We were born this way. It should be part of the Apgar test. It would resolve so much if newborns gave an early warning–just like any other heart condition.
Most of us didn’t live around horses in the beginning. We saw them in our first books or from car windows. Or maybe it was cellular memory and we thought we just knew them because it felt like we always had. In the beginning, there was simply nothing easier than loving horses.
We got this far just daydreaming; we were horse-crazy kids cantering around the yard playing horse. Kids who nickered and pranced; loving to feel the wind in our hair and the rhythm of our tennis-shoe-hooves on ground. Maybe a dream horse taught us.
Then we got our first touch; our first shared breath. Maybe we squealed like a siren and flapped our arms to let them know we wanted to fly, but ended up poking them in the eye instead. The deal was struck and it was the first time a horse forgave us, of course, as he would forever. Because he saw a flash of who we might become; because he had as much forgiveness as we had love.
Maybe we were lucky beyond all reason and got to sit on a horse while he was led around. Beware: once that happens, our feet never authentically touch the ground again. And it was all about us. Our love was selfish because the need was too huge to name. So, another tradition began: we cried mad tears when we had to get off. But old horsewomen watching nodded and considered the outburst good manners. They got misty and nostalgic remembering that their first thank-yous were mad howls, too.
Then one day the heavens opened and we got our first horse. We pushed our noses in deep into the mane and the addiction had a smell. Probably more tears, because words are no match for the emotion. It was also the first moment that loving horses got complicated.
We all know this part, too. It was prioritizing money and time. We needed to find a balance while squeezing pieces into a mental pie chart of our lives. We wanted so much and we wouldn’t take no for an answer. We were trying to live our personal version of National Velvet.
We carried our willful bravado into the saddle. Our love for horses was as fierce as a high school crush. We wanted to jump or spin or dance; we wanted to ride every day. Our horses tolerated us but we surely hit some walls while training. Some of our horses were bemused with our folly, while the very best horses bucked our arrogant backsides off. These were the character years. We learned how to hit the ground and climb back on. We tried out leadership styles in the saddle, with varying impressions of success. We cared too much what people thought, whether it was the judge or a stranger at the barn. We may have said we didn’t want to compete, but we still judged ourselves and our horses without mercy. Whatever goal we had, we tried too hard. And so we had to learn to be good losers before we could win.
Some of us gave up everything for our horses and some of us made a strategic retreat in the name of career or kids. Our parents grew old by the time we caught our breath. The biggest certainty was that we loved horses even when it was impossible.
The view from midlife is bittersweet. Some of our friends have quit riding already. By now we’ve come off a few times and our bodies remember, even if our minds have repressed it. Our hormones are failing us and it makes us timid. We can’t stop apologizing for it.
But at the same time, we can feel how strong our love has made us. Strong enough to shoulder whatever life gave us. Strong enough to say good-bye to old campaigners and strong enough to start over again. Horses have taught us to value the important qualities in ourselves above the superficial: patience and perseverance, creativity and commitment, love and partnership.
And when we have had many days, and our childhood need is almost met, it’s more possible to look around and feel the beauty and wonder of this equine journey. To know that the very best part of who we’ve become was a gift from our horse. Maybe it was what he saw when we were babies and now it’s time to come full circle.
How to love a horse is both easy and complicated at this age. Sure, some of us fail our horses without concern, but many more of us grow horse-sized hearts in our chests. Most of us just want to be in the barn. We want to muck until we fall over dead and need mucking up ourselves. We want our bones to bleach out peacefully with our horse’s bones.
But we have a debt to pay forward, for all those years of weather-beaten hands and sore bones. All those years of mounted ego-correction eventually taught us to think of another’s welfare first. And now that we are less selfish, there’s work to be done. There are horse-crazy kids who need us to hold the lead line and tell the story. Or maybe your heart and barn have room for one more un-rideable, homeless old mare. Or maybe after all these years, you’ve developed an indoor voice for horses, speaking up for the ones who need rescue, just like you did.
What’s next for you? The horse love is as fresh and hot as that first day, and it’s still your ride.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.