The man caught my attention the same way the horses do.
Our first kiss was in a parking lot. Our second, at a lookout where I saw a shooting star. I breathed him in like the dusty, sweet scent of hay, and lost track of everything else. My life had been a series of suitcases and moving boxes; he felt like the kind of place where you set down your bags and shut the door.
I have always had trouble saying “no.” I keep my thoughts to myself and swallow my emotions whole. My grandmother had heard about the way the horses work—how they coax courage out of cautious hearts. She signed me up for riding camp when I was seven. For 25 years, I have been sweeping dusty coats with horsehair brushes, untangling manes, tightening cinches.
But, for all the horses have taught me, I still have trouble with the word “no.”
When he said “just friends,” I swallowed my disappointment and forced a smile. But he kept coming over anyway. I kept my words tucked under my tongue, tracing my fingers along his skin, quietly waiting for an answer to a question I couldn’t find the courage to ask. Eight months slipped by; 250 nights of staring at the ceiling, torturing myself with what ifs, trying to swallow my anxiety and convince myself I was strong enough to handle the uncertainty of a man who couldn’t love me back, but wouldn’t let me go.
Eventually I wrote out my feelings on two sheets of paper. “I don’t want to talk about it,” I told him, as I slipped the letter into his pocket. “I just need you to know.” He doesn’t talk about it. We don’t talk at all. I am left alone, struggling to arrange my life around this slow, steady sadness and the answer his silence spells out.
I retreat to the barn and to my horse, Nitro. We match. Short and blonde with a cheerful demeanor and a stubborn streak, we have spent a lifetime watching people leave. But where I am passive, Nitro is pushy. My tactic has been to retreat from the world, his is to charge forward into it. We wage constant battles over boundaries.
Affectionate and lively, his toasted marshmallow coloring and wide, black eyes endear him to everyone. But horses can hear the demons roaring in your heart. And they respond to them. He pushes hard against my fears and when I don’t push back, he becomes a thousand-pound manifestation of my every anxiety.
I have forgotten how to be firm. When I ask Nitro to listen, it’s underscored by hesitation. It’s this hesitation that pushes him into a restless, agitated state, constantly dancing around my feet and spooking at shadows. One afternoon I swing my leg over the saddle, feeling him tense as soon as I slide my foot into the stirrup. I can see what’s coming, and I feel powerless to stop it.
When a horse spooks, you feel the bottom drop out and then rise from underneath you, like a wave pulling back and then crashing on the shore. There is a moment of weightlessness and then the strength of momentum. Nitro ducks and spins, throwing himself into the air, his head tucked neatly between his two front legs.
I hit the ground on my right side, fingers still curled around invisible reins. It is said that your horse is a mirror for your soul; I look at Nitro and wonder when I became so afraid.
There’s not much you can do about a broken rib. Take short, shallow breaths. Stay perfectly still when you sleep.
When I get home, I run a bath and sit in the hot water until it becomes tepid. The man I love is gone; my horse left me alone in the dirt. When I replay both scenes in my head, all I can think is how easily I gave in. I just dropped the reins and let both horse and man throw me into oblivion.
The next day, I am back at the barn. I am limping and it hurts to breathe, but cracked ribs heal, trust can be rebuilt. With the horses, I am brave enough to know that.
Our first few rides are tense. When Nitro starts jigging, I hold my breath. Braced for the impact, lower back tightening, jaw set. My trainer’s voice rings through the panic that sets in when I feel Nitro taking control. “More contact, outside leg, inside rein, follow with your hands, head up, heels down, breathe.”
I need a trainer for my heart. Someone whose voice rings through all the dust I kick up. Someone to stand in the center of the arena and call out reminders when I let the reins go slack, braced against the saddle, waiting for the worst to come.
“It’s okay to be firm,” she says when I am hesitant in correcting Nitro. “If he crosses a line, you need to let him know.” We spin circles in the arena, working to find the balance between the love we crave and the boundaries we need. I can swallow my emotions; I can say, “I’m fine.” But Nitro feels what I feel. I can’t hide from him.
And I’m not fine. I was so afraid to rock the boat that I just sat still and drifted out to sea. I let this man walk all over me. I didn’t even try to get out of the way. I didn’t even try to correct him.
Nitro forces me to stand up for myself a dozen times a day. Every time he refuses to pick up his feet, every time he nips, every time I have to assert myself, I grow a little stronger. The next time he spooks, I keep my seat and a firm hand on the reins. “You’re okay,” I tell him. There is no hesitation in my voice. I take a deep breath, settling my weight, watching as his ears rotate toward me and he softens and yields, coming to a halt.
I’m driving home from the barn when I see the text. It’s been a year. I promise myself it will be different this time. I will draw boundaries. I will stand up for myself. I will say no.
But I don’t. In spite of everything Nitro has taught me, I find myself slipping into the same pattern. I watch the months pass, feeling helpless and afraid.
I distract myself by hauling hay and mucking stalls. When people hurt me, I withdraw into myself. When I don’t know how to say no, I simply stay quiet. It is only at the barn that I stand up and shout. I am so much braver on the back of a horse.
There is a mustang, the color of Utah; all red dirt, with a heart like wide, open sky. She swings this way and that before ducking her head and charging. I wave my arms and tell her to back off. I’m not angry or afraid. I don’t hold it against her. I just don’t want to be trampled.
I scratch her withers as a peace offering. The sun is rising; I watch the dust curling into the sky, caught in the early morning light. In horse speak, I am firm and I am fair and I am stronger than my fear. I keep my head up and my eyes forward. I know there is always a chance my partner will slam on the brakes and send me flying into the future, headfirst and alone. I lean forward anyway.
I tell him we need to talk, writing out the speech in my head so when I forget everything I meant to say, I can close my eyes and see my emotions organized in rows, stacked neatly with the corresponding words. But, as soon as he’s sitting across from me on the couch, I find the practiced calm that the horses have given me. I swallow my hesitation instead of my heart.
“I want you,” I tell him, “but I don’t want this.” He has taken advantage of me, and it hurts. I am not angry, I am not bitter, but I am tired of being pushed aside. My heart has retained the muscle memory of love learned from horses, where boundaries are required and respect must be enforced. It hurts like hell to tell him no, but I can’t rely on him to draw the boundaries we need. I hug him goodnight and head to the barn.
It’s 20 degrees and snowing. The patches of yellow light hit the stalls and then fade out into the shadows. The pigeons shuffle along the rafters. Nitro rests his head over my shoulder. I tangle my fingers in his mane with my face pressed against his neck. When I lean into him, he leans in right back.
What happens now, I don’t know. But I am no longer as afraid. I leaned forward into a relationship that left me sprawled out in the dust, watching everything I’d imagined gallop off, without me. The impact of the fall has left me aching, standing up slowly. But the word “no” made it out of my mouth. There is freedom in that.
Falling is the inevitable risk of horses and love. The crash landing never becomes any less daunting, but the horses have taught me to lean forward anyway. To stand up for myself. To correct the things that hurt me.
When fear rises up in my heart, I channel my equestrian self, waving my arms, shouting, “back” until my heart is my own again. And I lean against Nitro, watching the moon rise as he swings his nose to my hand: the mirror of his soul, showing me the courage in mine.
Author: Nikki Hodgson
Image: Author’s own
Apprentice Editor: Catherine Simmons; Editor: Renee Picard/Emily Bartran