One wintry day when I was eleven, Dad took me into the foothills between Blackfoot and Idaho Falls, Idaho, to buy a riding horse. We chose a coal-black yearling that fought and reared and was really wild. I was told that when he was roped by the cowboys, it was the first time he had ever been touched by human hands. We named him Champ.
I learned that Champ had royal blood running in his veins. His grandfather was the incomparable Man o’ War, the most famous thoroughbred racehorse of all time. Dad and I trained him patiently, and Champ and I became the best of friends and partners. He was the greatest animal I had ever seen. He was swift and strong, and no local horse ever came close to winning a race with him. As I saw the qualities he had inherited from his famous grandfather, it really made me think about my own potential as a child of God.
In 1948 we moved from Idaho to Moses Lake, Washington. The wide open spaces of the Columbia basin were perfect horse country. There was nothing beyond our farm for several miles in some directions. Range cattle ruled over the territory they had grazed on for generations. Now we were putting up fences around part of their range and growing lush and tempting alfalfa, potatoes, and corn. Our fences were good but not always good enough to keep out the white-faced red Herefords. That job fell to Champ and this eager twelve-year-old who had seen western movies about cattle drives by rugged cowboys.
Champ and I had memorable drives of our own, chasing away the cattle that invaded our fields or even grazed suspiciously close, Together we learned some tricks of the cowboy’s trade, such as singling out one animal and cutting it from the herd. We developed an extraordinary oneness. Sometimes I would ride without saddle or bridle. It was just Champ and me in perfect unison, racing at breakneck speed. Even at those speeds, without artificial harnessing of any kind, we were in complete control. Just a touch on his neck would turn him. A shift in my posture would slow him down or speed him up. He was totally obedient, completely responsive.
Champ was a good-looking horse with classic markings. He won first place at the county fair, and many people offered to buy him. But he wasn’t for sale.
One Sunday after sacrament meeting, I went out to feed Champ and he was gone. Searching for a black horse at night was not easy, and morning brought no comfort. There was no hungry, thirsty Champ at the corral gate. We searched all over the farm and far beyond with no success. It appeared that Champ had been stolen!
Heartsick and unwilling to accept the obvious, I asked my cousin Kay Lybbert to lend me a horse and go with me into the wastelands beyond our farm in search of Champ. I had caught glimpses of wild horses in this country, scattered bands of mares and colts, led by dominant stallions.
We rode for hours into rocky and treacherous lands. We were tired, hungry, and discouraged and were talking of turning back, when we thought we saw a shape on the horizon. We pushed on and eventually rode over a ridge and saw a herd of about fifteen wild horses. They were startled. Their nostrils were wide, pumping cool air into deep lungs. Heads high, tails flying, muscles tensed, they burst away in wild flight. To our amazement and joy, the magnificent Champ was before them all, leading the herd, as wild and elusive as the first day I saw him as an unschooled yearling.
I have often thought about that most vivid picture. Champ was rightfully mine. We had been the best of companions. We had had great times together. He had been a disciplined and precious soul. But now he was undisciplined, out of control, and determined to stay that way. Though he was their visible leader, he was really under the control of the group of wild horses with whom he had accepted company.
We were off on a race, not on the manicured track where his grandfather had won fame, but across wild and rugged lands where a tired horse burdened with a rider could stumble and fall. At stake was the future of my beloved Champ.
I doubted our ability to stick with the wild horses, because we had been traveling half a day and they were fresh. But somehow we turned them eastward and stayed close. In time we slid over a steep hill down into Mae Valley within sight of our own fences. The herd soon thundered past our place, the steam from their bodies rising above them in a cloud. With the help of neighbors, we were finally able to channel Champ into our corral, safely behind secure barriers.
Dad was the first to get to Champ. He called him by name and approached gently, moving without disturbing gestures or sounds, easing up to him, and putting his arms around the horse’s quivering neck. I watched him give Champ an embrace that only a horse lover would understand. We were all relieved that this prized animal was back where he belonged once again, and where he was loved, protected, and cared for.
Children, honor your father and mother. Follow the Savior, your Master. Listen to them. Learn from them, and stay faithful. They have given you a noble heritage, just as Champ’s parents gave him one.