Bella The Circus Pony

by Dianna Dandridge-Rystrom

Millicent Friemall definitely marched to the beat of her own drum and by all accounts always had. Most of the locals had various terms for the lady, few were anywhere near kind. Some folks simply said she had a screw loose; others got downright nasty and wanted her put away.

Maybe, it was all off her oddities that attracted me. Maybe it was the pure white pony with an ostrich plume headdress pulling a rattle-trap contraption of a cart that caught my attention. Whatever it was, we were destined to become friends.

We moved to the small town in New Mexico in the early 70s, just after Mama graduated from nursing school. She got a job as a private nurse for an elderly couple. The job paid about the same as a job in a hospital, but it offered a small house as part of the salary for the right person. We had moved around so much we didn’t really care anymore. It was just another house in another town.

The couple mama went to work for were Jim and Carrie Lupton, both in their late 80s, both two of the nicest people I would ever meet. I’ve always like old folks and this couple rapidly became some of my favorites. When we moved into the caretakers house Carrie invited us all in for lemonade and cookies. She delighted in showing us her wonderful old house full of antiques and family pictures, some dating back to the early 1900s.

Part of mama’s job included driving the Luptons to various appointments or just into town for groceries. Mama’s kids were always welcome to come along. Lord knows there was plenty of room in their big old station wagon. Jim Lupton was the one who introduced me to Millicent.

We had all gone into town that day. Mama had taken Carrie to have her hair fixed and Jim was just showing me around town when along comes the oddest looking one horse cart I had ever seen. As odd as the cart was, the beauty of the pony pulling the contraption was even harder to believe.

She was snow white and as perfect an equine specimen that anyone could ask to see. Tiny delicate feet had been polished to a high gloss and her leather harness jingled from hundreds of tiny brass bells stitched along the edges. Long, soft eyelashes seemed to flirt with each passerby and her owner adorned her headstall with a fluffy ostrich plume. Not really what one would expect to see in tiny a New Mexico town.

J

im Lupton and I were looking through the hardware store window when along comes this beautiful pony pulling what looked like part wheel chair and part one-horse trap. Come to find out that was pretty much the extent of Millie’s buggy.

She pulled up next to us and asked Jim if he was going to have any garden vegetables for sale this year. He answered yes and he remembered she liked the white summer squash and lots of tomatoes.

While the adults were talking about the gardens I had to get a little closer to the pony. When I got close enough she reached over to smell my pockets and gently taste me.

“Her name is Bella,” Millie said. “Do you like ponies?”

Oh what dumb questions adults could ask. “Oh, yes ma’am. I like all animals, but horses of any size are my favorites.”

About that time Jim introduced us and Millie told me I was welcome out at her place anytime. She said she would show me some of her art work and would like to have the company. As it turned out she only lived about a mile from where we were staying. I guess my mama pretty much figured out she had lost me to the lady with the pretty white pony as soon as I told her about the meeting.

It wasn’t but about a day or two later when I showed up at her door. Jim had pointed out the road that led up to her place. He said I just followed the road all the way to the end and I would come to a dark adobe house with lots of windows. That was Millie’s place.

The first few times I headed for Millie’s I would ask for permission, after that it was more like, “Mom, I’m going to Millie’s.” As long as my chores were done, Mama never said no.

My first visit I found out all about Millie and her pretty pony, Bella. Millie had been a victim of polio as a child and had been in a wheelchair since she was about my age, eleven or twelve. She had graduated from high school, but had never really fit in anywhere. Her parents though had encouraged her artistic talents and helped her with what finally became her life’s work --metal art.

Millie told me she had experimented with paints and clay and even had some pretty pieces of pottery she had done, but had never been happy till she started working with old metals. She had found lots of metal pieces along the roads and on some of the old farms. Her father had shown her how to use the welder and so she found her passion.

To help Millie get along on her own, her father had rigged up some sort of sled on skids for the old farm horse to pull. The one big draw-back was he had to harness old Tom, which still kept her from full freedom she desired. She told me when Tom died she started using the wheelchair more, but found it limited where she could go and what she could bring home.

