As soon as we turned left on Old Post Road, the horses knew. They leaned in to their bridles and begged for speed. They flipped their heads up to avoid our restraining reins and swung their hips to the side, ready to bolt forward in a second.
Several hundred meters ahead we would turn right on to the historic stretch of dirt road known locally as Morgan Mile. And here we would push our hands forward to let the horses run. We raced for bragging rights and for the sheer thrill of one mile of pure wild abandon. The only rule: to honor history every horse had to maintain a trot, no galloping. Acknowledging the legendary steeds that ran this road in the past, my family had a tradition of racing each other down this flat one lane road that sliced through lush green pastures on either side before flinging us past an idyllic red and white farmstead that marked the end of our mile. Here the road bent to the right and curved its way back out to well-traveled Highway 12.
As central Vermont lore holds, in the late 1700s a music teacher named Justin Morgan acquired a stocky horse named Figure as payment for a debt. Eventually, this stocky sure-footed young stallion proved himself to be one of a kind. By day, he worked in the nearby quarries hauling out blocks of stone by cart. Rumors of his stamina and trotting speeds became so widespread that horse trainers from afar began showing up to challenge him in match races along what became known as Morgan Mile. History as we know it claims that Figure never once lost one of these trotting matches, even after working the quarry all day. Eventually, he went on to become the foundation sire of today’s Morgan breed, horses whose strength for trotting lives on.
For those white-knuckle moments my parents and I raced, I always thought about that super horse of the past. As my surly mare either charged to the front or balked up and hung back, I reflected on the marvel of horses like Figure or Secretariat or Ahlerich or any of the other great equine performers. Every time we raced down that flat Vermont road and laughed and careened out of control, I recalled how some horses can inspire and overwhelm us. My childhood in a horse-training family did this, too. With green fields whirring past and my mare’s shoes pounding faster and faster, a past and present life with horses merged. It felt like celebration. Glancing sideways at my mom—two-point and raggedy in her dressage saddle—and then at my dad—driving one of his youngsters in a light two-wheeled cart—I could see they also felt it. For sure, the Morgan Mile instilled in me an appreciation of trotting speeds. But even more than that, it crystallized some of my fondest memories of my mother and father and the passionate life we shared.
By Jec A. Ballou