My mother bought Amrieh, a chestnut Arabian mare with a half-star on her forehead, when I was a young child. Amrieh was spirited, but she was also gentle and wise. She proved a trustworthy mount for my mother, who had started riding in her late 30s and was anxious about getting injured. The mare was so dependable that eventually my mother encouraged me to ride her instead of the school ponies. I quickly grew to love Amrieh’s smooth trot, her rolling canter and her steady, smooth attitude on the trail.
By the time I was 11, I gave up saddles entirely and took to riding Amrieh bareback. I was fearless, whether cantering in circles in the ring or riding out on the trail, where we could really let loose. My mother, ever the worrier, wouldn’t allow me to go on the trails alone. So if I had no one to ride with, she would simply walk next to me.
My favorite trail ended in a grassy field that gently sloped upward---the perfect place for a good gallop. My mother would stand off to the side and shield the sun from her eyes, watching as I pointed Amrieh uphill and let her burst into a run. I squinted into the wind as Amrieh’s mane rippled in my face. I couldn’t imagine how my mother was content to stand by and watch, or how she could ever be afraid of riding in the first place. When I was on Amrieh I knew I could trust her. She’d take care of me.
At every stable we boarded, Amrieh quickly became a favorite. One stable manager begged to use her for lessons; others praised her intelligence and heart. One woman hinted to my mother that she’d like to buy Amrieh for her son, who had taken a bad fall and was now horse shy. While we understood how our sweet mare could help a fearful rider trust again, we had to pass. Amrieh was ours.
Amrieh remained healthy and lively deep into her 20s. Finally the day came when she could no longer be ridden. But she was still ours, and we cared for her just as always, showing up at the stable with carrot slices and sugar cubes. I went off to college, but I still made time to visit the barn during my trips home. My mother, meanwhile, was struggling with cancer. Throughout her treatments, one of her goals was to remain healthy enough to continue spending time at the barn. Horses were her one true love in life, and even if she didn’t feel well enough to ride, she could still spend time around them.
In the end, my mother’s cancer was far more serious than any of us had known. She passed away when I was only 20. The loss devastated me, and in the midst of my grief, I also felt guilty for not paying more attention to Amrieh. I knew she was in good hands at the boarding barn, and I continued to mail the check every month. But my college was two hours away, and I didn’t have the emotional energy to make much time for her. The last time I saw her was during a winter break. I brought my camera and stood next to Amrieh in the paddock to take a selfie with her---this long before the term “selfie” even existed---as if part of me knew I’d never see her again.
A few months later, Amrieh fell ill and had to be put down. I was studying abroad in England at the time, so this news traveled across a vast ocean to reach me. Later, I learned that the stable owner had dug a hole on the property and led Amrieh up to it.
The veterinarian injected her and she fell into her own grave. This sounded unreal to me, like a horrifying fairy tale, and so sometimes I think I must have it all wrong. Surely my mother’s beautiful horse didn’t just crumple into the ground.
I mailed a final check to the stable owners, but I never returned to see Amrieh’s burial place or even to pick up the tack and grooming supplies I’d left there. I just wanted it all to disappear, like it had never happened.
I didn’t ride for years afterward. Even so, riding was an essential part of me, so I couldn’t stay away forever. When I finally signed up for riding lessons in my new city, I almost started to cry when I stepped into the barn for the first time. That smell---hay and horses and dust and manure---was ingrained in my very being. How had I gone even a few years without it?
Now, however, I approached riding differently. For the first time, I felt fear. Not only was I heavier and less supple, but none of the horses I rode matched Amrieh’s gentle wisdom. There was the off-the-track Thoroughbred who had a habit of bolting. And there was the Paint mare I leased for a time who once bucked me right off.
For the first time, I could appreciate my mother’s anxiety, how vulnerable she must have felt as a new adult rider taking these risks. I wished I could talk to her again, to tell her I could now understand all her worrying---and to thank her for letting me ride Amrieh.
I’m still riding, but now it seems like a continual effort to regain what I had as a child: pure, absolute freedom on horseback. I realize I can’t return to those days, but I’ll never stop trying. Still, there are moments to treasure. Recently I hopped up bareback onto a Belgian, and the warmth of his chestnut coat took me back to all those years I rode Amrieh without a saddle.
This love of riding and horses, which I shared with my mother, will never disappear. When I close my eyes at night, sometimes I still see that grassy green field, and I feel the way I leaned high over Amrieh’s neck as she took off in a spirited gallop. There in the edges of my peripheral vision is my mother, standing with a hand held to her forehead to cut the sun, watching as I race wild and thrilled and free.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #462, March 2016.