After about three years in the wheelchair, her father had invited her to go to an auction, where they would be offering different circus items, including several ponies.

That’s where she met Bella. Bella was less than two years old when they met. Millie’s father had wanted her to get an older pony, but for Millie it was love at first sight. Her father bought the crystal white pony and a highly decorated headdress and harness. Bella had already been halter broke and was pulling small carts before the circus sold out. Bella and Millie made friends before the auction was even over.

The pure white pony entered a whole new world when she came to live with the crippled lady on a farm. She had been used to the sights and smells of the circus. Tents going up and down, the growl of the big cats and fancy lights in the big top were all common place. But, the smell of the cows in the barn, the nightly hooting of the barn owl and the noise of the pigs had nearly undone the poor little circus pony. Millie said she stayed in her stall for nearly three days and just trembled at all the new sights and smells. Every day Millie would go out to the barn and try to coax Bella out into the yard. Finally, the pony built up the courage to follow Millie’s wheelchair out to discover a whole new world.

The sled, built for the much larger farm horse, was way too heavy for the pony, so Millie went to work altering a wheel chair to fit her needs. For hours on end Millie would sit at her drawing board working out the perfect rig for the pony. As it turned out Millie removed the back from an old wheelchair, laid it out flat, added another set of wheels and came up with something nearly like a miniature buckboard. After that she just had to design the traces and harness. Again she set about drawing them, then used the old harnessing from the farm horse and came up with just what she needed.

Every step of the design of the cart and the harness included Bella. Millie would try it on her just for size, much like a seamstress fits a wedding dress to a bride. When the big day came to harness Bella and hook her up to Millie’s cart, everything went as smooth as butter. Bella never blinked. Millie said that had been nearly twenty years ago.

Millie’s parents had died and left her the house, the barn and several acres, so she always had a place to live and Bella had her barn all to herself.

Lots of Millie’s unsold art was stored in the barn and on her few acres. You must remember I use the word art loosely, because some of Millie’s work was questionable, at best. But, she did have some interesting pieces. Most of what she liked to work with revolved around horses and kids. She would use the oddest findings to come up with a remarkable finished piece. I remember asking her about one piece that looked like a miniature merry-go-round, but I couldn’t figure out what it was supposed to do.

“Get the garden hose,” she told me before she tried to answer. “And we’ll make it dance.”

Millie took the hose and hooked it up and told me to turn on the water.

What hadn’t really looked like much suddenly came to life. As the water ran through the base of the contraption, it started to spin and the tiny ponies went up and down spewing water as they flexed their necks.

“It’s a sprinkler,” I laughed. I was soon to learn that most of her pieces had a very real purpose rather than just as a piece of odd art. She had sprinklers, sun catchers, wind veins and even rocking chairs -- all adorned somehow with horses.

It wasn’t long before Millie realized she could count on me to help her handle some of her bigger, heavier pieces of metal and even her finished work. Everything we did we were sure to find Bella right in the middle of it all. Even when Millie used the welder or cutting torch she would be right there- granted her back would be turned to the welder, but she always knew what was going on.

That summer seemed to fly by and it wasn’t long before we were back in school. About once a week or so, Millie would come by and ask me to help her with her latest piece - a huge piece which had been commissioned by a children’s hospital in California. Millie had been working on it for some time and was nearly ready to crate it up and send it on its way.

It was a fascinating piece with a mare standing guard over a sleeping child snuggled up to a resting foal. A simple flick of the switch and the mare would gently swish away the flies from the sleeping babes and ever so easily turn her head to check on the pair. As the mare swished her tail, ever so softly, I heard the tune of the old lullaby “All the pretty ponies.” Watching the mechanical horse I could almost see a gentle old mare keeping watch over her baby and the human child, nestled so comfortably together in the afternoon sun.

