Last year's Super Bowl party was in full swing at the DuArte manse near downtown Lexington. Jack, the host and originally from New Orleans, had invited everyone he knew to see his Saints finally play the Big Game. From the big open kitchen to the comfortable sun room at the back of the house, the DuArte home was festively deep with partyers.
Then, just before halftime, a knock on the back door, which was only a few feet from the big TV. Jack turned to his wife, Susan. They both knew who was at the door.
They knew they had no room for this guest, but someone opened the door anyway.
"Darleigh," yelled the crowd, like the bar patrons used to yell, "Norm," on Cheers.
So, yes, Darleigh, a 6-year-old miniature horse, walked a foot or so into the sun room where she spends a lot of time every day anyway and made herself at home on her usual spot near the couch.
Jack and Susan DuArte (pronounced Do-ARE-tay) agree that Darleigh enjoyed the game, leaving before it got too late, like a good guest, the same way she came in, asking politely if she could return to the back yard, to the ground she has chewed to a nub, the bamboo she has shredded, the roses she has decimated, the stall she loves and the secret gateway to the neighbor's yard where she can hide when she feels like hiding.
She left nothing behind to remind them she had been there. After all, she's never had an accident of any kind in the house. A Saints victory was no occasion to start.
Walking through Aylesford
Darleigh is walked every day, usually in the early morning and early evening, in and around her Aylesford neighborhood.
As she was driving by Tuesday evening, Ramsey Hammond stopped to introduce herself to Jack and Darleigh. Hammond explained that she drives by every day on her way home from work and hopes to see the horse. She had her young son with her Tuesday and felt she had to stop because her son was waving.
"Darleigh has lots of fans," says Hammond, a fact borne out by the number of presents of carrots and mints that regularly show up on the front stoop, left by anonymous benefactors.
Behind Hammond, a man slows traffic to take a picture with his cell phone. Hammond's son waves furiously at the horse again while Hammond quizzes Jack on everything from Darleigh's diet to Darleigh's age.
A jogger goes past and touches the horse familiarly on its backside. Darleigh keeps eating. Another woman comes by to see if she can take Darleigh somewhere Tuesday night. Jack has to decline.
Fans are piling up, unsolicited.
So is the acclaim. Used to be the story of the horse in downtown was considered urban myth. Like the time that a friend called the DuArtes, laughing, to report that a radio reporter had sworn he'd seen "a woman walking her horse in downtown Lexington" but dismissed it.
It's been fun and eminently worth it. Like the time that a neighbor came by to meet Darleigh because she hears the horse whinny every day from her apartment and wanted to tell the DuArtes how happy it makes her while she still knows she lives in a city.
'Let's get a miniature'
Darleigh was 4, living on a farm in Harrodsburg, when Susan, who had grown up with Thoroughbreds, convinced Jack, who had owned Thoroughbreds, that while their lives in the city weren't designed for horses, her sensibilities were.
"Let's get a miniature," she said.
She figured Jack had never been near them, like she had, and he'd never become addicted to their smell, like she was. In Lexington proper, she explained, horses and chickens aren't considered livestock; they could keep a horse.
They asked their neighbors if they would mind. No one objected. Some, like Joell Phinney next door, embraced the idea.
So the DuArtes went to the Harrodsburg farm, saw this 30-inch-tall black beauty. They sidled up next to her, and she "had this perfect temperament," says Susan.
Phinney says Susan came home and beamed: "It's the happiest day."
The DuArtes' large house is impeccably decorated, downright spotless and smells just fine, thanks. The one spot that Darleigh stands in for, maybe four to five hours a day, has a plastic pad on the floor, so it is not scratched. The pad is inside the sliding back door and situated so she can be near Jack while he watches TV or beside him while he, a successful novelist, works in his office niche. It is also around the corner from the mudroom where Darleigh can obstinately inquire about the whereabouts of the stash of baby carrots.
She shares her life with three dogs. She most insistently watches out for the oldest, Harry, a deaf Sheltie who sleeps outside at night and whom Darleigh stands over while he sleeps.
Susan, a social worker, understands the value of Darleigh's presence in all kinds of settings and has taken her to events with underprivileged children, the disabled, the elderly, to fairs, anywhere. Susan is never surprised "that people can find great joy in her."
Darleigh is not rideable but she is, with her temperament, the kind of animal that would hardly take notice if you shot cannons nearby. The couple figured that out very early when they had a birthday party for their 1-year-old grandson at their house.
"There were 1,500 balloons all around her and a thousand little fingers poking her," said Jack. "She never blinked."
Every late spring, Darleigh goes to "horse camp" in Harrodsburg, a 10-week stay away from the back yard while Jack and Susan work feverishly to get the grass to grow again.
But for now, she is spending the fall in a back yard scrubbed — by her — of vegetation. Which means one thing and one thing only: The better the dirt is to roll around in. For that, Susan makes no apology.
"At the end of the day," says Susan, "she's still a horse."