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Episodes: Hey, Dude


Emily VanDerWerff

Feb 19 2016

6 min read



(This horse is not Dude, but it looks a surprising amount like him. Good work, horse.)

My sister, like so many sisters, had a period where all she wanted was a horse. Because we lived in the middle of nowhere, my parents could make that dream come true for her. Because she was a young girl and because I was a kid who'd never shown much interest in horses whatsoever, they got us what amounted to a "starter horse." His name was Dude, and I thought he was pretty neat.

Dude was not the horse of my sister's dreams, I don't think. If she had dreams of riding atop him, majestically, hair streaming behind her, through open pastures, well, Dude was an old horse, and the best he could manage was a half-hearted gallop that usually felt like a fall that never quite managed to succeed in being a fall (at least until the time he rolled with my father on his back, which turned out surprisingly well for both rider and horse).

And yet I, as someone who had no interest in horses, didn't particularly find him slow ENOUGH. I would ride on him for a walk, but head up toward canter or trot or gallop, and forget about it. I've always been an awkwardly proportioned person, so all I could think about while riding a horse (any horse) or while skiing or something was about how I was tall, but in all the wrong ways, with weird, stubby legs and a long torso and oh God, I had been assembled in some sort of monstrous 3D Printer.

So Dude became an uncanny valley horse. My sister tired of him because he couldn't send her rocketing across the prairie on various horse-bound adventures. I didn't want to ride him because he made me acutely aware of my own inadequacies as a human being. I'd say after the first year we owned him, he was pretty much just a creature that lived in our lower pasture and ate our oats and drank our water. (He was likely fine with this arrangement.)

Yet we couldn't bring ourselves to get rid of him, even in the last year he was with us, when my father was the only one who paid real attention to him. Dude was a surpassingly kind horse, who would put up with all manner of torment, who really just wanted a hug, especially if you needed one and somehow thought hugging a horse would suffice. (The surprising thing is that it does. If you are in need of a pick-me-up, hug a horse.) Through rain and snow and everything else, he was always there, with his weirdly kind eyes and his brown fur and his horsey smell.

The other thing about Dude is that he turned out to be an escape artist, somewhat improbably. My father would often stake him out on nice summer days, so he could have a little grass and, I don't know, enjoy the breeze or whatever horses do on summer days. And invariably, a few of those times, he managed to slip the bonds that held him and take off across the countryside.

What was interesting was that Dude always headed southeast. Why southeast? We never figured it out. (We had bought him from a farm northwest of our farm, so maybe he was trying to put more distance between himself and his former owners.) But he would travel like that for several hours — and once even overnight — and then some other farmer would find a horse standing in his front yard, chewing on his dandelions or something, and he would wonder how the horse got there.

(This could be far worse. Once, somebody's lion got loose. Yes, a lion.)

After a few phone calls, Dude would invariably be identified as our horse, and he would come back home. I sometimes imagine his midnight sojourns, headed southeast, cross-country, plodding along like the old man horse he was. It was like one of those occasional stories you read where a bunch of elderly folks slip the bonds of their retirement home and race off toward Vegas or something, except without any particular destination in mind.

I don't know if horses are particularly social creatures, so I can't say if Dude was nonplussed to have no other horses around. But he always seemed more or less serene about his existence, and truth be told, if you're an old man horse, there are worse ways to spend your waning years than in a nice little pasture, where you're regularly fed oats, with children who care for you only intermittently and a man who makes sure you're provided for, because that's what he does.

My parents were fans of letting my sister and I taste test hobbies, to see if they took. When I asked for a weight set for some reason as a high school freshman (presumably to make myself seem less bully-able), they compensated with a list of good exercises to do and a few smaller weights, just to see if it would stick. (The joke was on them. I kept to that workout routine, then pretty much stopped exercising when they bought me a more elaborate system after being proud of my newfound fitness zeal.) So Dude was always the horse we bought to see if my sister's dreams of a fleet of horses were a realistic option.

And who's to say! They could have been! Maybe there's a universe where Dude was a little more charismatic, and my sister took to him more, and she became a large animal veterinarian or something, and in that universe, she spends every weekend sweeping across the prairie, atop an old horse, a V formation of other horses trailing behind her.

But that universe is not this one. After a few years, it became obvious Dude was the rural equivalent of the ping pong table cluttering up so many suburban basements, and he went on his way. Wherever he ended up, he almost certainly died there, and I hope it went well for him, as I hope it goes well for us all.

My sister, done with horses and edging toward adolescence, had a new animal fascination anyway. Which is how we got a parakeet.


Episodes is published at least three times per week, and more if I feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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