Freedom — Reflections on Riding a Horse on Christmas Eve

Daily Prompt Happy Happy Joy Joy We cry for lots of reasons: sadness, pain, fear . . . and happiness. When was the last time you shed tears of joy?

I’m pretty easily moved to tears of happiness; tears of sorrow? Not so easy. That’s something to hide, the vulnerable underbelly of our lives, a soft spot. But happiness? I’ve learned that the moments of life’s beauty are fleeting and I want to be fully present when they arrive. Most of the time the moments are bits of the passing parade. My neighbor’s third grade daughter pretending to be Laura in Little House on the Prairie and collecting snow for maple syrup. A little boy running toward our shared fence yelling, “Martha! Martha! Martha!” as if the sun rises and sets with me. The look on a student’s face that says, “I got it!” My friend’s mentally challenged son helping me make Jello. It sounds, maybe, Pollyanna-ish but I think it’s healthy to turn attention to the beautiful moments. Once in a while, though, I’m the central character in a beautiful moment.

That happened last week, Christmas Eve.

I used to be a contender. I mean by that I used to run and hike on hard hills almost every day. If you do that, you’re going to fall and you’re also going to put a lot of wear and tear on your joints. I knew this. I knew that sooner or later (I hoped later) I’d have problems. I’d been told this but no one went farther and said what the problems would be. So, when I was 52, 2004, I started experiencing terrible pain in my hip not just when I was hiking, but all the time. I thought it was a pulled muscle or??? Time passed. I went to the doctor who misdiagnosed it because I was so young — but truth will out and it was advanced osteoarthritis in my right hip. Three YEARS later I had surgery — hip resurfacing — to repair it. By then, other damage had accrued. My knees, both with historical injuries, had been carrying more than their fair share of the burden of me. They were not in good shape, either.

After that, because of that, I was different psychologically. Formerly, the best part of my life was out in nature, challenging my body and seeing what there was to see. Afterward? No. I tried to return to my former pursuits but with the restrictions I had (no running among them) and the knowledge that I could be HURT, it was not the same. It was confusing. All I’d wanted during those three or four painful years was to get back on the trail. When I was able again? There was a core of sadness and fear where there had been nothing before except maybe joy and anticipation — and freedom.

So…move on, right? Other things — good things — found their way into that hollow place and pushed the sad part further and further down. Each age has its beauty, they say.

But…it wasn’t what I wanted. It would be OK. I would make it fine. Great other things existed, right? I could do them — did them. Then, one morning in January I walked out my front door and saw…

A HORSE.

I’d known about him. I’d talked with my neighbor and explained it was OK with me if he used one part of my fence as the horse’s corral. I explained I didn’t mind the smell of horse and I basically liked horses, not with any grand passion. I was never a horse crazy girl, but horses were OK with me.

In fact, in 2005, I’d had an experience with horses related to my arthritis that had made me regard them with respect and affection. The day when my (inept) Dr. had finally made a correct diagnosis, and had his office staff call me, the day I learned I had osteoarthritis in my hip, I was completely bewildered by the information. No one explained what that meant and I was scared. That evening I took my Siberian husky, Lily (then a young dog) for a walk in the pure mountain darkness of Descanso, California. Walking always helped me think.

We just walked down the road — a mile. At the end of the road was a large paddock filled with horses. I never paid any attention to them on my walks, and they never paid attention to me. I knew they were there but? So what. There were more horses than people in my town and, anyway, I’d never related all that well to horses. But that night…in the dark I heard them nicker. I walked over to the fence. In the pitch darkness I couldn’t see them. There were eight or ten, I don’t know, all pressing against the fence asking to be petted. I stroked necks and noses and felt them push each other away to get close to me. I stayed for a while petting them then turned toward home, passing the next paddock, also filled with horses, who did the same thing. That night I must have patted sixteen or twenty horses. It was a strange and intense experience, and I felt I’d been given a gift. Until the next day, I didn’t know the magnitude of the gift.

Grateful to them, I decided to buy a big bag of carrots and visit them in the day time. When I did, I saw that they were all old horses with varying levels of arthritis. All of them returned to the fence, some slowly, each step painful and hard. One had a very hard time reaching me and when she did, I saw her teeth were down to nothing and though she wanted a carrot, she couldn’t easily take it. I chewed it and spit it into my hand and gave it to her. Somehow these immense and alien creatures had KNOWN everything about me the night before. From then on, I have loved horses and wondered about their abilities, their understanding, their empathy.

So, this past January walking out my front door one morning and seeing a horse essentially in my front yard was a real thrill. I’d have done a little dance if I could.

Horse

I got to know Brownie well and I really loved him. My neighbors tried to persuade me to get up on him and ride, but I didn’t think I could. I spent a lot of time with Brownie, though, talking to him, feeding him carrots, giving him his hay when his people were gone for the weekend. Mostly, though, I just liked hanging out with him. Knowing Brownie made me very happy and I missed him a lot when he and his family moved away.

