When I was nine years old I began a love affair that I still carry with me today. It has probably been one of the longest lasting and most deeply felt relationships of my entire life. It is one that I could never fully describe with words because words simply do not do it justice. It is my enduring love of and relationship with horses.
When I was in Girl Scouts my mother was my troop leader and she arranged a trip for the girls to go horseback riding. Although I can’t remember what badge we were earning, I do remember having an immediate connection with the four-legged creature that was ten times my size. The stable, the outdoors, and those animals… well, it felt like home. All the girls enjoyed it so much that my mother decided we would go again the following year, this time to a different stable. There, again, I felt like I was entering a peaceful sanctuary, a home away from home. And this time, I was also introduced to a person who would later become a mentor, a friend and a teacher. The owner (who I’ll refer to as D) became an important figure during my formative years.
My love of horses just grew exponentially from there. I started attending horse camps at the stable during the summer and began learning all the care and special handling required to be around such powerful animals. I started learning to really ride, not just trail rides, but English saddle, hunter/jumper riding. I was unable to take regular lessons due to time, distance and money, but I looked forward to the end of school each year because it meant summer had started and that meant more time to be around the precious creatures I had fallen in love with. (I must, at this point, thank my mother for her numerous trips back and forth to the stable all those years… what a sacrifice for me. Without her willingness to cart me to and from the stable I so dearly loved, I wouldn’t have had some of the greatest experiences of my life. So thank you Mom!)
As I got older, the owner, D, asked if I’d like to help out with the horse camps instead of being a “student” at them. What this meant was I got to help with getting the horses ready for the riders at camp, I was able to do the tours of the barn, got to do a little more cleanup around the barn and I would be her assistant in the ring during the riding classes and help others that may be having some difficulty. This also meant I got to ride a little extra too. This was a no-brainer, of course I said yes and so began a fantastic arrangement.
For the next couple of years I participated in that way. But as I continued to get older D saw that I was willing to do pretty much anything to spend more time at the stable and with the horses. She offered a larger role, she offered a work/ride agreement. My “helping out” extended beyond the horse camps. It opened up other times, throughout the week, full days of helping out. Feeding horses, grooming horses, bathing horses, but it also included cleaning horse stalls, painting and repairing fences, cutting grass, going out to gather hay and anything else you can imagine that goes into the maintenance of a fully operational stable. But with this brought all sorts of opportunities to learn about all that goes into horse care. I helped nurse them when they were sick or injured and helped take care of new mothers and their foals. I helped ready horses for shows and traveled with them some to help out at the shows. I managed the horses through their turns standing for the farrier. I began helping D in the training area as well. Not only prepping the horses for her to work with them but over time I eventually became the one working with them helping to carry out D’s vision of the performance she believed a horse could give. Much of this training work included riding, but many times it was coaching them from the long line. I ate it all up. I loved every minute whether I was cleaning, riding, training, painting, feeding, mowing, or watering. Just being in the environment was enough for me.
When I got my license to drive that expanded the amount of time I could spend out at the stable beyond the summer. I had already started helping on weekends throughout the year a little but this just increased my opportunities and at that point, D started paying me a little money. Nothing major, but it was enough to pay for the gas in my car, to buy a music CD or two and to save a little. I was so excited. That Christmas, she gave me a hooded sweatshirt with the stable logo and STAFF printed on the front. I felt like I belonged there. I was riding, learning, working, and really, just growing as an individual and as a young woman. So many lessons learned out at that barn. So many hours of my youth invested into those horses developing not only my riding skills but general life skills as well. The stable and D taught me so much about business, about horses, about customer service, about veterinary care, about time management, and most importantly, about connecting to something you love (something that I have seemed to have forgotten over the years).
The next couple of years passed by like a whirlwind. With all my other involvements in school and extracurricular activities, the time spent at the stable sometimes had to take a backseat to everything else but it remained my most favorite thing to do. I then graduated high school and was off to college and had to start building a life for myself. It was no longer practical to work at the stable for mostly gas money and riding opportunities. I needed to start saving some real cash for college textbooks, a home one day, the new car I had just bought and life in general. So I said goodbye to the stable and my days of spending hours and hours playing with the horses. I’m sure my heart break was apparent to anyone who knew me growing up. I missed it. I had fallen in love and was forced to break up with the only true love I had ever known.
