Blue was not a spectacular-looking horse by any stretch of the imagination. Bone thin and worn down by life, he looked as if he'd been roaming the Earth for a hundred years already. His mane was stringy, his back was bowed, and it appeared that being tied to the rail was the only thing holding him upright most days. Blue appeared incapable of mustering enough energy even to swat the flies on his back let alone to break free from the herd and, in a mad frenzy, drag me along the dusty trail up Mount Loma by the lead rope. Choosing Blue was ensuring a stress-free hour of horse leading. In essence, I labeled him as the perfect choice for my tour of duty at the barn each day.
I assumed I had hit the jackpot with Blue. I was sure that he and I would be the toast of Beginner's Horseback. I mean, who wouldn't want to spend their time with such a quiet and gentle beast of burden? I envisioned some precious six-year-old nervously picking us out as a safe bet. I sincerely believed this right up until the point whereupon a dozen children dashed by me and my senior citizen of a horse in search of a more quality thoroughbred. Incredibly, they seemed to be on a search for the Black Stallion while I stood by an animal that appeared to be drifting in and out of consciousness. A "safe bet" was not on the menu for any of these kids. My kind and considerate co-counselors could barely contain their snickers and taunts each time my trusty steed and I were passed over. In truth, I had picked a complete dud.
I struggled to contain my envy as every other horse and leader were chosen, and I admit now that perhaps I had taken things a bit personally. If my horse was a loser, it made me a loser by default. This I could not have. Just then, opportunity rounded the corner at a full sprint, and opportunity's name was Floyd. Now, I did not know Floyd very well at this point, but word around camp was that he was not only quite a character but also that his heart was kind and full. I knew that he, of all people, would not be able to turn Blue away. As he slowed to a jog, Floyd began to realize that all the horses appeared to be taken. This was my chance to keep Blue (and consequently me) from being turned out to pasture (metaphorically speaking) as useless and complete bores.
"Floyd!" I called. "I have just the horse for you! This is Blue, and I think he'll suit you just fine."
Floyd turned a suspicious eye upon the two of us, sizing us up, and drawled, "Well . . . I dunno, Deana. You think he's up to it? He looks a little wore out and . . . well . . . kinda old. Dunno if he can handle it," he informed me.
Truthfully, I hadn't thought this far ahead in my ill-conceived plan for redemption. I had assumed that with a little sweet talk and a lure of some extra riding time, Blue would be a shoe-in with Floyd. I had clearly never bartered with such a shrewd businessman before. My inexperience was obvious, and I'd clearly have to take a different tactic.
"Have you ever heard of something called the Kentucky Derby, Floyd?" I blurted out without thought.
"Hmmm . . . I think so," he replied.
"Well, Blue here was a qualifier for the 1972 Derby." My lie was brazen and reeked of desperation, but it was all I had at the moment. Floyd had raised an eyebrow and was now studying my face intently. It was now or never. "In fact," I continued with the most casual tone I could muster, "I think he may have even won it in '72. I mean he had to have done something pretty special in order to make it onto the cover of Sports Illustrated. They don't give the cover to just anyone."
In a flash, Floyd was in the saddle, pulling on the reins before Blue had even woken to the realization he was no longer inside the barn.
All the way around the arena, through turns and commands, stops and starts, there were questions of Blue's faded glory and heritage. I fumbled around, scraping up some possible (but highly improbable) details of Blue's history, including but not limited to: Blue's service to our country as a cavalry horse in the war and a near miss for Olympic glory. I was just starting to rationalize my "embellishments" as simply fun and creative stories and forgive myself for what some people could perceive as lies. Suddenly . . . a snag in my pseudo-reality.
"Is Blue really a champion?" Floyd asked uncertainly.
Now I have no children of my own, so I had never faced the Santa world travel dilemma or the Easter bunny questions. I had never played the role of the tooth fairy, and, most days, my own faith was shaky at best. I found myself at a complete loss.
"What do you think?" I inquired. This was a well-known stall for time in the adult world.
