I’d wanted a horse of my own since I was 3 years old, when my grandmother gave me a Breyer Appaloosa stallion. I remember that moment so clearly. It was as if a lightning bolt had struck me with horse-craziness, and I haven’t been the same since. Fifty-five years later, I’ve still got that toy.
I became the kid who bugged her parents for a horse at every opportunity. But it was never to be. As my parents never stopped saying, horses are expensive. Horses are a lot of work. Horses can be dangerous. Over time, I became convinced that I didn’t have a horse because I didn’t deserve one.
I tried taking lessons as an adult, but I was frustrated by judgmental instructors who had learned the basics when they were children and couldn’t understand why I hadn’t. I rode rental horses occasionally over the next 40 years, but I felt like a constant outsider in the horse world. It’s difficult to learn true horsemanship if you never have the opportunity to build a relationship with a single horse.
Then a friend sent me a link for a nearby stable. They were looking for interns who would help with the stable work in exchange for riding lessons and lease privileges. I stared at the page for a long time, looking for the catch. You mean, you will let me feed, water, groom, muck stalls and sweep the floor and let me pretend I own a horse? And you won’t even charge me? I thought I’d stepped sideways into an alternate universe where dreams really do come true.
Still, this wasn’t a decision to be made lightly. I’m a type II diabetic with peripheral neuropathy, and I’m overweight. I take medication for blood pressure. My left leg is weaker than my right. I worried that I wouldn’t be physically able to keep up with the work—and if I wasn’t strong enough to control a horse effectively, the result could be disastrous. But surely the exercise of stable work would help with some of those problems.
Baby steps, I told myself. Journey of a thousand miles….
At first the job was as difficult as I’d feared. The walk from the barn to the top pasture was uphill, so leading horses to turnout left me breathless. Often I had to stop and pretend I was admiring the sunset for a moment before moving on. I learned to take everything one step at a time, literally, climbing to the hayloft as slowly as I needed to. I took care the horses wouldn’t crowd me even when they were hungry and impatient. Yet I never slacked for being tired or sore. Every time I was out of breath, I told myself that I was up to this task. My parents had always told me I shouldn’t want a horse because they were too much work—I needed to prove to myself that the effort was worth it.
Gradually my weak leg became stronger, and my stamina improved. I lost some weight. I no longer hesitate to move the less well-behaved horses. I sweep the floor in much less time. I can climb to the hayloft without stopping for breath. I love it up there; I’ve discovered that there’s something about the smell of warm hay that is comforting in a way I’ve never known before.
Best of all, I am able to ride regu-larly. Pepper, the mare I lease, is a sweet girl. She’s only 5 years old, but she’s very well trained and always patient with me. She’s teaching me the lessons about real horsemanship I’ve wanted to know all my life. For the first time since I was 15, I feel I might one day be worthy of owning a horse. And that’s priceless.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #450, March 2015.