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By Kay Coyte

My family wasn’t big on Christmas presents. We were a mom and dad, and my two older sisters, then me, the eight-years-younger oops kid. Generally, each received one big present, and maybe a little something from Santa, and a fruit- and candy-filled stocking.

Every year since I could talk, I’d asked Santa for a pony. That wasn’t in the picture, though my parents did pony up for riding lessons. Not sure what I asked for as a 10-year-old in 1964, maybe a Breyer’s rearing stallion figurine.

horse fever book pat johnsonBut under the Christmas tree was a big, bowed box, and when it was my turn, I tore into the packaging and soon was face to face with Chatty Cathy, the talking doll. (Don’t remember Chatty Cathy? Check her out here.) She had a blond pageboy, freckles and wore a frilly dress. I was a tomboy, but a polite tomboy, and I tried to hide my disappointment with a stiff upper lip and a “Thank you very much.”

But wait, there’s another present. This time, paydirt: “Horse Fever: A Guide for Horse Lovers and Riders,” by Pat Johnson, a primer on all things equine, written for a mostly young girl audience. On the title page, my mom inscribed in red pen “To a little girl who has” — and then she drew an arrow down to “Horse Fever.”

Chatty Cathy mostly sat on a shelf, or came out for a little conversation when girlfriends visited. “Horse Fever,” by contrast, was read over and over, its cover faded and frayed. Now that I think of it, the book was kind of a tease. Chapter 2 started with “Let’s go horse hunting!” and other chapters covered care and feeding, and first aid. My parents balked at buying a horse, citing the expense of boarding and other upkeep. At 17, I got one myself, an Appaloosa/Quarter-Horse cross bought with my own money and pastured at the riding academy where I worked part-time. Every once in awhile, I pulled out “Horse Fever” and checked something in that first aid section.

And “Horse Fever” is with me today, after countless moves, a marriage, a child of my own, a divorce, a downsize. Not too many of my childhood books crossed the country with me; “Horse Fever” did. And I’m still at heart a little girl with horse fever. My best Christmas gift this year? A print of the 1950s era champion Round Table, who happened to be born in Kentucky the day after I came into the world. In 1958, Round Table dominated thoroughbred racing at Santa Anita in California, winning several major stakes races. Nearly every week the dark bay colt’s photo graced the cover of the Blood-Horse magazine, and I spent many an hour poring over those issues while my parents played bridge with a couple who had a subscription to that racing digest. The artist is Allen F. Brewer Jr., whose lithograph of another thoroughbred champion, Citation, had traveled with me through college and thereafter, but eventually was left behind. In a further bit of serendipity, this Round Table at Santa Anita print came from an antique shop in Georgia that’s in my extended family. As you can see here, I was thrilled to unwrap Brewer’s Round Table and my “Thank you very much” was punctuated with a big smile!