Learning life's lessons together

Few people I’ve known have had as much capacity for empathy as my horse does.


I remember when dating was fun. I never took it too seriously; I just went out for dinner and to share some laughs. But, honestly, I preferred to spend my time riding my horse, Clifford.

His soft footfalls along a wooded path, the gentle jingle of his bridle, his sweet warm smell: What man could compete with that kind of soul-settling peace? It was a tall order. Plus, I never seemed to find anyone who appreciated horse therapy the same way I did.

“He sure eats a lot!” they would say.

“I bet he’s expensive to keep!”

Apart from Clifford, my little sister Amanda was the greatest test a potential boyfriend had to pass. Amanda has Down syndrome. She is quiet and sweet but she has an electric wit and when she speaks, she has a tendency to snap out the truth.

Through the years, Amanda was my constant companion, along with Clifford. I didn’t realize it, but I was building a wall: A wall of expectations so high that no mere human could ever scale it.

The years passed, and we all aged. Clifford developed arthritis and couldn’t take me for long rides anymore. Being a writer, I had woven stories about him into a book. And since he had a penchant for learning tricks, I decided one way to keep him active in his senior years would be to teach him how to paint. It wasn’t long before I had him “autographing” his own biography, smearing the title page with a sponge sopped in watercolors. We began visiting schools and libraries, promoting literacy and entertaining kids by painting and playing fetch.

Then my mother died and I found myself suddenly in charge of my elderly father and Amanda. Before long, Dad grew ill with cancer, and he passed later that winter. The aftermath of his death brought a war with my siblings over custody of Amanda.

I began to realize why I had distanced myself from people. I couldn’t bear the thought of committing to one more person who would try to take something from me. Instead, for 20 years, I had found comfort in my horse. He was funny, gentle and smart. He demanded nothing besides peppermints. Amanda, too, had always been sweet and innocent. She had no agenda. She was safe.

Now, though, Amanda was grieving and upset about the upheaval in her life. It was almost unbelievable that she was being dragged through a legal battle at a time like this. But the legal system demanded the petitions for her guardianship be honored, so Amanda’s future was up for grabs. She was seeking comfort in those who had been closest to her: me and, yes, Clifford.

As the court date loomed, about six weeks away, she wanted to keep doing the library visits.

“I think we should try to make the world a better place,” she said.

I ruminated over this. Obviously, taking a housebroken horse into a library has an impact. I mean, it just isn’t something one sees every day. Amanda was right. We needed to use this time to make some kind of difference. What was the most important message we had to teach?

Empathy.

Empathy would have solved so many of our problems. So the three of us---my disabled sister, my aging horse and I---we carried on our crusade to spread the message.

This, I realized, is my gift to the next generation. I have no children, only Clifford. Through him, I was reaching out, trying to leave today’s kids with a lesson they would never forget: Learn to care. Listen to those who have no voice. Use your eyes to see the needs of those around you. In short, practice empathy!

When her court date finally arrived, we were fortunate to have a judge who was wise enough to listen to Amanda’s wishes. Because I was having financial difficulties at the time, the judge refused to let her remain with me, but he did grant her second choice, so she went to Arizona to live with our older brother.

I found myself alone with my horse. This, I realized, was the culmination of 23 years together---longer than some married couples. Clifford has literally carried me through some of the hardest times in my life, and he’s shared some of the best. I did wonder, though, about the one quality I had defined as most important in a life partner: Was Clifford empathetic? That’s pretty hard to quantify in a horse.

Then came the day in the Grayling Library. We had wrapped up our program with the kids when the head librarian approached me and said, “There is a lady in a wheelchair who just came in the back door. It’s our only ramp, but her chair is too wide to fit between the bookshelves. Do you think you could take Clifford back there? She would really like to see him.”

“Sure.” I knew this wouldn’t be a problem. By this time Clifford had braved stairs, narrow hallways, and all kinds of floors and surfaces. A few narrow bookshelves were no big deal. I led him down the aisle and found a wizened little old lady in a wheelchair. Behind her stood a nurse, grinning broadly.

“There he is!” The nurse immediately reached up to stroke Clifford. He nuzzled her gently. He then began busily sniffing the disabled lady’s arms, which lay stretched on her lap, limp and pale. As I watched, he continued to nudge and nibble at her arms and hands. The nurse reached down and picked up the lady’s hand, holding it to gently caress the white stripe on Clifford’s face. He froze, closing his eyes, while I stared in amazement.

“She’s quadriplegic,” the nurse explained. “She cannot move her arms. Funny how he seems to understand.”


About the author:
Nancy J. Bailey has written more than 10 books, including Clifford of Drummond Island, the true story of her Morgan horse. Clifford tours libraries and schools with her, painting pictures and making the world a better place. Together, Nancy and Amanda Bailey wrote The North Side of Down: A True Story of Two Sisters, which in 2015 was awarded an honorary medallion from the Book Readers Appreciation Group.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #471, December 2016.