During a fall elk-hunting trip in New Mexico, I came to realize just how much I missed horses. The hours we spent riding through the Jemez Mountains rekindled an old love---one ignited by my first horse, a gift I received more than a half century earlier on my 8th birthday. Time on horseback always provided me a sense of freedom and independence, a view of the world that could not be found any other place.
But now we lived off-the-grid, in a log cabin tucked away in the spruce and hardwood forest of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. And I was well north of 60 years old. So owning a horse again seemed not only highly improbable but also impractical---we had no cleared land, no barn and no known source of hay.
Yet, on the spectacular October day when I reluctantly handed off the reins of my borrowed horse, the guide looked at my husband, nodded knowingly in my direction, and said, “She’ll have a horse by spring.”
Not quite. But on a sweltering afternoon the following July a red trailer carrying a silver grulla gelding named Blues Tiger Doc arrived in our driveway. Tiger stripes wrapped his muscular hindquarters, dapples dotted his hips and silver highlights dusted his black mane. What were his thoughts as he peered between the thin slats of the stock trailer at my husband, our German Shorthaired Pointer, Kaiser, and me? What did he think about the towering aspen and spruce that formed a wall around the small barn and newly cleared paddock?
When the gate of the stock trailer swung open, the gelding cautiously backed out. His ebony eyes were flashing, his silver-tipped ears in constant motion and his nostrils flared as he issued a snort. Every inch of his 16 hands expressed nervous energy as he danced at the end of the lead rope. My confidence about riding this horse into my 70s began to falter.
In the weeks that followed, the boundaries of our relationship were tested. Tigger, the nickname given by his previous owners, just didn’t fit this splendid animal, so he became Spirit. A friend suggested I might have chosen a name like Smokey or Spot, something more befitting a “senior” rider’s horse. But Spirit lived up to his wilder name. He would brace his feet, refusing to enter his stall; the stark white at the edges of his black eyes evidence of his fear. He didn’t understand how the wolves living in the surrounding forest might find him delectable if he stayed in the paddock at night.
On a trail ride through the woods, Spirit suddenly bolted, throwing me back across those dappled hips, giving me a view I don’t recommend for riders: the toes of my worn leather
boots set against blue sky and aspen treetops. Miraculously, I stayed on, and as I struggled to right myself in the saddle, I heard my husband’s voice, “Are you alright?”
“I’m OK. Just give me a minute,” I said as I took stock of my condition. Everything seemed to be working; nothing hurt that much. As Spirit danced sideways on the narrow trail, head high, ears nervously moving I stroked his neck trying to calm him and myself.
This was the first of many count-less hours Spirit and I would spend in a constant series of “dance lessons.” I have learned a lot from these pirouettes, including an increased awareness and appreciation for the intelligence, curiosity and affection of this animal. I have also learned patience and perseverance as we have danced together.
Spirit, too, has been learning---to trust me and to better understand what I am asking. I found a round pen to be a very effective environment for him. It allowed us to establish leadership, respect and communication. I was able to control his direction and movement in a relaxed environment. He quickly turned his inside ear toward me, began licking his lips and soon was watching me for cues.
Providing Spirit the freedom to make choices allowed him to comfortably invite me into his world, to his dance. Together, we have waltzed, done the two-step, sometimes a fox trot, or even a mambo, but finally my partner has agreed to let me lead.
Hours on the trails have calmed Spirit’s initial fears of the constant flutter of grouse and the startling rustle of deer bounding through the brush. There are still days that we dance, when we test each other with a new step. However, every morning he greets me with a long whinny when I open the back door, and each evening he calls to me from the gate to remind me he wants a few minutes of my attention.
I know we will have our future setbacks. He will never be the steady Eddy an old lady should be riding. However, he has taught me a more important lesson: A moment of complacency at any age on any horse is the prescription for disaster.
Conversely, Spirit has also taught me the value of a new challenge in this period of my life. I have accepted the need to use a mounting step to climb on his back. I know my old mind must be alert every moment I spend with him. I understand the need to exercise additional caution to protect my brittle bones. In spite of all this, I plan to exhaust the coming years learning more every day about my horse.
On my 70th birthday my husband asked, “How do you want to celebrate?”
My response came easily. No thanks to dinner at a fancy restaurant, a diamond ring or something new for the house. Instead, “I want to spend this spectacular autumn day on my horse in the woods with you and your horse.”
And so we did. A canopy of blazing gold and crimson leaves clung to the trees overhead while a matching carpet blanketed the earth under the horses’ feet. Leaves created a cacophony of sound as hooves moved rhythmically along the trail. The sky was a brilliant dazzling sapphire with just an occasional wisp of silken clouds propelled airily by a gentle breeze.
After several hours of riding we stopped along the river for a respite. Spirit hung his head over my shoulder as I rested on a downed log, his chin in my lap, his black ebony eye next to my face, offering a glimpse into his soul. There was a harmony that day between us, an esprit de corps we had not experienced before. And so began my ride into the next decade on the back of this remarkable being---my Spirit.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #457, October 2015.