh of relief and her resting there for a few moments before working to make him stand.

I was awestruck with the wonder of birth. I had never seen anything as inspiring as the birth of this colt. The wonder of it all! He represented life, newness, a beginning. Looking back I think that birth represented what I wanted-change, newness, a connectedness to something or someone. This colt had that. His mother nurtured him and pushed him to his potential for that day by guiding him to activate his new muscles, stand, take a few steps, and to look at his new world.

Then they rested.

Jean allowed me to touch her foal as he lay there beside her. He did not know to be afraid and allowed me to touch his forehead and stroke his velvet coat. Other than my children, I have never touched anything quite so wonderful as touching my first newborn colt.

With horses there are no pretenses. They cannot be fooled by a smile, a whisper, or a wink. They don't care what color your skin or hair is, how you dress, whether you are skinny or fat, or what kind of house you live in. When a horse sees a child, all he sees is a child. There are no judgments. As Rocky and I grew we became friends. He tagged along beside us as I rode Jean in the pastures. He enjoyed my touching him and rubbing his face. He was a true friend who saw me for who I was and loved me anyway. I did not know it then, but that was exactly what I needed.

My Dad worked in the oilfield and was home one week and gone another. When he was gone all of the responsibility of the horses, chickens, pigs, turkeys, and the garden were mine. I developed an ulcer and became ill. The doctor said that I had too much responsibility for a child. My dad took a transfer to Dallas with his company. Rocky was one year old, and I was 14. Dad allowed me to keep Rocky. All of the other animals were sold, including Jean.

The move to Dallas was difficult. I missed the country. I missed my friends. I missed having my grandparents nearby. Dallas was a world that I did not know or understand. I did not have the social skills to make or keep friends and the shock of a new culture rocked me. Enrolling in a high school of 3500 was quite a change from the small country school I had grown accustomed to. And, our church in Mississippi was small and all of us had grown up together. In Dallas our church was huge and I knew no one. The move was hard on all of us.

I tried to fit in with the cowboy crowd at school by joining the rodeo club. On my third ride of a bareback bronc I broke my arm. My rodeo days were over. While I really never fit into the cowboy crowd, my heavy accent, clumsiness, and poor social skills distanced me from the more popular crowds. I was an outsider everywhere that I looked, except at the barn.

My best friend was Rocky. And I utilized our friendship everyday after school. On weekends I spent most of my time there. I trained him under saddle. He learned to neck rein, to stop, to back-up. He was so much fun to be with! Our relationship gave me a place to hide from the world.

In December 1974 as a senior in high school, I had a job and was looking to attend college. My Dad assured me that Rocky had to find a new home. He placed an ad in the Dallas paper and sold Rocky to a man from McKinney, Texas. I just knew I would die. And, certainly, I would never see Rocky again.

I completed a Bachelors degree and then a Master's. I married, started a career, and had a family. I moved from place to place following a career and raised my children and always wished that our lives had been different. I wished we could have had horses, had land, and lived in the country.

I often thought of Rocky. I felt a great connection to him especially in times that I did not feel connected to anything else. He represented that connection that I thought I was supposed to feel. We all want to march under some flag and stand for something. I seemed, as a young adult, to never march under the correct flag. Rocky had been my rock. When my career took bad turns, when personal problems arose, I thought about that sorrel horse and how we had been such good friends. I wished I could have such a relationship with people. But, no one seemed to be the rock I was looking for.

In the early 1990s my curiosity got the best of me. I called the American Quarter Horse Association and asked who the registered owner was. The operator told me that the man we sold Rocky to was James Smith in McKinney, Texas. Then, one year later James Smith sold Rocky to Robert Cutler of Allen, Texas. I called directory assistance for Allen to find Robert Cutler. They had no listing for him. I called directory assistance for McKinney to find James Smith and got the same result.

In 1994 I moved to Plano and I discovered that Allen was nearby. I took Sunday drives hoping to get a glimpse of Rocky. Over the years I did this many times stopping to investigate further any sorrel with a wide blaze and stocking feet. My father told me that so many years had passed that Rocky must certainly have died. Horses rarely last more that 20-25 years. I needed him to be alive. Rocky represented my connection to my childhood in the country, and to friends, and church, and family. He had been my last tie to that era. He had been the last piece of the fabric to be ripped away.

