The search for an old friend

After being separated from his beloved horse for almost 30 years, Dan Kirkland saw a newspaper story that gave him new hope

02:31 PM CDT on Friday, September 12, 2003

By LARRY POWELL / The Dallas Morning News

Dan Kirkland was there when one of the family's mares, Jean, gave birth to the splendid foal.

It was a March morning in 1970 and Dan was 13.

In an essay written decades later, Dan recalled Jean's "sigh of relief and her resting there for a few moments before working to make him stand."

To Dan, the colt "represented life, newness, a new beginning ... Jean allowed me to touch her foal ... He did not know to be afraid and allowed me to touch his forehead and stroke his velvet coat. Other than my children, I have never touched anything quite so wonderful."

Dan touched the colt and the colt touched him. "For almost 30 years I have remembered this special sorrel colt and the refuge he provided for me from a world that seemed harsh and unbearable."

He called him "Rocky" and when he rode Jean in the family pasture in Jackson, Miss., Rocky tagged alongside.

Dan says his childhood was marked by insecurity. Because his dad, Ivy, was often gone for extended periods working for an oil company, many man-of-the-house duties fell on young Dan's shoulders. He thinks this led to his ulcer at 13.

Trying to shield himself from discomfort, Dan rewired his emotions and became dedicated to caring for the family horses Jean and her colt Rocky, and several others. "Some came thin and dying, rescued from auctions by my father ... and they left fat and healthy with families who pledged to love them. ... Some were born there, some died there, but all were loved there."

Daddies try, but they can't always control what happens to families. The oil company moved Ivy and Eve Kirkland's family to suburban Dallas. It was wrenching. Only Rocky came to Texas. All other livestock was sold.

Dan, the rural boy, struggled to adjust and tried to fit in with the rodeo crowd at Carrollton's R. L. Turner High School. On his third bareback ride, he broke his arm, ending his rodeo days. He blames his "heavy accent, clumsiness and poor social skills" for making him "an outsider everywhere that I looked except at the barn. My best friend was Rocky."

He trained Rocky to "neck rein, to stop, to back up. He was so much fun to be with. Our relationship gave me a place to hide from the world." In December 1974, when Dan was a senior, his dad sold Rocky to a man in McKinney.

"I just knew I would die," Dan wrote. "And, certainly, I would never see Rocky again."

New beginnings

Dan went to college, became a licensed therapist (he has a practice in Richardson) and had a family. He has daughters Karen, 19, and Laura, 18, from a previous marriage. He's still honeymooning with Karen they wed in May.

Through the years, he often thought of Rocky and "felt a great connection to him, especially in times that I did not feel connected to anything else." As a comfort in harsh times, he says, "I thought about that sorrel horse and how we had been such good friends."

In the early 1990s, he found that American Quarter Horse Association records showed that the McKinney man, after a year, had sold Rocky to Robert Cutler of Allen. But Dan could find neither man, and the trail ended.

In his search, Dan learned that the AQHA usually lists horses older than 25 as "deceased." Most folks told Dan that the horse, by now, was surely dead.

Dan moved to Plano in 1994 and took many drives through the nearby Allen area, constantly looking for Rocky in roadside pastures and always stopping "to investigate any sorrel with a wide blaze and stocking feet."

Pursuing passions

In 1999, Dan had a frustrated client. "This guy had everything but he said, 'I have no purpose and no passion.' He decided his passion was painting."

One day the man left Dan's office to buy art supplies. Six months later, Dan got an invitation to the man's art exhibit. "This inspired me to look for my old passion horses. ... And if Rocky were still alive, I'd like to see him."

Dan, a professional counselor/play therapist, works with kids and uses his miniature horses, Prince and Glory, in group sessions. The 150-pound horses help kids and parents work with relationships, he says.

Dan also bought Cora's Cash, "a leggy sorrel with a wide blaze" who resembled Rocky. A check of AQHA bloodlines found a coincidence: Cora's grandfather, Dash for Cash, and Rocky's grandfather, Eternal Sun, were raised at Phillips Ranch in Frisco. Dan visited the ranch, now a boarding facility, to see where grandad had been raised.

Dan's computer searches for Rocky's registered name turned up Web sites ranging from religious groups to the Ku Klux Klan. A man at church showed Dan how to narrow the search to just "Eternal Reb," the registered name of the wondrous, comforting horse.

Dan's e-mail, sent to The Dallas Morning News at 10 p.m. Sunday, June 22, began, "You will never believe this ..."

Pamela Kettle's e-mail came the next morning: "I've got an unbelievable follow-up to the Pets and Their People ... about me and my daughter back in April."

The Saturday, April 12, 2003, Pets and Their People feature published in Texas Living told of Pamela Kettle and her daughter Jordan, 10; dogs Zoe, Selena and Sabre; and horses Be, 36, and Reb, 32. The story explained that Be's registered name is "Be Eternal" and Reb's is "Eternal Reb."

On June 22, when Dan's online search for "Eternal Reb" turned up "Pets and Their People," he immediately began a computer search for Pamela that, by Sunday evening, turned up a number for her PK Works! event management/video production business. It's a phone line she rarely answers during off-hours.

She recalls Dan's first words: "Please don't hang up, but I think you may have a horse that I've been searching for."

The selling point came when Dan said one of Rocky's owners was Robert Cutler.

"That's my dad!" Pamela said.

Until then, Dan says, "She thought I was a nut."

"Once I realized he wasn't a psycho, " says Pamela, "We compared notes, descriptions and pictures and realized that I, indeed, had his long-lost friend."

The gathering

They set up a reunion on Monday, June 23, at Don and Paulette Smith's Happy Acres Ranch in Sachse where longtime stablemates Be and Reb/Rocky live.

Pamela's parents, Robert and Nancy Cutler, now of Pittsburg in East Texas, were in town to watch granddaughter Jordan ride in a horse show. They all came to the reunion, as did Don and Paulette.

To make sure the horse was Rocky, Dan felt the left foreleg for "a knot that was on him the day he was born." It was there.

Nancy told Dan they'd bought Rocky from a man who lived across the street from a general store in Lucas. Dan, it turns out, lives about a mile from that store. Pamela told of riding Reb on Parker Road and to the Sonic in Allen.

Dan says, "This is the same Sonic where I stop for a drink every day. And Parker Road is a lane I have ridden Cora down many times. For the past 10 years, I have lived within 20 miles of Rocky!"

Pamela says she's amazed at Dan's devotion to the years-long search. And, she says, Be and Reb "have touched my life beyond compare these horses have been loved and cared for. ... The joy in this man's eyes upon seeing his old friend ... was one of the greatest things I've ever seen."

Dan says he wishes he could say that Rocky knew him, but "he's just a loving horse. He loves anybody who walks up to him."

"He's been our baby for so many years," Pamela says. "We can't ride him any more, but I still go out there and love on him."

"It was like full circle," Dan says, "to show up out there and see him and say 'You're OK and I'm OK we turned out all right."

Dan, at Pamela's invitation, often stops by Happy Acres to visit his old friend.

Happy trails

Dan's essay about finding Rocky touched on many things from a child's need for family support to the personal treasure that is friendship.

He wrote, "With horses, there are no pretenses. They cannot be fooled by a smile, a whisper or a wink. They don't care what color your skin or hair is, how you dress, whether you are skinny or fat, or what kind of house you live in. When a horse sees a child, all he sees is a child. There are no judgments. ... He was a true friend who saw me for who I was and loved me anyway. I did not know it then, but that was exactly what I needed."

E-mail lrpowell@dallasnews.com