Stories of the season: A Christmas horse – ‘Sunshine’ fades for a little girl grown

Composite image. Inset photo shows Liesa Swejkoski with her horse, "Sunshine," in Michigan during the 1970s | Photo courtesy of Liesa Swejkoski, St. George News

FEATURE — On a cold day, Dec. 23, 1975, my best friend Karen and I stood alongside Allen Road, a busy thoroughfare in Taylor, Michigan. We watched vehicles speed by, making whooshing noises as their wheels splattered dirty slush past the curb, almost to our booted feet.

Liesa Swejkoski with her horse, “Sunshine,” and collie dogs in Michigan during the 1970s | Photo courtesy of Liesa Swejkoski, St. George News

We were two 11-year-olds anxiously awaiting the arrival of a truck pulling a horse trailer. We stood bundled in our parkas and gloves in the foot-deep snow. My Christmas present was on its way — a beautiful palomino filly.

I had never owned a horse before, but I didn’t fear the responsibility that I was about to undertake. I’d read every book and magazine about horse care and grooming, what to feed a thousand pound equine, what not to feed it. Besides, Karen was by my side, ready to offer her advice about horses. She’d never owned one but had spent hours and hours at the stables taking riding lessons. I put my confidence in her straight-A knowledge of every subject.

The temperature barely hovered above freezing. Karen tightened her fur-lined hat around her long blonde locks. My friend was a genius at everything: music, art, math and so much more. She was like an encyclopedia when anyone asked her about the equine genus — and one of the few kids that my mother encouraged me to play with. I looked at her, and she gave me a broad smile. She was pretty, too. All the little boys who pretended to hate girls absolutely loved her. They couldn’t hide it.

My dad had taken the day off, and the next day, too. Usually at this time of year, we’d have been visiting Grandma in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It never occurred to me that he was missing out on visiting his mother. Maybe, for once he didn’t miss driving southward. I think, maybe, my dad was just as excited as I was, but he kept a serious face as he checked on us, which was about every 10 minutes. Despite his assurance that we could wait in the house and that jumping up and down on the show-covered lawn would not make the trailer arrive any faster, we insisted that we were going to stay outside.

Chilled to the bone, after we’d waited a half-hour past the trailer’s expected arrival time, my father made Karen and me sit in his station wagon. Our cheeks were red from the cold, and our eyes were wide with anticipation. Once inside the car, my dad told us he’d gotten a call: the driver was running late, but my horse was on its way! Dad revved the engine and warmed our nearly frozen feet.

Sometime later, around the street corner, we spotted the horse van. It pulled up to our driveway as Karen and I jumped out of the car to meet it. My dad turned off the station wagon and greeted the driver. With my father’s assistance, the man led the horse out. She stood 14 hands at her withers, manageable for a child my age, not too intimidating, yet not a pony. She was in her thick winter hide, a pale version of what a palomino should be. The filly’s nostrils quivered as she gently tip-toed in the snow.

Liesa Swejkoski with her horse, “Sunshine,” and collie dogs in tow in Michigan during the 1970s | Photo courtesy of Liesa Swejkoski, St. George News

The young horse was guided behind the double-wide gate to our backyard. The lead-rope was unhooked from her halter. Karen and I stood still, in awe of what we saw. The moment was just too magical for us to do or say anything. The horse looked around, wide-eyed and curious. Our collies were just as inquisitive. What was this huge animal in their yard?

Suddenly a semi on the street down-shifted and backfired. In a flash of pale yellow, my filly was running in the snow, kicking up her back hooves. The driver chuckled, “There she goes! I guess she does have a little spunk! You know, that little pony has a good disposition.” He paused as we all watched the small horse canter in her new surroundings.

“Look at that,” he continued. “I’ve never seen her so lively. She’s boarded with our barn since she was newly weaned, more than a year ago. In that time, I’ve observed that she’s a smart horse — and gentle, too. Once you train her, she’ll make a fine mount for your daughter.”

He nodded toward me. Before long, he had gotten back into the cab of his truck. I hardly noticed that he’d driven off toward Eureka Road. I only had eyes for my young sun-colored mare. “That’s my Sunshine,” I said, and that was what she was named.

Evening comes early for Michigan in winter. The street lights were beginning to come on. As for every child on the block, that was Karen’s cue to go home. She reluctantly jumped the fence and trudged through the snow drifts to her house on quiet Jackson Street.

My dad and I walked to the small red barn located on the back end of our acre. I turned to see my yellow filly at a distance, pawing at the snow, looking for something to nibble on. Lifting her head, she started to trot toward us. The collies walked inside and Sunshine was suddenly right behind them. Daylight was giving way to the dark and as most domestic animals know, supper is served at that time. The dogs knew it. My horse was expecting it.