But the days turned into weeks, the weeks turned into months, the months into years… and before I knew it, the times at the stable were a distant memory. Lovely memories I would recount with anyone at any time, but memories nonetheless. I loved to look back on the old days. They were some of the best times of my entire life.
Fifteen years had passed since I had visited D and the stable. Many times throughout the years I had given it thought that I should visit that first love of mine but for one reason or another, that never happened. Life was busy. First with college, then buying a home and building a career. Saying goodbye to my father after a long illness. My mother’s cancer. Both of my grandmothers’ deaths. The fall of the relationship with my brother. Several heart breaks with relationships that just didn’t or couldn’t work out. Friend troubles and job troubles. It was just busy. All of the difficulties and distractions just kept me away.
But then the miracle of Facebook came along. A couple of years ago, D and I reconnected there and messaged each other back and forth a few times. She created a page for the stable and I became a fan of it and started following all the comings and goings of the stable once again. I was happy to have found them, even if it was just virtually.
The last year of my life has been filled with so much turmoil. It has been turned upside down and back again. I’ve been shaken and knocked down more than once and it has left me feeling a bit lost, a bit lonely, a bit depressed and I’m not feeling nearly as confident as I once did. I have no plans now. My dreams feel destroyed and I feel like I’m wandering around aimlessly in some heartbroken wasteland. For almost a year I have felt this way. With my impending marriage not working out and feeling quite devastated by the fallout, I just have felt empty.
I’ve been trying for months to refocus my energies. Refocus on God, refocus on all that I should be thankful for, refocus on the positives of this ugly situation. Sometimes I can do that… most days, however, I still cannot. I’m just not quite there yet. But something magical happened a couple of weeks ago. I reintroduced myself to something familiar, something that has always felt like home to me. I went to back to my first love, I went back to the horses.
About two weeks ago, D had posted on the stable’s facebook page that she needed some help with a horse show that was happening there. I took a deep breath and on a whim messaged her to volunteer. She quickly responded and seemed delighted I was willing.
The day came for the show and I got up and packed my peanut butter sandwich, some crackers and a couple of bottles of water. I applied sunscreen and put on my jeans and an old shirt. I grabbed a pair of old shoes to toss in the car and change into when I got there and I was on my way. I traveled the old country road I had traveled so many times in my youth. I was in a different car, but I could have driven there blindfolded. The drive put me right back to the teenager I once was and I could have told you every bend and crossing on that road. This whole routine was so familiar. And much like when I was teenager, I had the radio blasting country music all the way there. A couple of miles before I pulled in at the stable, Don Williams’ song, “Lord, I Hope This Day is Good” started playing. The simple lyrics really spoke to me and completely described where I am emotionally. “Lord, I hope this day is good/I’ve been feeling empty and misunderstood/I should be thankful Lord, I know I should/But Lord I hope this day is good.” Wow, I was thinking how much this sums up my feelings of late and how I prayed this reunion with the horses and with D would be everything I hoped it would be.
I pulled into her graveled, dirt drive full of potholes (some things just never change) and as I navigated down the drive I noticed that mostly, the place looked just how I remembered. There were a couple of new buildings, some new pasture space and obviously new horses and people around, but overall, things had remained the same.
I walked in and told someone that I was an old friend of D’s and that I told her I’d help out but wasn’t sure what she or anyone needed me to do. About that time, D walked in. And true to form, she was into a million different things, running from here to there, bolting around giving people information and orders. In a very brief, still moment, she looked at me, touched my arm and said my name and then turned back to what she was doing. Never one to make over someone, this actually was quite a recognition from her. Her acknowledgement of my presence alone was really something. That’s just how she is. Aside from that one small remarkable gesture, it was actually comforting in an odd sort of way that she treated me as if I’d never been gone. Once she finished up, she asked me to come with her. She gave me some brief instructions about the registration process and the award ribbons and then she was off again. Funny how some things never change.
