I was a toddler when I saw my first horse. It wasn’t real—just a flickering image on our black-and-white television. Yet that moment ignited a passion that has not diminished in more than 50 years.
But we were confirmed city people, living 10 miles from downtown Los Angeles. Here, near the border of East L.A. in the 1970s, “horse” meant heroin, another obsession that fortunately didn’t capture me. The only real equestrian contact I managed to wrangle back then was a Girl Scout horse day camp held near Dodger Stadium. I didn’t really start riding until college, and after graduation I rode whenever I could, even knocking on doors to find horses that people didn’t have time to exercise.
But I wouldn’t own my first horse until I was 30. I was in the hospital recovering from major surgery due to severe endometriosis when I heard from a friend who was retiring Kelly, one of her Morgan broodmares. “Kelly has cysts on her ovaries and I had to give her progesterone all through her last pregnancy,” she told me. “She needs an experienced rider, plus I just want her to have a good home.” I could relate. Ovarian cysts were one of the problems contributing to my infertility issues, and I was being injected with all kinds of hormones, too.
When I finally met the cyst-y, 21-year-old mare, I discovered that Kelly was fun to ride, energetic and smart. She had been a show horse and wasn’t scared of much. And she had a mind of her own, which I liked. At least most of the time.
I was living in a bad part of Orange County not far from Little Saigon and Disneyland, and it was rife with gangs. Daily shootings, obvious drug use and police helicop-ters flying overhead at night with spotlights blazing were all part of our normal existence.
Crazily, I found a place to board Kelly a couple blocks from my home. A leftover loop of street by the Santa Ana River corralled a small agricultural area that had been grandfathered in to modern zoning. My little Morgan mare was stabled among show horses and laid up racehorses. For almost 10 years I rode to adventures along the concrete channel of the riverbed.
Kelly was an ambassador for her kind. I like to think we were a small light in a city that could be quite dark and dangerous. She and I made friends with homeless people who lived under the overpasses and pitched tents among the deep brush. Local gangbangers liked to pet Kelly and were amused at her instant awareness of their freshly sprayed tags on the huge concrete structures. We gave countless children rides as we threaded through and around parks and golf courses. We met power walkers, joggers, Tai Chi exercisers, bicyclists and dog walkers. Sometimes I rode Kelly through my gang-infested ’hood and gave my neighbor kids rides up and down our cul-de-sac.
She was also a comfort to me in my ongoing battle with endometriosis and infertility. She saw me through lots of pain and tears and angry frustration at being unable to have a child. And angry I was. I was especially mad at God, but somehow Kelly helped defuse some of that fury. After each attempt at in vitro fertilization, when I was asked not to ride until I knew whether I was pregnant, I would go and visit Kelly, just to hand-graze her and tell her all about it. Sometimes, after yet another endoscopic surgery, she would lower her head and softly put her nose on my incision. She always knew.
Usually, she was the perfect companion. But she did have a mind of her own—a mind that I didn’t, and probably never will, understand. Her main bad habit was her persistence in jigging. She moved everywhere at a jog. I usually didn’t mind. I rode alone and didn’t have to worry about keeping pace with other horses. But I wasn’t crazy about her trotting on the sidewalks and asphalt that we had to cross over before reaching the dirt trail because I didn’t want her to concuss her joints on hard surfaces. I read a multitude of ways to stop a horse from jigging, and tried every training technique, including different bits and headgear, but not one ever worked for us.
Finally I just gave up. This was ridiculous. So Kelly trotted most of the time? Oh well. I did like a horse who had a good trot. Besides, she was in great shape. And anyhow she obeyed almost every other request, so what was my problem? I switched back to a gentle snaffle bit and stayed off her mouth. We’d reached a happy truce.
Of course, there were still occasions when Kelly wanted to do something I didn’t want her to do. Every time we went out, we rode under huge overpasses that held up car bridges. They were made of white cement and sloped up from the dirt trail to the bridge. One day Kelly attempted to walk up the slope of cement. I don’t know why or what she thought she was doing. Maybe she wanted to go up to the top of a bridge and, what? Head home? Look around? Whatever her reasons, she started to fight me, refusing to turn aside. She was determined to walk up the cement. How could I tell her that walking up there would cause her to fall? I was afraid of her falling, especially with me.
After a prolonged battle, I still couldn’t convince her to not walk up the cement. So I figured that she needed to teach herself. I readied myself to jump free in case she did go down, then let her have her head. She placed her hooves on the steep cement and started up it. Her front hooves, predictably, began to slide. Shock seemed to travel through her. She quickly came down off the cement slope and stood heaving next to it. She seemed to realize it was dangerous and, I hope, that I was trying to protect her. I like to think that after that incident she considered my requests a little more obediently.
Later, I was thinking, somewhat angrily, how unfortunate it was that Kelly had fought me so hard at all, when I really did want only what was best for her. Then, suddenly, it dawned on me that I was the one acting like Kelly in my relationship with God. I was fighting tooth-and-nail to have a child, and I didn’t understand why infertility was happening to me. But just as I tried to protect Kelly at the underpass, perhaps God was also trying to protect me from something I couldn’t see or understand. That realization quieted the angst in my soul more than anything else had.
I wrote an article about my fertility problems, and about my realization that Kelly fighting me was how I was fighting God, which was published in a magazine for evangelical Christians. Not long after the issue came out, I was at work in Orange County’s library system when a colleague came running down the hall to find me: “Someone on the phone wants to give you a baby!” she shouted. A pregnant 14-year-old girl more than 2,000 miles away had tracked me down, pre-Internet, found the library where I was working (out of 28 branches at that time) and hit the very hour I was there. She called to tell me she had decided that, after reading my article, she wanted to give me her baby.
That little girl, our daughter Piper, came to us less than three months later—a small miracle that I credit entirely to Kelly and her brilliant, headstrong ways. With some help, I suspect, from above.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #455, July 2015.