Their meal would have to wait, though. We opened a plastic covered bale of bedding into the stall, spreading the pine wood shavings for Sunshine to sleep on. She sniffed at them, lifted her tail and deposited some droppings in a corner. The pile steamed.

“Sunshine” the horse in Michigan during the 1970s | Photo courtesy of Liesa Swejkoski, St. George News

My father looked at me and I looked back at him.  “Well,” he smiled. “It’s your horse and your responsibility. Might as well start now.” Then he added, “If I don’t see her getting proper care, I’ll sell her before I see her suffer.” Not only did I clean up the mess, I pampered Sunshine from that time forward, grooming her every single day.


Several months later, our neighbor Darlene helped us saddle-break Sunshine. She had trained horses and won ribbons in shows for more than a decade. In fact, she’d been on the local TV news for exchanging her wedding vows on horseback just a few, short months before Sunshine came to live with me. Much of the time, Karen gave Darlene advice. I’m sure the woman had enough of Karen’s “help” on many occasions, but she was patient with children and horses.

Over the years, Sunshine and I became as close as a horse and human could get. We two friends grew up together and learned from one another. One year, a collie pup named Tam was born under our house. Some summer nights, the three of us slept in the barn, huddled together. Often Karen would join us for a sleepover, but gradually, she discovered boys and stopped visiting and riding.

At the age of 13, after watching Steve Cauthen win the Triple Crown on Affirmed, I wanted to become a jockey. Hiking up the stirrups jockey-style, I’d fearlessly ride my golden mare, hunched over her back, as fast as we both could go. Her blonde mane blinded me sometimes.

A year later at the age of 14, I grew another shoe size and a couple inches taller — too big to ride in the races. I might not have been small enough for the thoroughbreds, but I still rode hard and fast for a few more summers, Tam nipping at Sunshine’s heels.

Liesa Swejkoski rides her horse, “Sunshine,” in Michigan during the 1970s | Photo courtesy of Liesa Swejkoski, St. George News

In high school, boys discovered me. I asked one young man if he’d like to come to the barn and see my horse. It was a cool evening. Tam followed us, a dubious look in his canine eyes.

We reached the barn and I flicked on the light. Sunshine popped her head over the stall to say “Hello,” by nuzzling us. My date promptly turned off the light. I flipped the switch and giggled, “Silly, you can’t see her with the light off!” I didn’t know that he was the one that was turned on and wanted to nuzzle me, not my horse. He dropped me for one of my best friends a month later.

Another boy, who had never ridden a horse before we dated, was so impressed by my love for riding that he went out and learned about horses. Decades later he opened his own riding academy.

In my senior year of high school, I knew that I’d eventually be going to college. I was busy and frustrated. Sunshine must have sensed it. She put her rump to me and wouldn’t interact. She didn’t kick, but she just would not cooperate. When I’d try to saddle her, Sunshine would get ornery. She wouldn’t come when called.

I don’t know why I did it, but I lashed out at her one evening. I smacked her hard in her stall with the buggy whip and left. I walked toward my house, the golden light from the windows streaming gently into the yard. As I neared my little white house, a thought formed in my head: I know I have to say, “Goodbye.” I can no longer give my “baby” the proper care and attention that she deserves. I felt a sense of determination. Had that thought been forming all season?

I walked inside and told my dad to sell Sunshine; that there must be a little girl out there somewhere that wanted a horse for Christmas. He put a notice on the corkboard at work: “Palomino Mare for Sale.”

Mr. Bartski, who worked with my father at General Motors, answered the ad. He lived in Northville and had two daughters. He brought them out to ride Sunshine. Bartski’s oldest daughter was stiff in the saddle and a little too tight with the reins. I watched with doubt as she walked the mare around the yard and then dismounted.

Taking her turn, the youngest girl got on Sunshine’s back and took hold of the reins, stretching the corners of Sunshine’s tender mouth. My mare bucked a tiny bit, like a leap, straight into the air. Somehow the little red-headed girl stayed in the saddle. I thought my mare was too much horse for both the riders but when the kid dismounted, Sunshine nuzzled the child’s auburn hair and relaxed. Mr. Bartski put a down payment on the horse.

That weekend we loaded Sunshine into a horse trailer. Dad and I just held each other and sobbed. I think Karen was there, but now I am not so certain. I know that Tam stood by, whimpering, looking confused, sensing our sadness. Sunshine, a member of our family was leaving. I was growing up and soon, I too, would be going away.

As my dad and I reached the steps to go inside the house, snow began to fall.

Submitted by LIESA SWEJKOSKI, St. George.

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