"Well, I guess so. I mean, anything's possible," he replied.
During our rides, Floyd and Blue got to know one another, and I, in turn, got to know Floyd. He told us about the Dolphin cabin and his awesome counselors. He shared the trials and tribulations of having two younger brothers always at his heels. He told us about being a liver transplant recipient — a fact of which I had no clue. He told me of his mother and how much he wished she were still alive to see him each day. He laid out his love for the Dallas Cowboys and his own personal plan to get them back to the Super Bowl, and he talked about his hopes of being part of his own football team one day. It didn't matter what team, just as long as he got to be a part of a team. The topics of conversation were broad and diverse but spoken in a more personal tone than I had heard from a child in a long time.
When we found ourselves in the middle of the trail line, creating quite the traffic jam with our "leisurely pace," Floyd (ever the gentleman in charge) motioned for everyone to go around, telling each one in his most important tone, "Me and Blue probably need to stay back here anyway and keep an eye on everybody." Even traveling at a snail's pace had evolved into a safety precaution for the other riders and leaders within our group.
At the end of his ride, he gave Blue a big hug and a pat on the neck and whispered, "Don't work too hard. I'll see you tomorrow."
For the next two days, there was Floyd, waiting at the gate . . . waiting to see Blue. By midweek, Floyd's enthusiasm for Blue had skyrocketed, but sadly, Blue's already fragile health was plummeting. It was too hot, and he was exhausted from a long summer's work. The horseback staff decided that Blue wouldn't even be taken out of the barn for the rest of the week. So after Wednesday's lesson, it fell to me to break the bad news to Floyd. Standing next to Blue, I talked with him about how it wouldn't be fair to make Blue work when he wasn't feeling well. I tried to point out that although he would have to choose another horse, it was great that he and Blue had developed such a great friendship.
I braced myself for a protest or a negotiation or even a few tears, yet there were none. Floyd looked at me, then looked at Blue and said softly, "I know what it's like to be sick. I was sick for a long time when I was little. You take it easy, Blue, and don't work too hard. I'll see you tomorrow."
For the last two days of camp, Floyd rode a different horse, and although he was polite and kind to each horse, it was obvious that they would simply never measure up to the standard Blue had set. At the end of the hour, Floyd made his pilgrimage to the barn to say hello and sneak some apple slices to his beloved friend. Then there was a big hug and the same words, "Don't work too hard. I'll see you tomorrow." I prepared myself for the difficult question that I felt sure would come on Friday morning. I dreaded telling Floyd that Blue would probably not be back next summer. Actually, I was concerned that Blue might not make it through the day let alone through the year. Yet much like the tears and protests I had feared just days earlier, the question never came.
I will never really know whether Floyd truly believed my wild stories and outlandish claims regarding Blue, or if he had simply felt as sorry for me and my broken down horse as I had been feeling that first day. Was it child-like innocence or simple kindness that had motivated Floyd to stick with us when there were clearly better opportunities? Did it really matter in the end? Innocence and kindness . . . weren't those both things the world could use more of?
As adults, we assume that we are the teachers and children are always in need of a lesson. More often than not, this is not the case, and it certainly wasn't the case with Floyd. He reminded me that everyone and everything deserves to be loved and adored . . . that outer packaging does not reveal inner gifts. I learned that broken spirits can be put back together. I learned to treasure the time you have with others because, no matter what, it will never be enough. I learned that hope can be refilled, and smiles are the best gift you can give. I learned that an hour at horseback can be a life-altering event. I learned that the heart of a twelve-year-old can be the most powerful force on Earth. I learned to never give up. Most importantly, however, Floyd taught me this: that no matter the flaw, no matter the imperfection, no matter if it's in the unlikeliest of places — if you look deep enough and believe hard enough, you can find a champion in just about anyone.
For the past eight years, Deana Nazworth has been a junior high teacher and coach in Arlington ISD, and she has worked and volunteered for various camps for the last thirteen summers.
Originally published in the 2008 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.