In the meantime I earned another Master's degree and became a Licensed Professional Counselor. In 1999 my children left home. I experienced the empty nest so many parents feel. I felt I had lost my purpose in life-that of being a father.

In the summer of 2000 a patient came to my office suffering with what he called emptiness, even though he had his dream job, car, and life. He lived in a home he designed and built decorated with portraits he had painted. He dated Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. He could see no reason to feel empty.

In that one-hour session he came to realize that he had no passion and no purpose. He had once loved to oil paint. That is where he found his joy. But the business of life had taken that avocation away. He decided in that session to reconnect with his passion for painting. And, in that session I wondered what my purpose and passion were.

I realized that my purpose was to help others as a therapist, especially children and their parents. I realized that my childhood had taught me the importance of parents and children having a relationship. That relationship would need to be one with no judgments. My passion had been horses when I was a child.

Six months later I received an invitation to the showing of that empty patient's art at a museum in Dallas. I decided that after 25 years without a horse it was time to renew my passion. But, I wanted Rocky and did not know where he was. Logic told me that Rocky was dead. He would be 30 years old if he were alive.

I again called the American Quarter Horse Association. They told me the same information they had already told me years earlier. But this time they said, "We have him listed as deceased." My heart skipped a beat. I asked how she knew he was dead. I asked if someone had returned his registration papers or reported his death. She told me that since he was 25 years old they assumed he was deceased.

I called the entire list of Cutler's in the Allen directory and left messages for those I did not speak to. No one had information related to Robert Cutler. What were the odds that anyone would have bought Rocky almost 30 years earlier, still owned him, and still lived in the same city? Very slim if not zero.

I put an ad on a horse sales website asking for any information about Eternal Reb. Several people wrote telling me that he was certainly dead by then. I increased my drives through the Allen countryside. When I had occasion to visit boarding stables I kept an eye out for an old sorrel horse named Rocky. Whenever I heard about an aged horse I was quick to ask questions secretly investigating if the horse was Rocky.

I followed my passion and bought a horse named Mercury. I kept her for six months and then due to a series of events beyond my control needed to give her away, and I did. My search for a horse was again launched. I still wished for Rocky knowing that if I found him he would be too old to ride.

I bought a mare named Cora's Cash. She was a leggy sorrel with a wide blaze. When I held her picture next to that of Rocky there was a striking resemblance in their markings. I believe that those markings led me to buy her.

All good things in our lives, things we hold dear represent something more than the total of their parts. Rocky represented a way of life that I had lost when I left Mississippi. He had been the last piece of that life and for years I had grieved that loss and was not sophisticated enough to discover that at the time, even though I am a therapist.

I joined the AQHA and gained access to their research website. I researched Rocky's pedigree and Cora's pedigree. I was surprised to discover that each had a grandfather that had been raised and housed at the Phillips Ranch in Frisco.

Cora's grandfather was Dash for Cash and Rocky's was Eternal Sun. After that discovery I felt a greater connection to Cora. I later visited that ranch which is now a boarding stable and saw the paddocks where Dash for Cash and Eternal Sun were kept.

My internet searches for Eternal Reb were fruitless. There were too many websites with either eternal or reb that matched. Then in June 2003 during Sunday School my teacher mentioned an efficient way to perform internet searches. He learned to put words in quotations if they should be found together only. I thought I should try that.

On June 23, 2003 I ran a search on "Eternal Reb." I got one hit. It was an article from the Dallas Morning News written in April 2003 about a lady named Pamela Kettle in Rowlett who owned a horse named Eternal Reb. The horse was 32 years old. My heart stopped. I found myself pacing. I was so excited I could barely breathe.

I looked up the number for Pamela Kettle. I called her. After several minutes of convincing her that I was not a nut she listened to my story. She did not have his registration papers with her to verify the information to see if this was my Rocky. She said she had owned him for 28 years, having bought him in 1975 when she was 13 years old, the same age I was when I witnessed his birth.

