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A Man Walks Into a Barn by Chad Oldfather from Horse & Rider Books
 

By Chad Oldfather

Ada was born in Minneapolis, but we moved to Oklahoma City when she was nearly two so that I could begin a career as a law school professor. Her twin sisters Audrey and Laura arrived not long after, and I often describe the change in terms of a hockey analogy: Lea and I went from being on the power play to being shorthanded. It was a busy time.

So, it’s no surprise that we can’t pin down the precise moment when Fate put us on the path to the barn. Was it the time, when we still lived in the Twin Cities, that we’d gone to the Wisconsin State Fair and walked through the horse barn? We paused to look in a few of the stalls, me lifting Ada high enough for her to see, getting her close but remaining mindful of the signs asking us not to touch the horses. Something about that moment led me, for the first time in my life, to pause to appreciate the majesty of these animals, and even to remark on it to Lea. I’m not generally one to get mystical, but it was a remarkable coincidence…if that’s what it was.

Was Ada’s infatuation something that just gradually developed? We’d consistently worked our way through animal-themed picture books, sure. But we had also gone through a phase where she was fascinated by airplanes, and on a trip to Washington, DC, I made a special journey to the National Air and Space Museum to take advantage of an especially good selection of children’s books. In the Twin Cities she had been briefly intrigued by birds, and then by our neighbor’s dog Schmidty, whose name—minus the “m”—she endearingly enjoyed saying out loud, over and over. Each interest seemed to arrive by chance, burn brightly for a time, then fade away as something else came to replace it. The first few days she showed a special interest in horses, we imagined, were just the start of another phase.

My first distinct memory is of a moment probably a couple weeks into the not-just-a-phase. I was on the floor in what we called “the playroom,” building a barn-like structure out of Legos. It was a variation on getting the cart before the horse, because we had nothing to put in the barn. Breyer horses hadn’t yet become ubiquitous, so a trip to Target to find appropriately sized toy horses turned up nothing. But, we figured, we lived in Oklahoma City. There had to be a place.

And that was how our entire family ended up in Stockyards City, historically (no surprise) the location of stockyards and a packing house, and now home to a variety of restaurants and businesses including a couple of saddle shops. Surely, we thought, they would have what we were looking for. It was a cold winter day with a brisk Oklahoma wind, and we parked the minivan across from what our study of the yellow pages suggested was the most promising option. Two memories remain for me.

The first is of just how strong that wind was, and how unpleasantly cold it was crossing that street with a daughter in each arm. The second is of opening the door to that store and immediately understanding that we were out of our element. There were rows and rows of saddles and walls covered with bridles. Rack after rack held brightly colored Western apparel. None of it was anything we knew anything about.

Some people are comfortable in unfamiliar environments. Lea and I are not those kind of people. We tentatively made our way into the store, apparently throwing off enough “we don’t belong here” vibes that nobody ever asked us if we needed help. Probably they figured we were just looking to get out of the wind. We eventually found the inevitable selection of Breyer model horses. It was nowhere near as large as many we’d eventually encounter over the years, but we left with a couple of the smaller Stablemates models. They were almost the perfect size for the Lego barn. They were also, we quickly learned, too fragile for a two-year-old. The floors of our house were soon littered with two- and three-legged plastic animals.

The years that followed involved variations on the theme of haphazardly attempting to find ways to spend time around and learn more about horses. It wasn’t long after the Stockyards City trip that Ada and I set out to get her first book exclusively about horses. Even by then we had started to grasp the magnitude of what we were dealing with, and the trip brought a sense of excitement. It was winter, with the sky already dark in the early evening. Ada noticed the moon, and then noticed it again after we had made a couple turns. “The moon is following us, Daddy,” she reported from her car seat as we drove along the Northwest Expressway. She kept track of it during the rest of our trip, and we paused to admire it when we got out of the car. The book we got, called simply Horses, by Laura Driscoll, became required reading, often multiple times per day. Eventually we had turned its pages so many times that it fell apart and we had to replace it. Countless other horse books followed, many of which Ada would recite from memory.

Family outings often bore some relationship to horses. We became members and frequent visitors to the outstanding National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. (I don’t know if you can still buy the All About Cowboys videos in the gift shop there, but if you can, I’m pretty sure you can thank me for putting that idea in the suggestion box.) We made multiple trips to Garth Brooks’s hometown of Yukon, Oklahoma, to visit the Express Clydesdales, a less famous but equally impressive counterpart to the Budweiser Clydesdales. A mounted police officer coming down the street in front of our house was a drop-everything event. Ending up in the Bricktown entertainment district meant, at the very least, keeping an eye out for horse-drawn carriages, and on a lucky day, getting to pet a horse. We discovered that Oklahoma City bills itself as the “Horse Show Capital of the World” and made our way to the state fairgrounds, where our whole family wandered into the coliseum, unsure of where to sit and not knowing that pretty much anywhere would have been fine. It was the national show for some breed or other, and we’d shown up for something called “halter classes.” That was interesting…for a little while. But everyone in our family wondered when they’d actually start riding the horses. We left without ever finding out.

One day there were pony rides at a festival in the park a block away from our house. I couldn’t tell you what the festival was for or what else was there. But I’ll never forget that the pony rides were only a dollar and that hardly any kids, other than my daughter, seemed to want one. We quickly burned through the five dollars I had in my pocket and walked home to get more. For the most part Ada was the only customer, and she kept the ponies moving. She rode them all enough times to develop a clear ranking of her favorites. We stayed to watch them load up and go home. That was a good day.

We talked about it for weeks.

This excerpt from A Man Walks Into a Barn: Navigating Fatherhood in the Flawed and Fascinating World of Horses by Chad Oldfather is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.HorseandRiderBooks.com).

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