I want to tell you a story.
To tell it properly we have to go all the way back to my childhood. And you have to know that I was shy, introverted, quiet, and painfully geeky. I read books voraciously, and way above my grade level. (At one point I’d read through the whole of our tiny local library. The librarians called me when new books came in so I could get first crack.) Some of my absolute favorites were Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider’s Of Pern. I loved it for a host of reasons, but mostly for the telepathic dragons. A shy, introverted young woman without many friends had clear reasons to love wise, powerful creatures who loved their human companions with their whole hearts and knew instantly everything they were thinking.
At the time I imagined that my dog was a little bit like those dragons. Then I read an interview someone had done with Ms. McCaffrey where they asked her what the closest thing was in our world to her dragons? Without hesitation she replied that the dragons of Pern were based on horses. (She was an avid rider her whole life.) She went on to say that horses, not dogs, are truly human beings’ soulmates and the closest thing our planet has to a telepathic being.
I had already been a little horse mad (though I’d never had the chance to ride or interact with a horse) and that was that.
In my 20s I finally was able to buy myself the riding lessons I’d always wanted. And I discovered that horses were a little more complicated, and riding a little more difficult than I had previously imagined. The physical and mental effort involved was new and strange, and yet I was hooked.
Life is odd and chaotic, and through my 20s and 30s just about everything in my life changed; but horses remained a constant. Or at least riding remained a constant, the horses changed. I leased a succession of mounts as life blew me around the country until over ten years after my first riding lesson I found myself in Waco Texas surrounded by horse farms, and other horse-mad people.
My riding coach there matched me with a few horses who I leased, and moved on when their owners were done with sharing. And one day, after my most recent lease had ended and I was enduring the jarring gait and grumpy attitude of an ancient gangly thoroughbred, my trainer suggested that there was a horse she had in mind for me.
The feral mare
“I think you two need each other.” She said by way of introduction. I was intrigued. She explained that the little mare in question was in danger of being sold for meat so thoroughly had she ruined her chances as a beginner lesson horse. The kids were afraid of her, and the teenage riding instructors hated dealing with her.
“I think she needs you, and I think you could learn a lot from her. But no pressure.” The mare in question hadn’t been ridden in months, and was so hard to catch that she hadn’t been brought in from the pasture for anything but shoeing in months either. Everyone at the school was done with her. School horses have to earn their keep, and she wasn’t. I agreed to a lesson on her as a trial.
The day of my lesson I hiked out to the field where the mares were. A very dirty, very suspicious grey mare took one look at me and took off, fast. It took me half an hour to slowly walk her down that first time. Next I discovered that I couldn’t leave her in the cross-ties for even a second or I was likely to return to a horse turned round the wrong way, kicking the wall, or trying to break loose in a panic.
We got her tacked up somehow, my coach and I (picking her feet was almost impossible), and I led her into the ring with a feeling of doom. There was no way I was leasing this feral thing.
40 minutes later I couldn’t get the smile off my face. I ended the lesson laying in the saddle with my arms around her neck, smiling so hard my face threatened to split. My coach was beaming: “You like her?”
I loved her.
Oh sure, she was grumpy, crooked, out of shape, and she didn’t trust me one little bit. She spent that whole first ride braced for me to haul on her mouth or use the bit for balance. She had a number of patented school horse moves that scared the bejezus out of the kids, and over the course of our first ride she tried out every singly one. They didn’t work on me. But there was something about her that woke up the horse mad girl deep within me. Something about her that instantly got under my skin. I signed the lease.
To catch her in the field I filled my pockets with cookies, the instant she let me near her I stuffed her full of them. Day by day her darting gallops got shorter. Until one day she simply stood, and watched me walk to her. A few weeks more and she was meeting me halfway across the pasture, and pushing her nose into the halter.
In the beginning I staked out a groom stall and put everything I would need there before I brought her in, this way I never left her line of sight while we tacked up. I taught her to pick up her hooves for picking with yet more cookies, she caught on quickly.
And then one day I forgot something back in the tack room and darted there and back, and was greeted on my return with a nicker and a calm pony, still standing where I’d left her, though she had her neck craned as far out as she could to see me for as long as possible. (She never would like losing site of “her” person while in the cross-ties.)
