- Mardi Ford
- The Observer
Despite the cars flying past her, the redheaded woman astride the long-legged appaloosa rides sedately down Cove Avenue.
The pair are a sight that may be familiar in other parts of the valley, but are a rarity in La Grande Â— especially on a busy street like Cove Avenue. But this pair remembers when riding out here wasn't always like this.
A surgery nurse at Grande Ronde Hospital, Tana McClay grew up in Montana, attended Eastern Oregon University in the late 1970s where she met a local boy Â— David McClay Â— fell in love and eventually came back to marry him and settle down in a house near the hospital.
Tana had lost her 25-year-old mare back in Montana, so after the couple's first child was born, she went looking for a new horse. She bought the then 3-year-old Pecos Bill in 1979 because she liked the look of him, he was gentle and he rode well.
Tana recalls how the local girl who'd raised Pecos and green broke him hated saying goodbye.
"She was crying. I was crying," Tana says.
Pecos moved into a pasture between Island City and Cove avenues on some land then owned by David's family. Tana remembers the wide open spaces and the expansive view. There was no McDonald's or Wendy's. No motels or apartment complexes. No residential development. No storage units. No traffic.
"People say La Grande hasn't grown, but it's all changed out here," Tana says.
Today, Pecos Bill's small pasture is a rural island flanked by industry, progress and people. His home is the remnant of what once was large fields of farm land, farm houses, barns and sheds and horse neighbors.
"There used to be lots of other horses out here. Now, he's the only one," Tana says.
When David's family finally sold their land, they negotiated a contract that included a grandfather clause for Pecos. The new owner had to promise that Pecos Bill's rural island would endure as long as he did.
They've learned to adapt to the progress around them. For example, there used to be an irrigation ditch that ran the length across the property.
"It's a good thing I come out here every day because somebody just shut it off with no warning. It was his water source. It was everybody's water source. I've been told that ditch ran all the way from here to the Union highway. There were a lot of animals out here back then and cottonwoods Â— big, old trees," Tana recalls.
The water that sustained Pecos Bill also fed those trees and shrubs. But eventually they all died, Tana says, as did the old landowners. Farms were broken up and sold off in pieces.
If horses could talk, Pecos Bill's view on the world would be much the same as any old-timer. He would talk about the changes, the growth. More and more people, more cars, a quickening of modern life and its inevitable consumption of what is now known as the good old days.
Though the extended trail rides are also a thing of the past, Pecos loves his weekly rides with Tana.
"He gets all excited. His ears perk up and he steps out. He was a great trail horse," Tana adds.
She rides him now with nothing but a bareback pad Â— hating to put more weight on him than necessary Â— and has always used a hackamore. Pecos never liked the bit, she says, and she never needed it to control him.
"I couldn't see forcing a cold piece of metal in his mouth. Especially in the winter," she says.
Ironically, despite his age and unique living circumstances, Pecos gets ridden more consistently than many of the younger crowd adorning the pastures of their owners. But he has become something of a neighborhood pet.
"I get phone calls all the time from people who are watching out for him," Tana says.
One lady was more upset about what she thought was a cougar on the roof of her apartment hurting Pecos than the fact that she thought there was a cougar on her roof. Another called to ask why Pecos didn't go into his shelter. He was getting snow on his face and she worried about that.
"She wasn't sure the lean-to was big enough for him. I assured her it was big enough for two horses, and if the weather really bothered him, he'd go in there," Tana recalls good-naturedly.
Pecos Bill is always blanketed in the winter.
But she takes no offense at others' concern over her horse, because she knows they have his best interests at heart. The only thing she wishes the neighbors would stop is feeding him junk food.
"They think he's too thin. He likes apples and carrots, but cake isn't good for him. He founders easily anyway," says Tana, who has to be careful about what she feeds him. She agrees he is a little thin, but he is 30 years old.
"Aren't most old men too thin?" she asks, with a quick grin.
Tana is understandably protective of Pecos Bill. She once evicted some renters Â— before they sold the property and a little farm house was still there Â— for riding him without asking.
"Nobody rides my horse but me," she says, eyes flashing.
Another time, she caught some neighborhood boys sicking their dog on Pecos Bill. She put a stop to that, too.
She wants to keep him as long as possible.
The life span of a horse Â— compared to that of a man Â— is relatively short.
Most horses live somewhere around 20 years, depending on the breed and the life they live. Well cared for Arabians have been known to enjoy their 30s. Other horses Â— due to accidents, illnesses, weaker stamina or less conscientious owners Â— may not see half that.
Tana's first mare lived to 25 and Pecos has exceeded that.
Her love and care has been repaid in spades from a companion who shares her joy in riding and bestows gentle kisses on her hair whenever she's near.
Once, when Tana was fixing a fence, Pecos Bill reached over and gently took a piece of black licorice right out of her mouth. She has a lot of Pecos Bill stories like that. About his gentleness and patience Â— especially with her children when they were little.
Although many people prefer to sell off their old horses, that idea makes Tana's eyes flash.
"They keep these horses in a pasture and only ride them a couple weeks out of the year and then wonder why they don't work as well as they used to. So they get too old to trail ride or hunt, and they get rid of them. They're inconvenient," she says.
She will never part with Pecos Bill until he says it's time for him to go. She hopes that day is still a ways off.
"I don't know know why (he's lived this long), but as long as he's happy and healthy and enjoys our rides ... ." She lifts her shoulders and smiles.