A longing to return—that’s what brought me to the barn that day. A longing to return to the time before college, career, finances, illness in the family and the eventual loss of my mother. I wanted to regain something of the old me, the me from before life got so … complicated.
I’d had the privilege, the joy, of owning a horse when I was growing up, and I knew my mother would have been thrilled that I was returning to one of my first loves. I needed to. Among the many things the loss of my mom had taught me was: Life is short, too short to neglect a passion.
So, filled with nervous excitement, I visited a stable in a nearby town. The place was, and is, world class. Just stepping through the door put all my senses on high alert—I momentarily dropped into slow motion as I took in everything at once: the impressiveness of the facility, the beauty and diversity of the horses housed there, the memories triggered by all the smells and sounds that every horse lover cherishes. I was thrilled.
As best as I could, I tried to act natural, as if I was a part of this world and not a long-lost prodigal. I toured the barn, chatted with the head instructor and made an appointment for my first lesson. I was soon to be back in the saddle!
I enjoyed that first lesson, and subsequent ones as well, but I wanted more time just being with the horses—a horse. As it turned out, the farm had a horse available for lease. He was actually for sale, but with no interested buyers and little time to work with him, the owners would agree to a lease until a buyer was found. Although I had visited the stable many times, I had never seen this horse. He and others owned by the farm were kept in a separate area from the main barn. My instructor offered to get him so I could have a look and we could discuss the lease further.
I will never forget the moment when this horse was led through the arena door. He was a Friesian—big, black, baroque, with mane and tail flowing, all fire and thunder. “Wow” would have escaped my lips had I breath to speak. His name was Tjitze (pronounced Chit-ze). I could not believe the owners were going to trust me with this amazing animal. But they did.
And so we began. As stunning as Tjitze was, he was overweight, out of discipline and rusty at everything, from groundwork to under saddle. What a coincidence, so was I. With no end goal, I brought him along as lovingly as I could. Truly, I just enjoyed bonding with him and making progress of any kind. Grooming him was therapy to me.
And, in fact, Tjitze was bringing me along, too. He was helping me step back into the horse world, remember my old horsemanship and riding skills, and learn new skills—because since my early days, natural horsemanship had overtaken the time of “show him who’s boss.” But Tjitze’s most important job was helping me return to, well, me. My old self. I don’t think there was a time that I rode him when it didn’t occur to me that Tjitze was carrying me as well as whatever baggage, emotions, nerves or lack of skill I brought along. And he carried something far heavier: my sorrow at losing my mother far too soon.
We continued for many months in a blur of evening visits, he and I, where I was always the last person to leave the barn. Sometimes, I would bring my toddler son and niece to love on Tjitze, both of them towheaded blondes. Tjitze would test, and retest, that yellow hair to make certain it wasn’t hay. He was just so sure it was! The kids would help groom him (up to about his knees) and feed him treats. He was so gentle with them.
Other family members would come to watch us work. Really, they came to watch Tjitze move. Oh, that suspended trot! The literal ground-shaking power of his canter!
Eventually, others around the barn took notice of his progress, and there were murmurs of potential buyers.
I was away on a family vacation when Tjitze’s new owner fell in love with him and took him home. As hard as it was to find out he was gone, and I’d missed my chance at a goodbye, I was comforted by hearing that his new owner was “over the moon for him” and that he had moved to a nearby farm. Maybe I would get to see him again. Shortly thereafter, however, my husband’s work moved us far away.
Years later, on a trip back to visit family, my brother and I went
for a drive so I could take in the old, familiar sights. We found ourselves near where I thought Tjitze had moved and pulled over next to the fence of a farm that looked like it might be the place. There he was. As soon as he saw me, he came toward me—straight line, eyes locked. It was wonderful to visit him again and to see that he was so obviously loved and well cared for.
Since then, I’ve visited Tjitze several times, always over the fence. Each time he knew me and wouldn’t let any of his pasturemates approach. The last time I saw him was this past fall. Ever magnificent in my eyes, age was catching up with him. Me, too. I thought about snapping a picture this last visit, but decided against it. I want to cherish the image of him in my mind from that first day. Tjitze, all strength and thunder. How I do wish, though, that I could put my arms around him one last time and thank him for carrying me.
This article originally appeared in EQUUS 473, February 2017