Season of the Horse

Some love stories don’t end happily ever after.

Raised in the 40s in rural New Hampshire, my mother worked a large family farm alongside ten brothers and sisters. 78 relationships between thirteen people make for a complex household. When they weren’t arguing or pestering each other, the children candled eggs and shoveled manure and stored hay for the horses and weeded a garden large enough to feed eleven children aged two through twenty-two. My old-school Irish grandfather, keen on the sport of boxing as its popularity soared in the 1950s, laced gloves onto the boys’ fists and made them duke it out when tempers rose – and sometimes just for sport. It was a hard life that took a toll on all, but especially on the girls. Two of my aunts died tragically as young adults.

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Brilly, my mother’s first horse in East Andover, NH.

Always, my mother loved horses. They saved her. Between chores and fighting for food at mealtimes, mom rode their old mare out into the woods to cover miles of logging trails, bareback and free. She understood equine temperament. She talked her brother into buying a saddle to share and read every horsy book she could find.

Upon leaving the farm and graduating nursing school, my mother struck out into a life without horses that ranged from New York City to Barstow, California. It didn’t last. A few years later, she settled down again in New Hampshire to make a family of her own. Soon, two horses and a pony filled the stable. Saddles and bridles and bits proliferated in the tack room. My mother was at home once more – throwing hay bales and riding for miles through the woods of East Andover.

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Mom with her Arabian, Zabreeze.

By the time she turned sixty-eight, my mother had spent sixty-three years on horseback. She competed in dressage and jumping. She organized group rides with friends across New England. She acted as a judge at regional cross country races. She found an Andalusian mare to breed. She was thrown and trampled and bitten and nearly drowned, her financial health stretched to the limit by foaling complications and vet bills, and she loved it all.

Horseback riding saw her through divorce. It saw her through the deaths of parents and siblings. Her love of horses defined who she was and wanted to be. She sometimes acted like a horse, wild and ready to run in heart and body when a mysterious fancy struck her, and she definitely often smelled like a

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One of her beautiful Andalusians, Dulce.

horse.Since she was old enough to walk, my mother lived and breathed horses.

Until last year.

At sixty-eight, she found herself on a trail ride with a clutch of young companions. Dulce, her spirited Andalusian, wouldn’t calm down in the presence of unfamiliar horses. He skittered sideways, tossed his head, and spooked at things that never before made him flinch. A new calculation took shape in my mother’s mind. It weighed the possible

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Her gorgeous and young Andalusian, Zolara.

costs of falling against good health over the remainder of her life.

Three months later, after much dread, she watched her horses step into a trailer that would take them away forever.

A lifetime of routine still makes her rise early and walk to the barn. Empty stalls await. Her dog noses through the quiet pasture where grass grows up, unshorn by graceful four-legged creatures. The sounds of hooves and whinnies, the warmth of big friendly bodies, the smell of oats and hay – they are gone.IMG_0260 My mother remains, bereft of the joy those beautiful animals bestowed on her for six decades. She shares horsy Facebook posts now more than ever.

I see my mother mourning and can only imagine what it feels like to acknowledge a future that no longer includes brushing down a new foal or cresting the top of Tucker Mountain on horseback.

This is the pattern of life. We win things, they stay with us for a time, and finally they are lost. Whether power or proficiency, youth or horses – our possessions eventually slip away. Sometimes the forfeiture stings, assuaged perhaps by memory – of galloping over hayfields or hugging a pony who raises his head for a pat. And perhaps it helps my mother to imagine her horses at their new home with a young family just settling down as she did once.

My mom’s heart broke over the loss of her horses. However, after listing them for sale, she began mentoring a little girl desperate for her care and guidance. With time once dedicated to chores and haying, she visits her grandchildren more often. She travels with her husband to the Atlantic ocean that she so cherishes.

The season of the horse has passed. I had the privilege of witnessing my mother’s horsy lifestyle that was lush and joyous and long. Now, even faced with her heartache in every Facebook clip about riding, I still only wish to follow my passions as she followed hers, bravely unto retirement and beyond, until they set over the horizon. By my mother’s example – then and now, in her bravery and in her commitment  – I will wring and wring and wring every drop of vitality from these precious days.

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Mom and I heading off for a ride one fine morning in East Andover, NH. (c. 1986?)

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Fall Seven Times, Stand Up Eight

When I turned seven years old, my parents gave me a fantastic and uncommonly dangerous birthday gift. They gave me a pony. Having grown up on a little farm and ridden miles with my mother to and from kindergarten in rural New Hampshire, I was fully prepared for a horse of my own. I could balance on an English saddle and knew to keep my heels down in the stirrups. I understood the responsibilities – mucking stalls, feeding morning and night, grooming before and after trotting over the backroads of farm country.

“What’s his name?” I asked while letting him eat a carrot from my hand and then running my fingers through his shaggy coat for the first time.

“Buckwheat,” my mother said.

“That’s a funny name.”

“Bucky for short.”

“Bucky?”

I should have known right then: my parents had been duped when the former owner insisted this animal was well-trained and agreeable. I should have foreseen what awaited me in the pastures once this friendly little pony was saddled up. But I was seven. So I shrugged and asked when we could go for a ride.

The next day, Bucky accepted the saddle and bridle without complaint. Proud owner of a pony, I led him out into our fields for a test ride. My mother nodded and smiled, encouraging me to fit foot to stirrup and swing up onto his back.

I mounted and quickly learned the truth of Bucky’s name. He lowered his head and kicked his back legs up high into the air. I flew off that pony as if thrown from a full-sized horse. My helmet and the pasture’s long grass cushioned the impact. It was also a boon that I was taking gymnastics at the time, which somewhat prepared me for the tumbling lessons I was about to endure.

