My nine year old daughter is obsessed with horses. I rank it up there with being obsessed with The Ritz Carlton, or gold bars. There is not a doubt, horses are magnificent animals, those enormous eyes baring into your soul, figuring out whether or not they can buck you off and still get their oats when they trot back to the barn riderless. Oh, I am well acquainted with these animals and our relationship is complicated.
Flying through the air six feet above the ground and landing on your head is not an enviable experience, especially if you are going sixty miles an hour. Even if you land on your back, or your butt, or your shoulder, it still sucks. To Native Americans (yes, I am lumping them all into one category here), horses are energy grounders, which means they absorb yours, it flows through their bodies, down their legs, and into the ground where it is neutralized, therapeutically. Learning this helped bring a fresh perspective to these animals, whom I have always loved and who have nearly killed me on several occasions: they absorb my crazy energy, which makes them in turn crazy until some sort of grounding occurs, and thus far that means I end up on the ground, which seems to be my role in the relationship. Some would call it dysfunctional, but I’m not going to throw the foal out with the bathwater quite yet.
When I was young I had riding lessons at a stable not far from our house. It smelled. The horses were fat. My mom testified that horses kicked indiscriminately and to not get near them, especially their legs, which is difficult to do when you are learning to ride them. The first time I ever fell from one was at this barn. I leaned over to help my boot slip into the stirrup and all the lazy appaloosa had to do was shrug its shoulders, which it did, and I was on the ground wondering what the hell had happened. This was only the beginning of a long string of challenging equine experiences.
At a ranch in southwest Texas I rode a dappled gray dragon in disguise. His name was Blue and he was the largest creature I had ever seen, a massive quarter horse with three thousand acres of cactus, rocks and pure open space to explore at obscene speeds, unmolested, all year round. There were three of us, college friends in Austin for a summer of excitement and adventure and I had never been so far south in the U.S. It was like being on another planet: flat, desolate, scrubby and prickly. Occasionally a mirage of Longhorn cattle appeared in the haze to stare at you, and would fizzle into the heat and disappear. Under such foreign circumstances we saddled our horses and headed off into the expanse. When I playfully yelled, HeeYAH!, and slapped Blue’s rear, I wasn’t expecting to propel through the air at supernatural speed. Most horses I had ridden up to that moment ignored me completely, until they decided to throw me. I was blinded as the hot air ripped into my eyeballs and whipped my hair around, lashing my face and shoulders like tiny whips. I tried to slow Blue down, but he mocked my WHOAs and stretched his neck even further, galloping faster, and faster.
I don’t remember hitting the ground. My eyes were closed and it was dreamlike quiet, the thundering of hooves absent, when a soft muzzle nudged into my forehead and a loud snort puffed the hair from my face. It was a slow and painful rising, but eventually I pulled myself up with the help of Blue standing close to me and being absolutely still. Perhaps he could see what I couldn’t: blood pooling in my hair and running down my cactus needle-covered back and into my jeans. I pulled myself into the saddle just as the other two horses galloped up to us, panting, horrified.
Blue walked me gently back to the ranch where I was loaded into a car and hauled off to town. I laid on my stomach on a steel bed while the doctor/veterinarian numbed my head with a syringe meant for a much larger creature than me, and sewed the gaping wound in the back of my head with twenty-three stitches. Gospel music blared in the background and he sang along passionately as he tugged and stitched, and plucked the hundreds of cactus needles from my body. When it was over, he congratulated me for being saved. The Lord Jesus guaranteed you were hurt just enough to get to town, but not enough to be flown to Austin, he said in a slow, happy drawl. He hugged me, led me across the deserted street to a nondescript building, and opened the door. The entire town was piled inside, singing, a contagious joy hung in the air and wrapped all around me. Perhaps next time Jesus could let me fall into a patch of grass instead of cactus.
A less dramatic ejection was in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. My sister worked on a beautiful ranch, which meant that I got to hang out there as well and pretend to work. Our cousin was visiting and a group of us went out for a late afternoon ride through the mountains. Indian paintbrush, bluebells and columbine dotted our paths across meadows and alongside mountain streams, through aspen groves, sage brush and pine forests. Unbeknownst to me, my horse, a white beast who smashed me into every tree and hanging branch he could find for three hours, wanted to have a quiet day back at the barn and I was wrecking his plans. He snorted and stomped, kicked every horse who dared approach, and periodically ripped the reins from my hands. By the time the landscape opened and the ranch came into view, my legs were bruised, my pants were ripped, my pinkie was broken, and a cut on my cheek was bleeding. As I pulled leaves and sticks from my hair, the monster sensed an opportunity. He chucked me in the dirt and disappeared into the trail of dust his hasty escape swirled into the air. Luckily, it wasn’t a far walk for someone in my condition, albeit a tad humiliating, and my cousin rode and snickered beside me. Things were getting better, though.
Not long ago, riding with friends in Augusta, Georgia, my spunky chestnut with a white lightening bolt emblazoned down her face suddenly accelerated to uncomfortably fast. Had I not been down this road a dozen times or so, I would have been scared. Alas, I smiled, held on tight, and tried to relax… I tend to survive these moments. We were set to blow by the others when I utilized my unique vocal projection skills and called a polite SOS to the foreman up ahead: EXCUSE ME, EXCUSE ME! In an instant his horse met mine and in perfect harmony we swung to a stop. My heart raced through my chest. The foreman rested his hands on the horn of his saddle, chuckling, looking at me as though my nose had just turned into a carrot . I have never seen anything like that before, he said over and over again in a slow southern drawl, shaking his head. In imitating my civilized plea for help, he sat tall for the others and wide eyed, smiling, princess waving high in the air, “EXCUSE ME! EXCUSE ME!” Although my ego suffered silently, at least I wasn’t bruised and bloodied, so in that regard some real progress was being made.
Interestingly, my husband rides and has no issues with these four-legged creatures; in fact, he speaks their language. As does my sister. I would love to learn, by the way, but I’m so busy trying to stay alive that it somehow alludes me. Perhaps it’s the stress. Nevertheless, my nine-year old has the bug. She speaks to them, and they to her. At horse camp pick-up she showed us around the barn and introduced us to every one, complete psychological profiles. This one is Nelly, she said, Stay away from the mares, they’re moody. Life lessons in the barn. Then on to Donner and Blitzen, one bites and one kicks, not very Christmas-y, if you ask me. Joe, whose head is the size of my torso, I’ll stay away from that one. And on and on through the barn. Hank is an old one who pretends he’s a statue, even when someone is trying to ride him. Caitlin loves Hank and is saving her allowance to buy him, and if he lives to see that day, I will be surprised. When all is said and done, I still love horses. I love being around them, admiring them, even riding them, even though for me it frequently ends badly. Perhaps there was something to that sermon down in southwest Texas, something about being saved…