So I was partnered with an older lady (who I’ll refer to as B) and a 13 year old boy (who I’ll refer to as C). The three of us managed the registration and class sheets all day, rotating out for lunches and quick breaks. I readied the sets of award ribbons for all the classes and we worked fairly seamlessly throughout the day to make sure the judge and announcer had all the information they needed and that money was counted and everyone was registered. Come to find out B was a lady who used to ride in a group lesson years ago when I was working there. She now has a daughter who rides there and they own a horse which they also board at the facility. And C just reminded me of myself at his age. He was full of enthusiasm for the horses, excited about lending a hand out there at the stable and learning all he could. Talking about horses just would light him up. Hearing him talk about the current horses and the present happenings of the stable, I could see his excitement and it reminded me of my days running around full of energy and ready to take on the world. I thought to myself about what all he’s learning, all the life lessons he’s being taught by D and by the horses. I would know, I was one of their pupils once upon a time. But he was a cool little kid to spend my day with (even if he did refer to me as ma’am a time or two).
Later in the day I was able to really walk around and see everything. The original barn hadn’t changed much. Besides the new stall doors and windows, the sawdust filled aisle looked almost the same. Cobwebs filled up the corners and the loft and it smelled exactly the same as I’d remembered… a sweet mixture of hay, sweet feed, and horse. I pet some of the horses in the stalls and then maneuvered my way to the back hall where the tack room and cross-tie are. Again, very much how I’d remembered it. Saddles hanging on the wall labeled with the horse’s name to which it belonged. Grooming supplies and brushes lined the tie dividers. So many hours spent in this building growing up…
I meandered out of the barn to the pastures. D had cleared some more of the property and opened up a few more pasture areas. This was a nice change, it really allowed me to see the beauty of the property. The rolling hills scattered with horses – lovely sight. D has taken up caring for other animals now too I discovered. She’s now raising goats, sheep, rabbits, and chickens. She even has a cow on the property. So that was new.
Heading out there, I really didn’t expect to see any of the creatures I had the pleasure of working with all that time ago. I mean it had been 15 years after all. But I was mistaken. Come to find out, two of the school horses that I readied for lessons countless times back in their prime and made sure were fed and watered… well, they were still there. Lucy, a cute little black pony, now is 41 years old and shows her age a little in her fur which is now peppered with grey all over her body. Sandy, a beautiful buckskin that was actually my favorite school horse to handle and ride, is now 38 years old. I was thrilled to know they were still there. A couple of living, breathing, 4-legged connections to my past. They weren’t alone however. D has also always had dogs, usually 3 or 4 at a time. I loved the dogs too and I was pleased to find Molly there. She was a stray that D adopted from the local animal shelter (where she would always get her dogs) and there she was in all her glory at the ripe old age of 17 years. She waddled when she walked and spent most of the day in the air conditioned office but nonetheless, it was great seeing her as well.
The show lasted until about 9:30 p.m. and afterward D came back to the registration office and sat down to settle up money. This was the first time all day that I’d really had the opportunity to talk to this dear person from my past aside from the occasional drop-by to check messages and make sure everything was running smoothly. It was a busy day. Well, we quickly got distracted from the money and ended up chatting for several hours. We were joined by her youngest daughter who is now 15 years old and was just a baby the last time I saw her. It was great to catch up with them both. To hear about all the changes and plans that have come to pass was really incredible. D’s business has grown and for that I’m happy for her. But we also started to reminisce about the old days at the stable. We talked about all the horses and people from back then. We rehashed memories and it was nice to have a counterpart to complete some of my thoughts and fill in the gaps. It was great to be taken back to that time, a time when life was simpler, a time of my younger self. I was different then, I was happier, I was fulfilled. Life was overflowing with hope and a bright future. To be taken back to my happier, seventeen year old self, well, it was just what I needed.
I left in the wee hours of the next morning. Though it was late and I had worked a full 15 hour day, I felt more energized on that late drive home then I’ve felt in a very long time. To spend a day being with someone and around something that brought so much joy to my life once… the stable was once again my home, my peaceful sanctuary.
After this year with the failed wedding and relationship, I’ve been left feeling pretty empty, the tank of reserves is at an all-time low. Well, it is time for something positive to start filling it back up. This day was it. And hopefully it was just the start. D and her horses… provided comfort and joy, much like they had done years ago. Getting back to this friendship and back to my first love, the horses, it may just be the ticket to help pull me out of my slump. The love affair has been renewed. They always say it takes one to get over one… well, maybe the one I need to help me move past The Ex and all the pain that relationship has brought into my life is not a human after all. Maybe it’s the environment that filled my days and countless hours growing up. Maybe it’s the four-legged creatures that, at 9 years old, I looked upon for the first time and lost my heart to forever…