COLUMBUS, Miss. — When Lisa Oswalt was 3 years old, her father bought her a pony.
"He always said it was the worst mistake he ever made," said Oswalt, now 46. "Except for maybe about three years, I've had horses ever since."
Her last horse was Pete, a gentle gray gelding quarter horse who had come to Oswalt after being pretty much left to pasture for 10 years.
Almost from the start, the two bonded.
"He hadn't had a saddle on him in 10 years, but he took to it right away," Oswalt said. "It was like he had been ridden every day. You would never have known. I knew right then he would be an easy horse to train."
Then the hard times came. First, there was the divorce. Then she lost her job. The suddenly jobless, suddenly single mom knew in her gut that there was one more thing she would have to give up.
She would have to give up Pete.
"A few years before, I had given a mare to a woman I knew, and she was wonderful with her. So when I realized I had to give up Pete, I called her. She said she couldn't take him, but she knew someone who would. Knowing how good she was with horses, I trusted that she wouldn't recommend anyone that wouldn't be great, too."
Even so, it was a tough decision.
"Ever hear that saying, 'My therapist is in my barn?' That's how it was for me," Oswalt said. "It was hard, really hard, to give him up, but at the same time I knew it was something I had to do. I had to think of what was best for Pete. I didn't want to let him go. But I had to."
It's been two years since Oswalt "did the right thing," but hardly a day has passed that her mind hasn't drifted to horses, in general, and Pete, in particular. Horses and owners always find a special way of connecting.
For Oswalt and Pete, their ritual started with Oswalt rubbing his muzzle and withers. Pete would take a few steps forward, positioning his butt in front of her hand, because for Pete, there was nothing in the world better than a good butt-scratching.
Pete may have left her pasture, but he hadn't left her heart. Horse people understand the feeling.
A few weeks ago, Oswalt saw a story in The Dispatch that moved her to tears, then to action. According the story, Lowndes County Animal Control and Sheriff's deputies had seized 11 malnourished horses, four mules and a donkey from the residence of James Cochran on Hartford Lane off Mississippi Highway 69. The animals were transported to the Golden Triangle Horse Rescue facility in Tibbee.
Oswalt read the story, saw the picture of an emaciated donkey in the paper and knew she had to do something.
"I called my friend, Jan, and told her I wanted to borrow her horse trailer. I told her we had to do whatever we could to help, no matter if it meant taking them in or feeding them or whatever. We had to do something."
Oswalt studied the pictures of the horses on the GTHR website. A few days later, she and her 13-year-old daughter, Kadee Holmes, went out to see the horses.
"It just breaks your heart," Oswalt said. "They were all so poor, they had been starving."
As they looked at the horses, Kadee spotted a pitiful gray, a horse the GTHR staff had dubbed "Ranger."
"Mama, that one looks sorta like Pete, doesn't he?" she asked.
Oswalt looked at the horse. Pete had few markings. Pete's gray coat was flecked with brown, and he had a white blaze on his forehead, his only distinguishing mark. Oswalt didn't see the familiar blaze against the dull, faded gray coat of the poor horse.
"A little," she answered.
As they looked at the other horses, a nagging thought began to invade Oswalt's thoughts.
The gray horse had moved a few feet away, grazing.
"I wonder," Oswalt kept thinking.
She turned in the gray's direction.
"Pete!" she said. "Come here, Pete!"
The gray looked up.
"And I knew," Oswalt said. "His ears went up and here he came, right to me."
The tears came first, then the gray turned his butt to Oswalt for the obligatory butt-scratching. It was Pete, all right.
"Oh, gosh I can't describe it, really," Oswalt said. "It was just overwhelming. First, it was all those poor horses and then to realize that one of them was Pete and that I had put him in that position, I just felt so bad. I thought I was doing the right thing by giving him up. And this is what happened. I had done this to him. It was so sad."
But soon the joy of being reunited with Pete pushed those feelings of guilt aside.
Oswalt hopes to have Pete "back home" this weekend. Back home, for good. Kadee, too, will be bringing home one of the rescue horses, like Pete, a sweet-natured gelding.
They will share a pasture with an old goat. Oswalt and Kadee, who is very much her mother's child when it comes to horses, will fuss over them and pamper them. They'll be the fattest, most contented horses in Lowndes County.
What a homecoming it will be.
Oswalt breaks into a broad smile just thinking of it.
"Oh, I can't wait," she said. "It's an answered prayer."