I have known for a while that horses have been trotting into my heart, but what, I wondered, would I do with them if I couldn’t ride them? Could I learn to care for them and train them? Maybe. Could I work at a horse rescue, mucking out stalls? Well, the physical limitations that kept me off a horse also didn’t make it that easy for me to lift heavy shovel-loads of manure, but maybe. Then, last week when I was in Colorado Springs, I went with my friend to her riding/horse knowledge lesson at RCA Equestrian.

I was going to watch. That was OK with me. I liked it a lot, just being outside and being around horses and I am completely behind what my friend, LM, is trying to accomplish. I love it.

My friend’s lessons involve not just getting on a horse, but getting the horse out of the barn (putting the halter on and leading her out), brushing her down, saddling her, leading her to the ring, “talking” to her with body language and a whip (not to strike the horse but to talk to the horse). My friend is learning to tell the horse to walk around the ring to the right, the left, to come to her, to back away from her. My friend is learning to speak “horse as a second language.” Her horse is a good teacher.

When my friend got her horse out of the barn, the teacher, Rebecca, brought another horse out of the barn. She told us about the horse, how he was a lease. She told us about some of his qualities and that she’d only had him out to ride once. She tied him next to LM’s horse.

I watched for an hour or so and enjoyed it very much. Other horses were all around, some in fenced paddocks, a couple of them running free. It was a glorious day on the open prairie and except that I could feel my lips getting sunburned, everything was GREAT! The kind of compromised great I’ve known since my hip surgery. “I can’t ride, but I can be here,” kind of great.

There’s a lot to be said for acquiring that kind of philosophy. It’s the lesson of my experience. In a bizarre way, the pain and suffering and fear and so on led me to a peaceful resignation with each passing moment. Love it or lose it, what it amounts to.

Then, suddenly (it seemed to me) Rebecca told her daughter to saddle the other horse. “Use my saddle,” she said, “With the soft pad.” I imagined the next step in LM’s lesson was going to be “talking” to her horse while another horse was in the ring. I thought it would be cool to watch.

Rebecca’s daughter brought the saddled horse over to the ring and Rebecca called out, “Martha, do you want to ride?” I was stunned.
“I don’t think I can.”
“Do you want to try?”
“I don’t think I can get on the horse. I’ve had this surgery and I can’t swing my leg over the horse. I guess I could try getting on from the wrong side.”
“Do you want to try? I’ll hold him and you can use the steps. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, OK?”

Oh, I wanted to. I was deeply tired of what I could not do and, anyway, I’ve never been afraid of trying.

“OK. I’m not afraid to ride, Rebecca. I’m not afraid of the horse. It’s getting on. It’s a mechanical problem.”

She uses horses as therapy animals for lots of physically disabled people, people with MS, MD, paraplegics. I KNOW I’m a person with no problems in comparison to that. I was simply afraid of dislocating my femur or cracking the femoral head or shifting the acetabular cup. I had also NEVER attempted to mount a horse from the right.

I climbed the steps. Rebecca held the horse (Spanky). I put my right foot in the stirrup, and awkwardly swung my left leg over the back of the horse. I was on. Rebecca is short like I am and the stirrups were already fine. She let go of Spanky. I felt an intense rush of absolute joy run through my body. I was on the horse. I began to sob. Here was something I could do. This wonderful species who’d shown me — out of no where — so much care and affection, I was ON him. I leaned forward on my saddle and wrapped my arms around his neck, I was so incredibly happy. I was embracing all those old horses and Brownie and this horse who held me standing perfectly still.

After that? I can ride. I rode. I was liberated from everything on Spanky’s back. Liberated from the arthritis in my knees. Liberated from the inability to move across the earth. Here was freedom.

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11 thoughts on “Freedom — Reflections on Riding a Horse on Christmas Eve

  1. Martha, you have literally caused tears to well up in my eyes with your sincere story. Nothing like pain with a happy ending to prompt this result. And now you’ve made a lie of my own poem about tears of happiness and the lack thereof in my life! Happy New Year. I love it most when you write about your life…Judy

  2. Me too, Martha; this one got me misty-eyed.

    A neighbor introduced me to her horses and part of the lesson was—(drum roll)— cleaning his sheath, if you know what I mean! Yep, she just reached up in there, looking for foreign matter I suppose. I had no idea if that was a regular part of horse maintenance, or if she was very weird.

  3. That is how I have ALWAYS felt about horses because I am one of those horse crazy girls. I can’t ride any more but oh how I miss it and oh how this brought back the joy — even the smell — of a horse and that wonderful bonding with their patient, beautiful creature who can carry you and your dreams.

  4. Lovely read. I grow up in horseland. The next riding stables are just across the road. In winter they are often outside in the paddock doing horsey things. They are lovely animals but for me from a distance. I had my riding lesson once, just to go there and do it. Problem: climbing onto the horse and dismounting. The next problem: I discoverd that it is a living thing it is warm, it breathes and moves. Lovely to see, but I prefer my felines.

  5. That brought back good memories! I was one of those horse-crazy girls and spent most of my youth on horseback in Louisville, KY. What a wonderful thing to hug a horse’s neck:0).

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