“Good morning,” I whisper as I slide open the barn door. It creaks on its runners, groaning like an old man. To the left, four large doors lead to stalls. I step up to Bear’s door and watch as he eats breakfast. My breath mists out in the cool morning. His door squeaks as I push it open.
Blowing, Bear eyes me. He tosses his full mane, turning away. I approach, halter in hand. His eyes plead. He ducks his head back down, moving delicate lips over the floor of his stall. Searching for the tiny green twigs that lay scattered in his bedding.
“Come on,” I grunt. I haul his massive, dark head up with the lead rope. “It’s time to work.”
The radio blares, The Shins racing over the muffled sighs and munching from the other horses.
Bear drops his head down to mine while I clip him to the crossties in the aisle. I reach up and run my hand over his soft, dark dappled neck. The top of my head is level with his withers, the bump where neck and back meet.
I can hear Katie speaking through her megaphone down in the arena. Instructing Jill, on Sid, through walk-trot transitions. Limbering the horse up, working into the rider-horse connection. I can’t make out her words, only “walk!” then “trot!”.
The trees all around the barn and riding area whisper in the slight wind.
“Hey there, bud,” I murmur as I slip his blanket off, staying quiet in the calm of the barn. The radio station switches to Pearl Jam, but even the classic rock song can’t disturb the ease of the space, filled up with horse.
Bear blows again, his breath misting out into the cool barn. The music washes away as I lift Bear’s hoof, checking for dirt and rocks with the hoof pick. The brushes come next, the hard rubber curry comb first then the soft body brush. My movement comes in a habitual way. Not smooth – Bear moves and snuggles and nips – but practiced. This is easy, primal, finding Bear through his hooves and his coat, sleek and wavy with rain. His legs and belly are lightly crusted with bedding and mud, like a toddler’s eyes after a nap. Below his knees the hair dapples lighter brown then darker into his fetlock and hooves.
Bear’s sides move in and out as he sighs, dropping his head to rest against the crossties. Eyelids droop. He might fall straight to sleep.
“Come on, big guy.” I prod him gently. “I know this feels good. No falling asleep though.”
He perks at my words and poking, then slouches again.
I relax too, following the line of the hairs on his side, brush swooping back and forth.
I take a softer brush and caress his face. Bear throws his head up, forelock tossing in an outraged gesture.
I see it as a toddler whining when his mom cleans his face. “Cut that out, Mom!”
I brace and pull down on his halter until he relents. Barely. Putting pressure on my hold just to let me know he can decide to stop the whole face cleaning process any time he wants.
This beautiful flowing horse is my most recent mount in an almost two decade long riding career. Begun as therapy, I can’t not think of all the other horses as I prepare Bear for our weekly ride. Crystal, the first. Choco, the favorite. Foxy, the challenge. And now Bear, possibly the most trying.
I love them all. They whisper-speak lessons through their eyes and breaths and movements.
Hefting the saddle, I toddle to Bear. Hefting the heavy seat into place on this tall horse is not easy for me. Bear glares as I adjust straps and stirrups. He knows what comes next. The girth. No one likes to be cinched.
I once had a trainer tell me that if horses were meant to be ridden by humans, they would have been shaped very differently. So would humans.
I am different in shape and appearance. I wonder sometimes if this means I fit better with horses.
Clouds hover gray, leering from the sky. I walk Bear from the ease of the barn down the challenge of the hill to the bigger challenge of the arena.
I’m oblivious to the staggering gait unique to me until walking on arena ground cover. It’s something about the boots and half chaps. I see myself, belly out, waddling back and forth.
Back and forth.
It’s a blow every time.
Everywhere else my walking is fine. I don’t notice my gait. It seems normal to me, despite the stiff way my right leg follows my left, the way my middle sways back and forth.
I don’t understand why the activity that allows me the most mobility starts with reminding me how immobile I am. I’m addicted to the mobility. And the horses.
Before I ever climbed on the back of a horse, my mom says I wouldn’t stop talking about horses.
“It was a relief when you finally started riding,” she said. “It was like watching a fish swim.”
My first excursion on horseback always surfaces as I climb into the saddle. At 13 I was perhaps more awkward and unsure than now. But I was fearless too.
