Chera Hammons: Poet and Writer

"…a slow shutter on ambulation…"

The Horses That Inspire Me: Rocket

Hello, readers!

I thought I should maybe do a series of entries on the horses that show up in my work, since they appear so often and so insistently. Maybe you’d like to see them, too. And Lord knows I can find a million things to say about horses. When I was little, my mom once told me, “Honey, people don’t like to hear about horses as much as you like to talk about them.” I tell that story a lot because it shows how little some things change.


Chera and her first pony, Cinnamon

I’ve loved horses since my “adopted” grandpa, Papa Sonny, put me up on his bay mare when I was a year old. I wrote about horses, drew horses, only talked about horses. I didn’t have a lot of friends, which probably doesn’t surprise anyone. Thinking I was going through a phase, my parents promised to buy me a horse when my dad graduated college and got a better paying job. Several years later, the horse phase turned out not to be a phase, and they (bless them) kept their word. My first equine was an opinionated little pony, Cinnamon, who crossed paths with me when I was in fifth grade and she was on the way to auction. She bucked off every kid at the barn but me. She managed to finally get me off her back by holding her breath when I tightened the cinch before riding. As we trotted down the arena fence, suddenly I was looking at everything sideways, and then I was underneath her belly, and then on the ground, watching her run gleefully away, stirrups dragging the ground. The rest is history, as they say. I learned a lot about saddling a horse that day!

The first horse I’ll introduce you to in this series is Rocket.


Chera with Rocket after a ride.

He’s a 5 year old registered Tennessee Walking Horse. He’s solid black except for a white star roughly in the shape of Alaska on his forehead. I had been feeling very ill (I didn’t yet know I had Lyme disease) and had started to try to accomplish some of the things on my bucket list because it felt like I was running out of time. I had always wanted to saddle train my own horse, and Rocket was the perfect horse for me to try with. He was well within my very small budget, had been imprinted at birth, and had worked as a therapy horse for his first year of life. He loves people and is dog gentle. I bought him as a yearling, put 20 or 30 fifteen minute rides at a walk on him at age two and a half, then several more at three and a half, and we started gaiting then, too. He had a beautiful, smooth gait. My whole heart was wrapped up in him while we were training. He was the culmination of so many dreams. He symbolized so much I had overcome and wanted to overcome.

And we KNEW each other. When I first got my Haflinger mare, she would run from people, so I spent a lot of time just walking her down in the pasture, putting the halter on, patting her, then taking it off and walking away, rinse and repeat. One session, Rocket looked at her as if to say, “What’s wrong with you? Why are you running? Humans are awesome,” looked at me, looked back at her, then ran to block the arena gate so that the mare couldn’t get out and I could catch her. He drove her right to me. I didn’t particularly want him to do that but I was amazed at what he had done and how he had interpreted the situation, and how clearly I could read the succession of thoughts on his face. I’d never had one horse try to “help” me with another horse like that before and haven’t since. He was special, and he became my entire world.


Chera riding Rocket

But I often couldn’t sleep because I was worrying about him. There was just something that kept nagging at me. A bad feeling.

I noticed he wasn’t growing out of his baby awkwardness. He fell a lot in the pasture. He would trip and then get really upset at whoever was around him when it happened. He started balking under saddle. It was so strange. I had a chiropractor come out to see him. He had no soreness in his back but some in his hips. She said it was probably from learning to carry himself. She also found calcification on one shoulder. She said she’d guess he’d run into a fence or something as a weanling; she marked it as a grade one lameness.

Rocket kept getting worse, not better. Finally we ran some neurological tests, ruled out EPM, and determined on Wobblers, a calcification on the spine which puts pressure on the spinal column, causing neurological symptoms. It made a lot of sense based on Rocket’s build and his carelessness with his own body, which I had seen often when he played. The reason he would get so angry when he tripped was that he would lose feeling in his legs, and then it would suddenly come back, and it frightened him. I couldn’t afford the $15k surgery that would have given him a 50% chance of being rideable again. So, brokenhearted, I retired him at my parents’ house. Their land is flat and grassy and he has much less chance of injuring himself there. Since he has now achieved most of his height, the symptoms have leveled off. It’s hard to tell something is wrong unless you look for it. But if I were to grab his tail and pull, his entire hind end would collapse.

He’s still a lovable goofball, gorgeous to look at, tall and dark. And he is perhaps the horse I have loved best, because I raised him and trained him myself.  When I get out of my car at my parents’ house, I call him, and he comes to the fence and puts his huge head against me, and it’s almost like nothing ever happened. But losing all of his potential, when I was just understanding how sick I was and how much of my own I was losing, is something I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over. That said, I am truly grateful that I had the privilege of training him, and that we were able to find a way to keep him in our lives, and that he is comfortable.


Rocket following Chera

In my poetry, when I talked about “the black horse,” Rocket is who I mean. And the Icelandic horse Keeper, in my novel, is partially based on Rocket. I’ve never met a kinder horse than Rocket is, and I doubt I ever will.

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