Suzanne Drnec: Anchors and Keepsakes

Someone once told me about anchors – the experiences that hold us, like a ship, to a distant shore. Anchors can be tangible items – like keepsakes – but they can also be memories, scents, songs, and tastes that, once experienced, lodge in our souls and bind us fast to that first exposure whenever we encounter them again. In my life, most of my anchors are horse related. They transport me, with just a glimpse, whiff, or melody, to some misty time in the past. My barn, in this respect, is more like a ship chandler’s shop than a place to store tools, horses, and hay. I notice anchors everywhere; each one approaches in its own way.

It starts with a breeze, bringing the unmistakable blend of alfalfa, dust, manure, and horse to my nose. This is my favorite perfume, a heady scent that takes me back to the barn of my youth. Its deep mangers and tall haystack. The orange grain box divided in two for oats and corn. The ever-present tang of ammonia (from one old mare with poor bladder skills). The odors lead me, link by link on the anchor chain, through a hundred barns in a dozen countries: to England at the National Stud, looking at Mill Reef like he was Elvis; to a humble shed in Austria housing a Haflinger mare with a mane more blond than Dolly Parton’s hair; to a tree in Brazil with corrugated tin threaded through the branches to provide some shade for a weary cart horse; to a ramshackle stall in our backyard where our first foal rested in my arms. Just a few molecules of “Corral #5” in my nose can send me around the world and anchor me to a thousand times I smelled horses and knew I was home.

As I slide open the barn door, the sound of the squeaky wheels struggling along dusty tracks reminds me of a sound that, like a nicker, neigh, or stomping hoof, would make any horseman’s list of top musical sounds. The barn door’s song is like reveille for its residents – horses spring to attention behind their doors, slobbering and weaving in anticipation of breakfast, nodding their heads to encourage me to hurry up. The cats wake and stretch on the hay, and look haughtily down at me knowing that canned love is on its way. The aisle lights buzz and flicker then burst to bright life. Even those hateful pigeons stir when the door slides open – preparing to annoy me for another day with their droppings and feathers. They know the guilt I feel when I try to dislodge their nested families from the tack room rafters. These sounds are universal, a melody that has been the soundtrack to my life: the horses, the cats, the creaks and clunks of wood and metal, the thuds and bumps of big bodies anxious to eat or be entertained.

I can taste the morning just by breathing the dust stirred up as the horses move, the dry hint of shavings, the moist earthiness of a night’s worth of waste, the clean tang of water in galvanized bowls. There’s a difference to the palate in an enclosed barn like I have now and the fenced turnouts from when I was a kid, where the wind moved the airborne textures faster out of reach. The smallest leaf of alfalfa floats into my mouth, its pungent green flavor like good tea left in a cup that you sip even though it’s gone cold. My mouth can tell the difference between summer and winter, the density of sensations heavier in the cooler months, more fleeting when it’s warm.

My keepsakes are definite anchors. The leather pony halter Mr. Berry gave me when I was in third grade, its red patent browband now ruined where my pony, Brian, chewed on it when I didn’t tie him short enough. There’s Sugar’s bridle, the black one with diamond-shaped spots and the old Crockett bit, dented on the left concho from the time she struggled in the quicksand at the gravel pit. The big fancy tack box that Kim left when she moved away, still full of her bridles and grooming tools. It meant so much to her when she won that trunk in 1982 – I wonder where she is today? My Ricotti saddle, wrapped in its quilted bag, bought with great anticipation of glorious rides on Bo, the cow horse who was an anchor to so much disappointment and hurt. Even my manure shovel hooks me, the aluminum snow scoop with the twisted handle where I ran over it with the mustard-colored truck when I was trying to get the horse trailer out of the mud to go to a show.

Anchors are everywhere, with chains from thick to fine, creating a strong matrix of memories that is the canvas of my life. Sometimes, a glance from a horse is reminiscent of another favorite pet’s look, now long gone. My eyes moisten as the invisible anchors begin their shifting and clanking around my heart. The horses, (of course) people, and places from my past all mesh together – shows and trail rides, foals, moonlight on leather, recognizable anchors keep me from drifting too far from what’s important, what makes me who I am. How lucky I am that God gave me the horse-loving gene – and anchors to remember all.

? 2002 Suzanne Drnec

Writing or riding, Suzanne Drnec enjoys horses and their people. Drnec is president of Hobby Horse Clothing Company, a show apparel manufacturer, and also the caretaker of an assortment of lawn ornaments, currently two Paints. Comments? E-mail them to

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