When I returned home this summer, I knew I would have a couple of empty stalls waiting for me.
Granted, the barn on my family’s property has been empty for a while. The last time we had horses there was probably around 2011. The barn still stands, now home to meandering chickens and random storage and some of my dad’s construction equipment. It’s become a fixture in our yard, a common sight out the back door or out my bedroom window. I still remember vividly the way it felt to look outside and see horses standing there, looking inside and waiting for their dinner. (Doing antics to beg for their dinner, more like.) I still remember late nights and early mornings out at that barn, or winter snowstorms where the pipes froze and we hauled steaming water out from the house. In ways that I won’t attempt to describe here, that daily rhythm of life with horses made me into who I am today. (And someday I'd like to add to the already-rich and wonderful oeuvre of equestrian writing to pay my own homage to this subject.)
This is the first time since 2002 (!!) that I’ve been back in New Mexico without a horse here for me, at our barn or someone else’s. The barn on my family’s property has been empty for a while, as the horses moved on to other homes and other pastures, but for the last fourteen years, I’ve always had a horse around, close by, or waiting for me when I got home. I haven’t talked much about it, except with a few people, but this past spring I sold my mare Scarlett, who I love beyond words and who was a constant, gorgeous, stubborn, feisty, exciting, reassuring mainstay in my life since my teenage years. It was the right decision, I know, but it still feels strange and unsettling not to have her here. I still feel like she is with me, can still conjure up the physical memory of the rhythm of her gait and the soft texture of her nose. Of my two previous horses, one lived a grand long life until we put him down two years ago, and another is still close by, growing old and adorably grizzled, but not mine anymore. I still call myself a rider, and always will, but the truth is: my current life does not involve horses, not like it once did.
This is something that’s difficult to explain to non-horse people, and it’s something I’ll attempt another time, another place, in longer form: the deep, robust, emotional connection we form with these animals. My self on or beside or with a horse, as I experience it, feels like an extension of my lone two-legged self. The connection I find with horses, from a purely personal standpoint, has always been one of a physical and visceral longing toward communication. Riding a horse, or being in the barn, always stirred in me a palette of sensations I have found nowhere else: the power of handling these animals, combined with the finesse and dedication and empathy and understanding it requires. The barn was also a place where I could be silent, a place where I could see and feel and grasp towards understanding. Horses always took me at face value. They worked from the honesty that an animal cannot help but give, from their own immediate reactions and instincts and emotions. Our beings, in those moments, collided, and the horses reflected back to me more of what I was, or could be. Was I frustrated, distracted, rough, inefficient that day? My horse, any horse, would quickly show me that, and probably make me regret it and be better. Or was I willing to flow, to feel, to observe and think and respond and request what I wanted, in an effective way? I would find the rewards of that, at least over time. It all required a tremendous focus on the present moment, which I now miss. Horses do nothing but live in the present. And the rewards of the work of riding – for it is work, to do it well – gave me some of my greatest moments of joy.
Horses also gave me a tremendous sense of self-esteem. When I was younger, I may not have always felt capable of communicating well with the hearing people I met at school or in the rest of life, or of things like understanding spoken words or speaking well or keeping up with bewildering group conversation. But I got on the back of a horse and those barriers disappeared. Those demands fell away. I was simply myself, in my body, trying to figure out how to connect with this enormous muscular body that would carry me and jump and gallop and do these things with incredible generosity and grace, if I learned how to ask well enough. That feeling of security is still there, whenever I encounter a horse and just get on and ride. I’m grateful for it.
The past two weeks, I’ve been going through my tack. I’ve been selling some of it, giving other pieces away, keeping other items with the plan of getting back in the saddle someday, whenever that happens. All of these everyday objects of a life with horses, from liniment and standing wraps to various bits and spurs and riding gloves, are saturated with memories. They're the objects of habits that have long since become instinct. They’re saturated with emotions, too. I am thankful for the experiences and people and places that have entered my life since other things – living abroad, graduate school – intervened and took me away from the horsey life a few years ago. I’ve had more time and freedom, and have met some of the most incredible friends and gotten to work on and learn many new and exciting things outside of the barn. All of those things feel right, for this season of life, and the work and the experiences matter. At the same time, I still feel like I have a huge horse-sized hole in my heart. I know other friends, horsey friends from over the years, who will be well-acquainted with this feeling. The smell of leather tack and of rich horse, the exhilaration of a fast gallop or smooth jumping round, the feel of reins or of a lock of mane in hand: the longing for these things never quite goes away.
For now, until life slows down a bit and I again have more time (and money) to balance these other things and make it out to a barn on a regular basis again, I’ll hold on to these memories, and to that sense of self I still feel that I forged through horses. This summer I've remembered that the horse-crazy girl who appears everywhere in my house, in the various pictures and accouterments that still deck my room, is still there. She also can’t wait to keep up with the equestrian events in the Olympics next week. So, here’s to that, and here’s to the next time I dig out the good old leather boots and put them to use.