April 2, 1905. A longed-for son and final child is born to James and Josephine Smith of Litchville, North Dakota. The Smiths are farmers, and like every other farming family at that time, they power their efforts with livestock—horses, to be exact. Horses provide their everyday transportation as well. This is no surprise, because the first mass-produced automobile (Henry Ford’s Model T) won’t be offered to the pubic for another three-and-a-half years.
The littlest Smith, christened Francis but answering to Smitty, will become the apple of his father’s eye. He’ll take to operating the lines of a driving team the way today’s tots learn to work a cell phone or computer. Because his doting daddy is the community’s lay horse doc, he’ll absorb the ways and means of practical horse care just by accompanying James as he makes his rounds from farm to farm.
As his high-school graduation gift, Smitty won’t be given anything as newfangled as a horseless carriage. Instead, he’ll do his showing off behind a pair of high-stepping bays, hitched to a fancy buggy. Despite coming of age in a era when the gas-powered engine all but erases the horse from the fields and streets of America, he’ll be an obsessed horse lover for the rest of his life.
The Horse Gene
That little boy born 104 years ago was my grandfather. He passed the horse-nut gene (I swear scientists will identify such a gene someday, for real) to members of three subsequent generations.
Grandpa Smitty is largely the reason why I grew up to become a horse-magazine editor. He subscribed to the horse mags that were some of my earliest reading material, and encouraged me, on my frequent visits to his horsified home, to submit letters and drawings to their children’s sections. Thanks to him, I first felt the pride of seeing my name in print when I was only 8 years old.
When it came to horses, Grandpa was our go-to person before such a term existed. He was our primary source of equine knowledge, advice, cheerleading, even rescue when the circumstances called for it.
He gave me the first horse I could call my own, a foal out of his favorite mare.
There was no one else I could think of to dial for help when my little treasure got trapped upside-down in a manger and hurt himself badly. “Grandpa, you’ve got to fix him!” I cried into the phone. He did, driving right over with his kit of homemade salves and other potions. No one else hollered louder from the sidelines two years later, when my healed-up horse and I won a blue ribbon at our first show together.
Today, no one else comes to mind first when I think about the influence grandparents have on the future of the horse world. Thanks to my own supportive grandfather, I have first-hand experience with the power of this particular generational relationship.
April 2, 2009. My sister-in-law, Gail Smith, calls from the farm that was Grandpa’s until she and my brother Mark bought it from him 30-some years ago. One of their mares has foaled a chestnut Appaloosa colt with a picture-perfect spotted blanket.
“He’s really nice!” she declares. “And when we looked at the calendar, we realized he was born on Grandpa’s birthday! I’ll send pictures—I think this one might have your initials on him.”
I tell her we already have plenty of horses, with two of our own, and two boarded horses of friends. But then I go to my computer and click open the new foal’s pictures. He doesn’t just bear my metaphoric initials. He’s also got “family legacy” written all over him. Grandpa would have busted the buttons right off his overalls to have raised one as pretty and well-conformed as this.
I call Gail back to say, “Mark him sold—I’ll take him.”
The colt is weaned now, and a resident of Idaho (where the Appaloosa is the state horse) instead of North Dakota. He made the long trip just fine, most likely with Grandpa watching over him from somewhere.
His barn name? Smitty, of course. With a legacy like his, what else could it be?