Since I was 9 years old I have tried to convince my Mother that horses are fantastic creatures! Her answer was telling as she would always respond “I don’t know them” and therein laid the problem. As a child I begged and begged for horseback riding lessons and one day my dream came true. I can see it all right now as it unfolded before my eyes and nose. The barn with stalls on both sides, rather dark inside, was where my first lesson took place. The smell of manure was a new one then but one I would not only become very familiar with over the years but come to cherish. I sat upon a huge horse which was probably not the best idea for my first lesson, but he/she didn’t misbehave and I was patiently led back and forth along the barn corridor until time was up. What was it about these not so friendly animals that captured my attention to such a degree, that I could not stop reading horse stories and every time I drove in the car, I imagined I was riding the black stallion bareback, running alongside our car.
As you can imagine, I wanted more, but what I got was this response, “well, you wanted a lesson and you got one.” That was the beginning and unfortunately the end, at least for that period of my life. I had many other experiences as a teen because I could not stay away, yet did not have the skills to participate safely. I had a friend whose family had a farm in the countryside with horses. We would go out there and I remember one particular ride in which my friend took off on her horse at a gallop. She was well trained and competed in equine events. The only thing I had going for me was love of the horse and hung on for dear life. To this day I don’t understand how I stayed on until the end of the pasture, but unbeknownst to me, there would be many falls off horses in my future.
At 16, I was fortunate enough to go to a dude ranch in Wyoming for a couple weeks in the summer with some of my classmates. Peaches and I clicked and she was my beautiful Palomino mare for the time I was there. But I had the chance to go on a cattle drive and had to ride a different horse, one that turned out to be “head shy.” Now if you are moving your arms around and shouting at cattle to “get along little doggie,” it might be disturbing to a head shy horse and sure enough, my horse shied and bucked and sent me flying off to land with my right hip hard against a very large rock. Crying out in pain that night, I was gently picked up on my mattress by a number of cowboys who laid the mattress in the back of a pickup truck and drove me to the hospital, at least 60 or so miles away. In the morning I awoke to my bright eyed roommate who was in her 80s, telling me one joke after the other. The problem was that when I laughed, the hip spasms started and I ended up crying in pain. I hated to tell her she needed to please stop.
I finally owned my first horses when I was 32. My husband, who had just finished his residency at the time, was excited as well and we bought a 14 hand Morgan horse and a 17 year old Thoroughbred who had been on the track. Our property backed up on the national forest in New Jersey and so we had room to ride. We had a barn, arena and my husband built a separate hay barn. My children learned to ride and life was good until one day my husband and I were out on the trial and he decided to pass me on Ramah, the former race horse. A bell went off in Ramah’s head and he took off like a rocket with me clinging on. Unfortunately, for us humans, we cannot stop a horse if he wants to run. On my right was the reservoir; on my left was the rock cliff, at least 100 feet tall. In such a situation, it is advised to turn your horse in circles, but in my case, it was impossible. I thought about jumping off but he was going too fast and I knew that would be disastrous, so I decided to stay the course and thank goodness, he eventually tired and settled down.
Years later in New Mexico, my daughter and I competed on our Quarter horse, Sassy, she in 4H and me on the Palomino show circuit. Showing was fun but was not nearly as much fun as having a horse in my back yard. I can still see my daughter and her friend riding their horses bareback along the quiet streets of our neighborhood. My fondest memory was going out with my friend for an early morning ride in the Corrales bosque and after enough of those rides, I still follow those trails in my sleep, knowing every twist and turn. It was amazing that Sassy learned to tolerate skateboarders, bikers, runners, hot air balloons, speed boats on the river, unleashed barking dogs, coyotes, rattle snakes and everything else that was scary. I was able to ride her alone, in parades and in other new circumstances knowing that she had the confidence in me as her leader to comply. I remember Sassy being due to foal and how many nights sleep I had missed waiting for this new family member to arrive. Knowing that horses tended to foal at night, I would set my alarm and go to the barn to quietly look inside the stall. On one particular night, long after she was due to foal, I peeked into the stall and saw the dark outline of a long legged foal standing quietly by her side. Welcome to the world, Sheridan! Years later Sassy had her second foal, Samson, a bay colt and grandson of Seattle Slew. Although he didn’t have his grandpa’s talent on the track, Samson more than made up for it with his always willing disposition to do his best.
In looking back upon my years, now measured in horses, I can see how therapeutic and healing they were for me in terms of stress reduction, motivation, diligence, perseverance, acceptance and companionship. Although they can definitely trick you into thinking they are indifferent, they are always curious when feeling safe. And yes, they can form an enduring relationship with you, recognizing your voice and whinnying or running along the fence line when they see and hear your vehicle. I decided to write about horses as I am now reading a book entitled Riding Home, The Power of Horses to Heal by Tim Hayes. I would highly recommend it whether you are new to the world of horses or an old hand as it is inspirational. Therapeutic riding has opened up a whole new dimension in the treatment of those with mental disorders, from children to adults, with sometimes astonishing results. The bibliography contains lots of great references to further pursue this great subject. Happy Trails!