I spent weeks doing the simplest patterns under saddle just showing her that there would be no ham fisted bit hauling, that I wasn’t a beginner who would be bouncing on her back, or hauling on her face. And no, tossing your head won’t make me get off. Little by little she let down. Relaxed. Started to breathe.
And then my husband got the job offer of his lifetime, on the other side of the country.
I’d lost count of the number of horses I’d leased and left. I can’t even tell you all their names anymore. But driving home from the barn one day I broke down sobbing. When I got home I wailed at my husband, “I don’t want to leave Blossom!” He asked me if I could buy her. Yes, yes the school wasn’t selling her so long as she was leased (the lease covered her costs) but they would happily sell her to me. He asked how much they wanted. “$500.”
He blinked. “Buy the damn horse!” (The poor man had no idea what he was agreeing to. Brave man.)
And that my friends is how I bought my heart.
I didn’t know it at the time. Then I just new that I didn’t want to leave my shaggy grey pony behind, for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate. I’d only known her a few months and yet she’d already wormed her way into my heart in a way no other horse had managed. And so I wrote the check and a few weeks later she walked on a commercial transport to head to Washington state. (She walked off it three days later cool as a cucumber, as if she were a fancy show horse who traveled the world regularly.)
A Whole New World
It wasn’t easy. This owning a horse thing. I knew almost nothing (leasing did not prepare me) and I knew no one in my new city. Blossom was as unmoored as I without her regular companions and familiar farm. Suddenly I was dealing with an insecure, herd bound mare without the aid of a trainer or barn friends. In those first months in Washington I wondered if I’d made a mistake, if I wasn’t cut out for this horse ownership thing.
But wise horse owning friends gave me advice, tools, and support across the miles. And we worked on it. I blundered my way around in the dark but managed to figure out the basics. We found a vet, we established a routine, found a farrier.
The truth is horses and humans are a lot alike. We’re complicated creatures with emotions and opinions. But Ms. McCaffrey was right. There is nothing on this earth so able to read a human being as a horse. Over the years Blossom and I became something I would have never guessed. Oh, we had our arguments. (Quite a few.) But we became so close that on a good day whatever I thought, she made happen.
She was half thoroughbred and she never let me forget it. Her dearest and happiest moments were spent at speed. She could be wild and down right naughty. She was loud about her affections and desires. (Very. Very. Loud.) She was stubborn as the day is long. Once, after a particularly frustrating training session where nothing had gone to plan and I felt like a complete and utter failure, I glumly unhooked the lunge line and let her run, buck, and roll in the soft sand.
I stood defeated in the middle of the round pen feeling sorry for myself. And then I realized it had gotten quiet. There was a soft breath on my neck. Blossom stood behind me, ears forward, eyes bright, waiting. I took a step; she took a step. I turned, she turned. I started walking, she walked just beside and behind me. Her bright mischievous eye fixed on me.
I doubled back, quick as I could, and she spun in place to follow. I started running and she gave a joyful little head toss and settled into trot right there at my shoulder. Playing at liberty became our stress relieving game. When we were frustrated, or our wires were crossed, we went into the round pen and I let her loose and every time she offered to follow my lead.
Horses & Humans
Here’s the thing people who don’t live with horses rarely understand: what horses allow (and it is allow, just try forcing a horse to do anything) us to do with them, the relationship they allow us to have is perhaps the greatest overcoming of nature ever seen. You are a predator. I don’t care if you are a vegetarian, or even a vegan, it doesn’t change what you are. It’s in your genes. You move like a predator, you communicate as a predator, you smell like a predator, you act like a predator, and you think like a predator.
Dogs and cats are predators, it’s no surprise that they understand and cooperate with us. (As much as cats cooperate with anyone.) A horse is prey. The horse, the creature who has done more to build our civilization than any other, isn’t a predator. They started as our food. And today they let us sit on their backs. Do you know how big cats kill horses? They leap onto their backs. And yet, we loud predators are allowed the privilege of sitting on the backs of these prey animals.
It is a stunning act of trust on their parts. And here was my mare playing with me, her predator partner. Dancing and mirroring my movements. Not because I had any way to force her, but because she wanted to.