Pamela emailed me a picture of this horse she had named "Reb". I could not be sure it was him. The horse was old, graying, and crippled. I remembered a strong, young, vibrant sorrel. I emailed her a picture of Rocky as a colt. She could not be sure it was him.

I told her that I remembered that he had a knot on the inside left cannon bone. She said that she had never noticed that. I also told her that he had big knees and we worried he would have joint problems. She told me that he had arthritis.

I then found a picture of Rocky as a yearling and emailed it to Pamela. This was a turning point in convincing her that I was the original owner of the horse she called "Reb".

I found my notes from my calls to the AQHA and to the Cutler's in Allen. I mentioned that Robert Cutler had bought him in 1975. She said, "That's my daddy." I could not believe those words. We agreed to meet the next morning. She said her parents were in town and they would want to be there. She told me that she boarded him at Happy Acres Farm in Sachse, just a few miles from the feed store where I have purchased feed and supplies for several years.

I was overcome by emotion and called my wife and every friend that I thought would understand. I felt light as a feather and could not remember ever being so excited. I felt thirteen again. I wanted to go to his stable right then and throw my arms around his neck.

After a night of fitful sleep I drove toward the stable where Rocky was housed. I became anxious worrying that my heart would be broken to see him so old, or that I would break down and cry.

I arrived at Happy Acres Farm and drove toward the barn. I could see a woman and a child with two horses. One was a bay and the other a sorrel. The sorrel had big knees and a wide blaze. I knew immediately that I had found Rocky. I do not remember parking my truck or getting out of it. I remember introducing myself to Pamela Kettle and showing her the pictures I had of Rocky.

I walked toward my old friend and touched the face of that old sorrel, long past his prime and I felt renewed. It was as if I were 13 again and touching that spindly-legged colt. I felt the wonder of his birth, the wonder of his life. Again I had connected with my childhood, the farm in Mississippi, and my love for this wonderful horse.

I want to say that he whinnied and nickered and pranced around when he saw me. But, all he saw was a man. He did not care what I was wearing, what I was driving, or what I did for a living. He didn't care if I was that gangly 13 year old that watched his mother birth him. There was no judgment. He just lowered his head and allowed me to stroke his face.

I met Pamela's parents. Her mother told me that they had bought Rocky from Mr. Smith who lived across the street from the Lucas store. I told her that my new home is one mile from that store. Pamela told me of many fun times riding Rocky on Parker Road and to the Sonic in Allen. This is the same Sonic where I stop for a drink everyday. And Parker Road is a lane I have ridden Cora down many times. For the past ten years I have lived within 20 miles of Rocky.

I bent low and felt the knot on his inside left foreleg. Pamela's mother touched that spot and said she had never noticed it. She showed me his clouded eye and told me the story of tending to that eye 15 years earlier when Rocky had gotten a virus.

Pamela introduced me to Be, the bay quarter horse who has been Rocky's constant companion since 1975. The two horses are inseparable. I have gained a sense of completion about my childhood in this reunification with Rocky. The relationship is restored. And, it seems that so am I.

That morning at Happy Acres we took pictures. We shared stories. We laughed, and I cried. I touched my old horse once again and said good-bye. But, I know that it is only good-bye for now.

Rocky and Dan

Addendum: In September 2003, Larry Powell of the Dallas Morning News wrote a feature article about this magnificent journey to find Rocky. And, in January 2004, the American Quarter Horse Association used this article in the America's Horse magazine. Over 100 emails came to my address from people with their own stories of connecting with a beloved horse. In July 2004 Rocky was nominated for the MD barns Silver Spur Award commemorating the life of a horse that touched the lives of people. As of this writing Rocky has made the top twenty nominations, and might well win the 2004 Silver Spur Award.

The Last Good-Bye: On July 30, 2004 Pamela Kettle and I took Rocky to the home of his lifelong veterinarian Dr. Dick Smithwick in Howe, Texas where the doctor put him to sleep and buried him overlooking a beautiful lake. Along with Rocky we buried the saddle I had ridden him with, and a copy of this story-sealed in a bottle. If ever his bones are found we want the finder to know that these are not merely the bones of an old horse, but the bones of a friend.