Bella, as usual was right there as Millie and I finished crating the piece up. She moved out of the way as the freight truck backed up and began to load the piece. As always she acted as if she were giving her final approval before the piece left Millie’s hands, nodding her head and giving a short whinny as the truck pulled away.

Millie wrapped her arms around the pony’s neck and told her it was a job well done.

That night, after we had all been in bed for a while the phone rang. Mama came to get me. She said Millie was on the phone and there was something wrong with Bella. I said I’d be there as soon as I could get there. Like I said, I had long since given up asking for permission, but this late at night I thought Mama might not let me, but I was wrong. Not only was she willing to let me go, but she drove me over to Millie’s.

We got there to find Millie sitting in the hay, crying because Bella wouldn’t get up.

“I don’t know what’s wrong,” she said. “She ate her supper like a good girl and came out to the porch like always. She wandered off by herself. When she came back she was just kind of droopy. She just came in and lay down. Now, she won’t get up. Dr. Corbett is on his way, but it will be about an hour.”

Well, Mama didn’t have a clue and I was only a kid. Mama did ask if Bella had had a bowel movement or if she had been kicking at her belly. Millie told us Bella had left a fresh pile out in the yard and didn’t seem to be in any distress. She had thought of colic right away. Millie was nearly beside herself with worry. Bella was her best friend, her companion, her transportation and her inspiration for her work. Bella was also twenty some odd years old.

It wasn’t long before we heard the rattle of Dr. Corbett’s pickup. Mama and I stepped back to let him have room to examine the pony. Had there been a change in her diet? Any chance she got into something unusual? Had she been acting strange in any way? No, no, no! Everything was the same. Millie detailed her day, including the shipping of the artwork.

Corbett took her temperature and listened to her gut noises and said everything still sounded good, didn’t seem to be any blockages. He didn’t like that she had been lying down for more than two hours, but he couldn’t find anything wrong with her either. He pulled on her halter and finally got her up on all four feet, only to have her lie back down as soon as the pressure was removed.

“Millie, I can’t find anything wrong with her. She doesn’t seem to be in pain. Why don’t we just leave her be see how she goes tonight. I’ll be back in the morning. Call me if there is a change,” all of us knew the vet didn’t have any idea what so ever what was ailing Bella.

Mama started to head home, but told me I could stay the night if it was alright with Millie. Maybe I could help her do something. Millie and I settled down in the hay to keep watch over Bella, not that we could do anything, we just couldn’t leave. Just before dawn, Millie told me she had something for me and asked me to go get the package on her back porch. She told me to take the wagon because it was too big for me to carry.

I pulled the old red wagon out back and found the package Millie was talking about. I finally got it up on the wagon and hauled it around to the barn like Millie had asked. There in the hay I opened the box and found to my delight a small version of the piece we had shipped off that afternoon.

Millie told me I had been such a help she thought I would like a little reminder of the work we did that summer. It was the prototype of the commissioned piece. I stood there in awe, perfectly happy to have it. Then she pointed out the wind up key. When I turned the key, the miniature mimicked the actions of the larger piece, including the lullaby promising all the pretty ponies.

About three notes into the tune, Bella picked up her head and started looking around. In almost no time she was up, nosing around the wagon and the miniature of her owner’s work. She whinnied and tossed her head, as if welcoming the piece back home. Bella walked over to where Millie sat in the hay, gently nudged her with her nose and walked back to the art piece.

When the music stopped, Bella seemed lost for a minute. Millie asked me to wind it up again to see Bella’s reaction. Her pretty ears tipped forward and again she was happy. It finally dawned on us that this particular music held some attraction for the old white circus pony. For the next two hours we took turns winding the music box just to keep Bella happy.

Mama and the vet pulled into Millie’s driveway pretty much the same time. Both of them laughed when we told them how the night had turned things around. None of us really understood the full connection, but Bella was back. That was all that mattered.

We moved back to Texas later that winter. I stayed in touch with Millie for a number of years. Bella died at the age of 27. Millie died a few months later. Just before she died I got a package in the mail. It was the miniature that had made Bella so happy.