A Horse Named ‘Doc’

Doc was a Morgan colt when young Emaline and he first met. Drawn to each other by curiosity, their faces gently touched each other’s over the fence near the Sheads’ barn lot one spring morning in rural Missouri. He instantly became part of her family. They named him “Doc”—short for “just what the doctor ordered.” It was a name he well deserved as time passed.

Emaline and her brothers adapted the usual childhood games to include Doc. To play Ring Around the Rosie, their sister held one end of a corn cob while their horse held the other in his teeth. One brother held her hand and the other, the end of Doc’s stubby little tail. Around and around all of them galloped until they collapsed in a heap, laughing until they were breathless.

Doc caught on to the rules of hide and seek just as amazingly as he did to Ring Around the Rosie. He could find a tree stump or a hay stack to hide behind as fast as the children, and he reached “home” before they did. His triumphant whinny left no doubt about who had won. His reward was an apple or a cookie saved in either Emaline’s or one of her brother’s pockets.

Snakes posed no threat to the children; Doc abhorred them. The moment he spotted a snake, he gave an especially vociferous snort to warn all the children. Turtles were an entirely other matter. “They always remained an enigma to him. He would watch the slow progress of one with the greatest interest, plodding, nose down, to follow one until tiring, it drew into its shell. At that point Doc lost interest or else considered it a queer kind of stone, not worthy of further attention.”*

One frigid night when the snow was inches deep, “as Father Shead put Doc’s cheek rein down, the horse lowered his head into the snow, moved his feet apart and snorted. Emaline knew that the sound indicated surprise. She felt between his hooves and found a tiny white kitten crouched there.” Somehow it quickly scrambled onto Doc’s back and made its way into Doc’s stall. From then on, it became known as ‘Doc’s kitten.’”

Eventually the Sheads moved from the country to the outskirts of a growing city. Doc developed some new interests. He began to “dance” whenever he heard music, especially the sound of the Salvation Army band. Once when Emaline and her father were driving, the horse heard the band playing in the distance. “Well, what are you waiting for?”* Father Shead said to Doc. Away the horse galloped from one street to another until he came upon the band. He spotted the tuba player and thrust his nose into the big horn. The player was not amused, but the crowd roared in mirth.

The incident that forever endeared Doc to the Sheads, however, was the time when Father hitched Doc and his teammate to an open-sided, fancy surrey to take the family to town. Returning later, they were only a few miles from home when an approaching storm burst forth in a fury with crashing thunder, torrents of rain and stabs of lightning. Doc’s partner reared in terror and dumped the surrey upside-down in a ditch. Suddenly the other horse stopped thrashing about. “In a vivid flash of lightning,”* Emaline and her father saw that Doc’s teeth were firmly clamped onto his teammate’s neck so that the other horse could no longer move. Thankfully, no one was hurt. Father and his sons righted the carriage, everyone jumped back into the surrey, and “Father calmly wrapped the lines above the whip stock and said, ‘Doc, take us home.’… Not once did Father touch the reins until they drove into their own barn lot. As Father unhitched Doc, he laid his head against Doc’s shoulder and his hands went up to give Doc a brief hug.” *

Doc received an extra serving of hot bran mash for supper that night.

*Note: I adapted the Doc stories from unpublished recollections by my friend Celeste Herbert’s mother, Emaline Celeste Shead Pigg.