The Day I Got My Painted Horse

Long ago I had the vision of retiring to a small Montana town and living on a few acres outside of Billings in a little green house. I would have goats, make designer cheese and, most important, a painted horse would live in my front yard. Sometimes when I was visiting my Aunt Jo and Uncle Hank, Hank and I would take a drive. I had the immense privilege of driving Hank’s beloved Little Red, a 4 cylinder Dodge truck from the 80’s, a simple truck with a shell, a carpet in back and a few cinderblocks to help with traction. It had a standard transmission, five on the floor, and Hank was continually impressed that I could drive it. Hank had suffered retinal detachment so he could no longer see other than some limited peripheral vision, so he couldn’t drive.

We’d head out west of town to the small farms. It was clearly an area that was entering that twilight zone between housing development and farms, but it was still farms and we were happy.

On one such drive, Hank spied the green house and the horse. “I think this is it, Martha Ann.”

Fast forward a few years. I’m living in Descanso, CA, next to La Familia Lopez, the greatest neighbors anyone ever had. They were a family of five — husband, Andy, wife, Sofi, three kids — two beautiful girls and a baby boy who, by the time we both moved away, was three years old. The fence between our properties was real but also an illusion. We were a family.

Andy is a cowboy but at that time he was working for a concrete company. He has incredible skills, old-timey skills, like roping, and leather working, and metal working, branding, training horses — the list is longer that that, even. Over time I learned that Andy missed being a cowboy but he had families to support and the money he was earning was good. One day Andy called me over to the non-existent existent fence and asked if I’d mind if he put a little corral against my fence. He was getting a horse and Sofi didn’t want it close to the house (we both lived on a little over 1/4 acre plots of land in a small town in the Cuyamaca Mountains).

“Why would I mind?”

“The smell, I don’t now. It’s a horse.”

“No. I don’t mind at all.” The corral was put up under the shade of a couple of oak trees near the boulder where I often sat and graded papers.

Nothing happened for a long time. Just the corral and an oil barrel in one corner.

Then, one crystalline February morning, I got up to get ready for school and opened the front door and there, essentially in my front yard, stood a painted horse.I remember standing in my doorway looking at the painted horse being completely amazed that I “had” a horse. I ended up spending a lot of time with him.

Brownie is the only horse I’ve ever really known and he upended everything I thought I knew about horses. I guess I always thought they were just kind of dumb stubborn animals that needed to be mastered by a person sitting on their back who NEVER let on that they were afraid. “Don’t let it know you’re scared.”

The way I understood that was that a horse would take advantage of my fear and try to hurt me. That’s not actually what it means. What it means is that if the rider is afraid, the horse thinks there’s something dangerous somewhere in the area and they need to get out of there. It’s not about the rider. It’s about the horse being a prey animal. Horses read minds. Seriously, they do.

The only other horse I’d had much experience with was my high school friend’s horse, Irish and the plain fact is, Irish really did have a malicious and mischievous streak. She’d done many evil things to get me off her back, including throwing me over her head onto a rock.

In time, I’d gotten so I could ride Irish, and we developed a kind of “friendship” but I never really “knew” her. But Brownie? That’s what the kids named the painted horse. His people were very busy, and I was very close, so within a few days, Brownie found a way to let me know who he was. I dreamed that he opened the fence, walked through my front door, came into my room and walked into my heart. It was one of the most real dreams I have ever had.

I spent hours with Brownie. Our relationship wasn’t only based on carrots, either. He was waiting for me at night when I got home from school and greeted me with a nicker and a few hoof scrapes on the ground to show me he was happy. Sometimes I’d come home and find him and Dusty hanging out together. Lily T. Wolf slept beside the fence where Brownie stood. He would close his eyes in pleasure when I scratched his nose. I always saw he had hay and water when his people were gone for a while. If I walked up the street, Brownie followed along the fence. He loved his kids and let Little Andy do anything to him — climb on him, around him, under him.

Andy Jr. rides Brownie for the first time

I could go on and on and on about Brownie, but I’ve written about him here before and I doubt I’ve said anything new here. But what I learned from that horse profoundly changed my life. His was the purest love I’ve ever felt.

P.S. Andy found a job on a ranch in northern CA and they moved up there. A few months after that, following Andy’s advice to me to “follow my heart,” I returned to Colorado. We’re still in contact, both of us living where we belong.

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…


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.


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.


Merry Christmas! Christmas 2014, I Ride a Horse



Today I rode a horse. I did not even think I could get up on one with my hip machinery but all it took was a good teacher, a set of steps and a kind horse who likes people. It was great and I was/am so happy. I had not forgotten how to ride and I think each time I get on from now on I’ll find it easier and easier. The best Christmas present I could have had and a complete surprise.

I wish all the kind people who read my blog a very happy Holidays!

You Can Go Home Again (if you’re a snail)

I’m in Colorado Springs some 43 years after my last Christmas here. To go back to that event? Sad and painful. It was my dad’s last Christmas. We did our Christmas Eve gift thing in the nursing home with him. He gave me a beautiful pen and pencil set and scrawled in late stage MS penmanship, “keep writing.” He also gave me his Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam inscribed with a message that I should regard it as a book of advice. I kept the gift tags and they are safe somewhere in a packed box I have yet to open.

Of of course I never imagined coming back here for Christmas. I could not imagine there would ever be a reason. I left, right?

The city has grown and changed. Many familiar places remain — and they are still familiar. The adage “you can’t go home again” is not strictly true. This city is still sort of “home.” When I left at age 20, the pain of the previous few years was unbearably intense. I thought such pain was tied to this place and by leaving here I would leave that behind, too.

I know better now. Loss and pain are everywhere in life.

Today was coldish but with a fierce wind. My friend LM is taking lessons in riding and understanding horses and we went out to the stables this morning for that, but the wind was too brutal for her to ride or, really, for the horses to be long outside the barn. I got to hang out with some wonderful horses for half an hour or more. One was a small yearling mare — half Arabian and half quarter horse. Another was a sorrel quarter horse whose friend was a gray Persian cat. There was an immense (to me) gray horse with a sense of humor who decided I’d hung out long enough with the yearling. He came up behind me and bumped my elbow to say, “My turn!”

Since last January when Brownie came to live next door and I got to know him, I’ve liked horses and have become very curious about them and the way they seem able to communicate with me. It always seemed kind of bogus, the relationship between, say, a cowboy and a horse, but Brownie clearly knew me and loved me and knew when I was there and when I was not. He knew when to expect me home on which days. If I said, “I’ll be right back,” he waited. Now I want to know more.

Horses were part of my life here so long ago, too, but like everything they were sharp and scary and pain inflicting. My best friend back then had a horse who actively resented me. It was true. But I made the mistake then of thinking that was horses. I didn’t see the intelligence behind her jealousy just as I didn’t see that pain is a part of life in general, for everyone, not just for me in this one place in one moment of life.

Maybe when you’re young it’s impossible to see the big picture just because you haven’t lived long enough to have turned over many pieces of the puzzle…