Comfort and joy

Last Christmas Eve, I was reminded that my job cleaning up pastures may not be the heart of the horse world, but to me it is the soul.

An obsession starts innocently enough. I was 5 when I fell in love with a Paint named Navajo at an uncle’s ranch in Arizona. Horses became my raison d’être. You know the story: A young girl in love waits for her Lancelot to arrive—except it is the steed and not the knight she is longing for. I lived for riding and spent hours reading Pony Club books and dreaming of owning a horse, at least until high school, when the lure of dances and hanging out with my friends caused horses to fade from my life.

My redemption came when I was 49. Feeling lost, I spent the summer on a retreat where I could take part in equine-assisted therapy. I like to say I “came to” in a barn surrounded by horses.

When I returned, to my new home in Virginia, I found that I was the happy neighbor of a small herd that grazed in fields adjacent to our woods. I could hear them at night through an open bedroom window, their soft, velvet noises my lullaby, and I sensed their slow shapes moving gently through the lush night air. At morning light they were often my first sight of the day.

I tried for weeks to befriend the group, standing quietly at the edge of the woods, but to no avail. Once, the chestnut separated from the herd and made a slow walk over. We stood, looking at one another, too much space between us. It was a solitary occurrence; nothing happened for a long while after that.

Then something changed. As I walked through the woods I saw the little herd in the lower pasture and approached the fence just to watch. One horse looked up and they all walked over. Out of the blue it was as if I was covered in molasses, irresistible, and I reveled in the moment.

A wise woman I met during my retreat had told me that we should be not of horses, but with them. I took her literally and contented myself with just their proximity. My days were fulfilled with their sounds. They snorted, whinnied, nickered and neighed. Their hooves clopped as they headed down the road toward trails, and in the fields they thudded and thundered. The sound of grass being pulled seemed a fundamental, sustaining sound, and the soft way they had of drawing water was so surprising, but elemental. I liked their thunder the best. I would almost seem to sense it before I heard it, and then the little herd would rush by, suddenly primal. This is the sound I connect with the spirit of the horse, which is ancient, large and giving. For a year, living next to them was enough.

Eventually I started volunteering at a local therapeutic riding barn. I relearned the art of grooming horses. The smells of leather, horse and hay were a balm to me, and I found quiet pleasure in just walking side by side with the horses through the lessons. Their generosity was revealing and seemingly infinite. The crew was glori-ously assorted. There were giant draft crosses, a Norwegian Fjord, and a tapestry of color. I felt at home.

A year later I stumbled upon an ad: “Help wanted picking fields.”

I thought the solitude and physical work would be a good fit for me. So now I make my way to a small private barn three times a week. My commute is about four minutes, and my hours are dictated by the weather. My wardrobe is slim. Jeans, rubber boots and a rain suit when it’s needed.

I have no idea what to call myself. A muckraker? Maybe not in the sense that it’s usually meant nowadays, but that’s what I do. I laughed at myself when I filled out the parent profile for my son’s freshman year at college. Occupation? I wrote “Stable Hand,” glorifying myself, but I didn’t want to leave it at Housewife. It’s a conversation stopper on the cocktail party circuit—but still, there is the friend who has a lesson barn, the couple whose teenage daughter winters in Wellington, and the acquaintance who used to be a jockey. They get it. We’d all do anything for horses.

I love my work. This simple job has brought me profound healing and happiness. I will tell you why.

There is wind and weather, art and science, and the endless tick-tock of biology. There is silence and solitude. And of course there are the horses. The little herd I work for has fluctuated over time and offered an assortment of breeds and colors. I met my first cremello there and now enjoy a palette of bay, chestnut and palomino. The Shetland pony is gone, moved to California. I often think of his stoic little face. Today there are three horses, a Quarter Horse, an off-the-track Thoroughbred, and Red, who is in his late 20s. They are so different from one another. I love nurturing a relationship with each of them in ways that respect who they are.

The scent of hay greets me as I approach the barn, and the fields change almost daily. As the seasons pass I see the bright flit of bluebirds, the fields awash in buttercups, and the imperceptible return of trees in leaf. There is purple clover in June, a favorite. By July wild strawberries peek through the grass in random patches and the mint is knee-high, releasing its perfume as I brush by. Iridescent dragonflies go about their hovering business.

There is much to decipher. Flattened grass reveals equine wanderings, and there are the large patches where joyful rolling occurred. I turn around and see my own flattened path, leaving a brief record of my work for the day. I have an intimate relationship with mud.

I have my own logic for accomplishing a thorough job. My attention remains focused on my task. I am amused when it reminds me of an Easter egg hunt and disappointed when my carelessness results in uprooted grass, mouthfuls of nourishment disappearing into my wheelbarrow. Sometimes I am brought out of my intensity by the dazzling flash of a fox or the brief confusion when I momentarily mistake a group of grazing deer for the horses, who I know are in the barn.

I work along the contours of the land, its gentle rise and fall dictating my path. A bandana pulled out of my pocket with the brand of my uncle’s ranch in Arizona reminds me of Navajo. I remember that I believed I would bring him home with me one day.

Last year on Christmas Eve, it was hard to leave home and hearth, and I put off going to work until late in the day. As I was moving through the paddock by the barn it started to snow. Fat, heavy flakes fell, and I felt such astonished joy as I worked in the swirling whiteness surrounding me. I turned toward the barn, decorated with beribboned wreaths, and there was Sugar, head over his half-door, looking out upon his changing world. It reminded me that once long ago, on that very evening, a woman heavy with child made her way to the comfort and shelter of just such a barn.

What I do may not be the heart of the horse world, but to me it is the soul. Following their lead, I walk. I make my way, joyfully, in the company of horses.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #447, December 2014. 




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