Pressure and bullies waited at school. Parents and a sister created stress at home. Doctors and nurses in the wings, hovering like the rain clouds to descend in their life altering work.
At 13, the pressure came from all sides.
Crystal stood quietly the first time I met her, gawky and unsure in my growing body. The trainer talked, but all I focused on was Crystal. A non-descript tan blotchy color, her eyes stayed on me. Calm. Watching. No expectations. No demands. Just quiet, maybe waiting for a carrot.
I learned how to groom and tack up. I confess, I still don’t know all the parts of the saddle. Nor do I care. It is only a means to the horse.
I hovered around Crystal. Quiet and nervous and wary. Would this new idea turn bad like all the others – the dance classes and gymnastics lessons I flailed my way through?
Crystal stood quiet, maybe sensing I needed reassurance. Maybe not. She waited for me to learn how to pick out her feet and brush her hair against her body and heft the saddle on her back. She didn’t care that I could hardly find the balance for any of these tasks. What mattered was that I did them.
The same is true with every horse, I think.
As I mount into Bear’s saddle, the trees around the arena rush with wind, shushing us. Bear pricks his ears, contemplating the sound. Is there something in it to fear?
Fear. Worry. Anxiety. All three normal and easy. They are a good excuse for holding back. Sometimes they are paralyzing. Sometimes they take complete control.
Sometimes horses fake them to get out of hard work. Bear has this part down to an art form.
I jiggle one rein gently and adjust myself in the saddle. Katie bustles on the ground, tightening Bear’s girth. Her eyes spark blue as she smiles and asks
I am always ready for a ride.
I was ready that first lesson. A short walking lesson with Crystal being controlled on a lunge line. Mom watched from the family room. She could see the whole thing through the great windows. The way the trainer talked me through how to let my hips move and how to hold the reins and how to squeeze with my legs.
Mom told me later it looked so easy and natural. “Like something clicking into place.”
“Look how long your thighs are,” the trainer said to me after I apologized for the lack of strength in my too-thin, underdeveloped calves. Nerves had filled my stomach the entire night before this lesson. Fear that the trainer would take one look at my bird legs and send me away. “That’s much more important than your lower leg.”
The first time anyone told me it didn’t matter that one part of me didn’t work so well, and I don’t even remember her name. The way she bolstered me by pointing out my long thighs, and her face is fuzzy in the haze that is my memory.
So many things about that first ride are grooved deeply in my memories and dreams. Maybe not the trainer’s name, or face. But they are less important.
The part carved deepest is movement. I am still astounded every time I get on a horse.
As Katie hollers at me to focus, to push through all the frustrating parts of my anatomy, I think of the movement. Bear’s flouncing trot. His stagger as he spooks. His mildly jolting change to the walk. The quick pick up through the canter.
Never am I more centered. The freedom is different with each horse. Just as they teach me something new, they also teach new movement. Foxy’s short, quick strides. Choco’s long drawn out walk. Bear’s rolling canter. A new way to see an old trick.
Many people say horses have the intelligence of a toddler. In terms of IQ, I suppose that’s accurate. But I think their awareness flows deeper. They sense when to stay quiet to help a wounded teen. They know how to pitch a fit to an experienced, yet shaky adult.
After my lesson – after I drop to the ground, ungraceful and jarring – I need a moment to remember my limitations. How my ankles creak like I’m 70, not 30. How I toddle like a child learning to walk. Bear doesn’t care. He nudges and nips, ready for the bridle to be off, anxious for his post-ride carrot.
He doesn’t care that I flail for balance while he shakes and stamps impatiently. I am one of the herd. Now it is my turn to do something for him.
Back in the barn I have the saddle off, wobbling with exhaustion as I walk it back to its spot in the tack room. My tiny calf muscles will collapse in on themselves any day now.
Bear nips and stamps and snickers, tossing around, ready to go back to his stall.
I am filled with a strange mix of calm and excitement on my drive home. It is always the same.
I can hardly believe the joy and freedom horses are. Next week can’t come fast enough.
But. I am apprehensive. Will something else come between me and my ride time? Will I lose my nerve? Will it all come crashing down?
I can’t know. But I always have the movement forward.