When we were finished I’d slip her halter back on and she’d rummage around in my pockets looking for treats, or groom my hair in a show of pure horse affection while I scratched all her itchy spots. I hadn’t had to chase her down in ages of course, she happily came to me when she saw me, making welcoming nickering sounds that horses reserve for their closest friends (and dispensers of treats).
Riding is very much similar to those games we played in the round pen. She listened to my body and it spoke to her. All I had to do was think about the gait I wanted and we were there (usually, she was an independent thinking creature after all and some days she wasn’t in the mood to humor me). And it wasn’t just simple walk to trot. No, she could move her body in ways that still boggle the mind of this two legged creature. And I could ask for those complicated positions just by moving my own shoulders, or hips and then letting out a breath.
I couldn’t hide anything from Blossom. If I was nervous, or angry, or sad, she knew. If I couldn’t get my act together our ride would be decidedly bumpy. When I did, well, it was magic. Imagine being lent the power, grace, and speed of a horse. Imagine being given control of four legs that don’t belong to you. Imagine thinking and another body responding as if it were your own.
Imagine moving and thinking as one, going faster than any human can run on their own, (not jumping higher, this girl don’t jump).
I watched a nearly feral pony bloom into a beautiful creature. As we taught her to use her body properly and her muscling developed she was hardly recognizable. She got compliments from people who know what they’re talking about. She knew she was pretty, and she was an outrageous flirt.
Complicated, loving, stubborn, willing, generous, neurotic, funny, too damn smart, athletic, lazy, beautiful.
There is a saying in the horse world: you tell a gelding, you ask a stallion, you negotiate with a mare. (And if it’s a pony you pray to your God for mercy.) My pony mare was everything she should have been, and entirely herself. And I was honored to be her person.
You are never ready
It should have been a routine day, a routine week. After two weeks of snow and miserable weather we were all digging out, drying out, warming up. On Monday February 18th we should have been getting back to normal, having our first lesson in weeks, back to work, back to learning new things together. Instead she had a slight fever, she was a little body sore. Nothing too unusual after her vaccines on Friday, she often got sore and a little feverish (I do too after my yearly flu shot). At noon she was begging for treats and wiping her nose on my sleeve.
Within 12 hours she was gone.
I’m a priest, death is so no stranger to me. I have sat in so many hospital family rooms, held the hands of people hearing the news for the first time, spoken words of blessing while a body took their final breaths. You are never ready. There is no preparing yourself for those first moments when your loved one is no longer breathing and you still are. There is no way to prepare for the shock as the world rolls on as if nothing has changed.
I was a good ten years off ready. Blossom should have kept on playing at dressage with me until she said she was done. In retirement she should have ruled over the big grassy pastures of some rural farm where she could teach silly young horses how to properly train a human. You are never ready.
But my coach way back in Waco Texas was right. We needed each other.
She taught me more than I could have ever imagined. She changed me, and formed me, and informed me. She helped me build some of the best friendships I have. She made me laugh, and cry, and nearly scream with frustration.
And despite the tears, it was all worth it.
The Spirit of a Horse
I know a clergy colleague who wrote a whole book about horses and God. I never have because the Divine I saw through Blossom’s eyes wasn’t one that needed an institution or a church. She was raw and wild, her worship was partnership. Her teachings were release, and quietness, and coiled power. She was the laughing Goddess who winked at ancient girls and loaned them her power and whispered the secret that their love would unlock things patriarchal coercion never could.
While I write this my dog and my cat are chasing each other in circles around my office. Strike that, to be more accurate my cat is chasing my dog around the office. The world is a far more complicated place than you’ve been taught. Whatever you call her, God or Goddess, or Divine, or Mystery, or a nameless feeling seek her out.
Learn to stand quietly in a dark barn listening to horses breathe and trust the sound that means: all is well. Become the sort of predator who is trusted enough to lean against the sun-warmed flank of a powerful prey animal while they crop the grass. Sit on the back of that same animal and feel in your bones what it means to not be in control. (Because you aren’t, you never were.)
Let your heart out of its suit of armor. Teach it to ride the wings of the wind. Know that it will be shattered someday when that wind falls to earth; but that this is the only way for it to really live.
This is what we were made for, beloveds.