I met Sophie in a barnyard full of ice. She stood in a small paddock gobbling up hay, hooves unkempt, unridden for months. She turned her butt to the woman who was selling her, resisting the attempts to catch her for a minute or so before giving in. Actually pony-size, she seemed larger with her broad back, rounded silhouette and her head flung in the air.
Holding onto the lead rope of this scruffy, rotund creature with a neck full of tension and resentment in her white-rimmed eyes, I walked across the lawn slipping on ice thicker than a skating rink, occasionally reaching out a hand to steady myself on her
neck. She never faltered.
I rode her for the first time in a snow-encrusted potato field, and she didn’t put a foot wrong. She moved forward, in the direction she was pointed. She didn’t balk, or complain, or look back at the other horses. And when we were finished riding, when I tied her up and brushed her, she changed shape. Her head lowered, her eyes softened and she looked at me.
I’d tried out so many horses, and none of them had ever sought a connection. They looked right through me, or they shoved their faces into my personal space in search of food. This mare looked right at me, and I knew that was important somehow.
How do you tell someone you love that you won’t hurt them like the others did? And how can they believe you? It would take some time---we faced a rocky road.
Sophie had once been on a rental string, and that’s only one of at least three former owners that I know of. The woman who was selling her had bought her as a backup---a good trail-riding horse to fill in while her gelding was recovering from an injury. I don’t know when, if ever, the Paint mare had her own special person before. I think that’s where a lot of her anxiety came from---no stability, never knowing who she was going to be carting around or if they would be kind to her.
She had some physical problems to be diagnosed and treated. Part of her forward-going, almost frantic nature was due to her painfully thin-soled feet. She was literally trying to stay off her feet by running. We had her fitted for gel castings and saw an immediate change: The nervous, belligerent horse who had just dragged my mom down the aisle was suddenly a gentle soul who would stand quietly with her lead rope on the ground.
Her feet weren’t her only problem. She also had compensatory muscle issues and advanced arthritis. Based on the x-rays, I was told, I might be able to ride her only at a walk. We tried injections, and they only made things worse. For several weeks, she was so uncomfortable that I thought about having her put down. I knew I would have to if she didn’t get better.
But gradually her stiffness eased, and we settled on a more natural approach. I put her on a comprehensive joint supplement and rode her through her stiffness, backing off and going back to hand-walking during the occasional flare-up. Over time, her hock fused, and she required no time off at all.
After five years, Sophie and I have settled into our life together. When I walk out to the pasture to catch her, she picks up her head and watches me. Sometimes she’ll walk up to me. When I ride her, we flow. We’ve adapted to fit each other, and we’ve developed an easy language. She will always be my favorite horse to ride.
I’m not a perfect person, and there have been times when I’ve allowed the stresses of my life to overwhelm me. I will always have my moments, just as I will always have my chances to do better. And when I come to see her with a clear head and a calm mind, she is right there with me, happy to see me again. You took care of business, didn’t you, her bright eyes say. Hello, friend.
Sophie was to be my college experience, according to my dad, and indeed, I learned many things from her. The girl who was once passive and timid, who needed help bringing her horse in from the pasture, has become someone who can feed and care for 50 horses single-handedly. The girl who was once so unsure of herself around horses can now lead a fresh stallion out to a paddock. The girl who was once afraid of everything---well, she may not be completely fearless, but she has learned that sometimes you just have to swallow your misgivings and go for it.
Most of all, Sophie showed me how to be in a relationship. From her, I learned the reality of commitment---along with the universal truth that no matter how much you love someone, there will be times when you just want to murder them. But I also discovered something that gives me untold hope for the future. For all my reading of dreary statistics, and all my uncertainty, I have a strong suspicion that love can last.
Because even after all this time, when I see Sophie out in the field from a distance, and she looks at me, she still takes my breath away. Every time.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #449, February 2015.