“Let your horse teach you about yourself, for you may be at the age where no one else can.” ~ Unknown
I was always afraid of horses.
I watched my daughters get their horses ready for hunter lessons and I stayed on the side, watching, arms folded to my chest, trying hard to hide my fear every single time. “Mom, saddle up. It will be good for you. Join us on the trail ride after.”
It was always a rhetorical plea, as the thought of getting on a horse, let alone riding, was never a consideration and I always stayed a good five feet away.
Before the girls left home for college and careers, there were many agonizing farewells made to horses whose time had come to be put out to pasture at a ranch hundreds of miles away, or when the injuries made it painful to set hooves on the ground.
The lessons passed on to my children by their equine mentors went beyond the jumping ring as I witnessed how they dealt with life in the same way they approach the jumping fences—eyes set on the horizon, fluidly working with responsibilities at their own paces, focusing on personal goals, not keen on any material reward, but finding joy and fulfillment in getting to the finish line with soul and body intact. There were also the inevitable lessons in life of letting go, saying goodbyes to old friends, learning about courage and love and of mourning and moving on.
As the children left to begin their own lives, life gave me my own series of jump fences and walls. My marriage fell apart, its fate sealed many years before by divergent values and outlooks on life.
I sensed a creeping desolation in my soul. My mind that once was so finely tuned to details of schedules, places to be and chores to do would stall and stutter, unease and anxiety finding slowly and surely a home in my head. It came to the point where I would have to pull off the road often, breathing into a brown paper bag and wait until terror gave me a reprieve for the day.
Some mornings I chose not to get up from bed and waited for the sun to set before I pushed myself to be mobile, chasing shadows in a house devoid of laughter and love, with doors shut to once noisy bedrooms. Malaise and despondency filled the air from too much inflicted pain and suppressed anger. The house was no longer a home. I needed to let go of a life built over 30 years and the idea alone drove me even further into doom and gloom emotional straits.
Joella, the horse trainer and a close friend for over 20 years, called me one day and asked when I could come to the barn. She suggested gently that it would be good for me to get out and help her out with the horses. I admonished her that I wasn’t keen at all about climbing up to a saddle as I had to conquer my apprehensions of just standing next to a horse. She told me that all I had to do was help with hooves picking.
I then remembered a movie that had a scene of a group of people in rehab, standing around a horse, observing intently how the counselor picked up one of the horse’s legs to pick its hooves and rid it of pebbles, mud and poop while he talked of control, focus, inner strength and acceptance. In real life, the lesson of how to approach a horse, and to lift one of its massive legs, and use a metal pick probe to extract foreign objects from its its feet could take a full day.
One can’t just walk up to a horse and have it lift its foot on cue or upon your request.
First of all, one has to be calm, serene and prove to be worthy of trust. You have to be aware of your surroundings, sensitive to the horse’s movements and gauge its current mood, knowing that the horse was always fully aware of you. It’s all up to you to ensure that your body is safely and comfortably positioned at all times, keeping an eye out for that errant leg or the swish of a heavy tail.
It’s important to take deep breaths in and out, evenly and continuously from the beginning to the end of the picking routine for this is no place for your psyche to unravel. It becomes imperative to cast all worries away and any thoughts that take you to another time and place—be it yesterday or into the future—have to be dispensed with as you carefully squeeze the part of the leg close to the fetlock and hope that the horse lifts its leg without kicking you.
It should have been just a mundane and menial task, completely sub-par to the glamour and power of riding.
But, weeks of picking and dirt flying into my face led to the beginning of an empowering self-awareness, a conscious recognition of my foibles and strengths and how vital it was to live in the moment.
When you have to focus all your attention on a powerful, beautiful creature and connect with its strongly intuitive mind, on making it see your soul as trustworthy and authentic, and have it allow you to touch skin and coat, to feel muscle and bone and obey your cue to raise its leg carefully—you, body and heart and soul, must be completely present and together. It is a demand and not just an option.
Feelings, hard to describe and that never lose their novelty each and every time you have a leg in your hand, make you conscious that you risk life and limb.
For a few minutes on each of a horse’s four legs, I feel powerful, strong and capable—similar to what I feel during and after prayer, in church or in the car while driving.
I now ride a palomino paint mare and her name is Charlotte. I clean out her hooves and place the saddle, and off we go to the trails in the hills behind Hansen Dam with Moe, my Siberian Husky running along side of us. The divorce is behind me and I no longer speak to my ex-husband, not because of spite and anger, but more to allow myself to heal at my own pace. I don’t have to ascribe to what society deems as civil or the proper way of moving on.
All I need for now at my side are my four-legged friends. I go back always to the feeling of leg in hand and know that I am capable of doing great things. God is with me and all will be well.
Author: Tess Estandarte
Apprentice Editor: Pat Steele Nielsen / Editor: Catherine Monkman
Image: Stefan Schmitz/Flickr