“Hey!” my mother said to the pony, giving his bridle a tug, one of those horse nuts who to this day believes equines comprehend human speech. “You behave.” Happily rid of its rider, the to pony began munching the grass.

“Go ahead. Try again,” my mother coaxed me. “You know what they say: You have to get back up on the horse who threw you.”

A little nervous now, I climbed aboard. This time I clung to his back through three bucks before careening to the ground.

“Hold tight on those reins,” my mother said. “Don’t let him lower his head. Try again.”

I tried again. And again. And again. Every time Bucky bucked me clear. I wasn’t strong enough to keep his head up. His head would go down. His rump would go up. And I would fly. While my mother wondered if she’d been had by the hick who’d sold her the pony, I finally gave in for the day.

Next time, I came prepared. We cinched him with a western-style saddle, which provides a more secure seat and a pommel to grab hold of too. I quickly learned that the pommel can behave much like a fist swung in an uppercut motion when a horse bucks a rider off balance. On my first try, I got the wind knocked out of me before toppling to the ground. Then my friend Jed asked to give it a go. He valiantly teetered for a stint of bronco training before falling to the ground.

“That’s it.” My mother eyed the animal, jaw grimly set. “Give me those reins.”

She climbed into the saddle and leaned back against Bucky as he tried to lower his head. Compared to us children, she seemed like a giant atop this little horse. Her biceps and forearms tensed with the effort. Unable to buck off this latest passenger, Buckwheat craned his head around and opened wide to take a bite out of her knee. My mother – hard-as-nails farm girl to her very core – gave Bucky a swift kick in the mouth. That straightened him out some.

Frowning mother and resentful pony stalked together around the pasture for a minute before she dismounted, disgusted and surprised that this cheeky little pony had the gaul to chomp at her. “He tried to bite me!” she growled.

The same nearly unhinged look in the pony’s eye told me I didn’t want to attempt to ride him again that day. Or the next. Or for a couple weeks. That shaggy little pony dared me to try again, to sit astride his back so he could destroy me. I was happy to let him win that staring contest.

However, the day finally arrived when my mother said, “Go get your saddle.”

While a feeling of dread smoldered in my stomach, I sloped to the tack room. I was going to be eaten by my horse. I was going to get bucked off and trampled. Buckwheat the Horrible would delight in unseating this wimpy seven-year-old and maybe getting a second shot at his mother too.

As always, my enemy accepted the bridle and saddle without so much as a twitch. I began to lead him toward the pasture, toward the Coliseum, toward my doom, but my mother said, “No, we’re going for a trail ride.”

“Huh?”

“Come on.” She turned and led her pinto into the front yard. Bucky at my side, I followed, all the more fearful as we emerged from the barn and obstacles came into view – the uneven ground and streambed, the pickup truck and the picnic table, the tractor and dog house.

Out on the lawn, my mother mounted her horse, looked down at me expectantly, no patience.

“Are you sure?”

“Saddle up,” she said, already guiding Brilly toward the road that would take them to the logging tracks on Tucker Mountain.

I put my foot into the stirrup. I met that pony’s unreadable eye. And I swung up into the saddle, prepared for my imminent ejection and certain death by sharp hooves.

But that small horse couldn’t have been happier to trot out onto the road. My mother and I cantered over the blacktop, side by side. We looked at each other in amazement. I gave Bucky’s shoulder a pat, spoke so his ears swiveled back to listen to my tone of gratitude. And we easily coaxed our mounts to a gallop through the hay fields at the top of the hill.

Buckwheat the pony would not be ridden in his home pasture. I don’t know why. But it didn’t matter. My mother and I wanted to rove through the forests and fields of East Andover anyway, not in our own back yard. Evidently Bucky felt the same need to strike out into the wilds with a partner or two. Perhaps he needed the thrill of running just as much as I did.

Bucky, a horse that I had begun to fear, turned out to be the centerpiece of some of my most prized childhood memories. We still had a couple wrinkles to be ironed out after the bucking episodes, but it was a process of discovery and not of conquest. He needed a different bit in his mouth. Whereas a slap on the rump amounted to hitting the ejection button, a light touch with the crop on his shoulder reminded him to take care with his rider. I never would have discovered these nuances if I had given up after a few falls, if my mother hadn’t suggested we try something new. I needed to adjust my behavior to fit better with his. And vice versa.

That pony was my first real lesson in the politics of personality. Slowly I’ve come to understand this process applies to the relationships between people too.

We each have our preferences and idiosyncrasies. Whether they’re inborn or learned, we have buttons that can be pushed and certain needs to be met. First impressions reveal very little about the people we meet and later impressions usually offer only tiny snippets of a person. Since we all make mistakes and harbor complex histories and have bad days alongside the good, it can be difficult to know one another at a deep level. It sometimes takes years and moments of risk to see the shape of somebody’s character.

When we understand each other better, once we’ve come to know one another more intimately – sometimes after discord or butting heads – we can usually find common ground. We can learn to be gentler with each other. We can try new things and understand what makes one another buck. We can settle into a standard of respect and vigor where we gallop through the days of this unbelievable life.

My mother and me atop Brilly on our way to preschool. We had to leave Bucky behind for these school commutes.

My mother and me atop Brilly on our way to preschool. We had to leave Bucky behind for these school commutes.

WHY RISK?

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Horseback riding. Ski jumping. Motorcycles. These are the avocations of my immediate family members. My mom began riding horses as soon as she could walk, and at sixty-five, she still loves to gallop through pastures and over rough logging roads. She … Continue reading