For most of my life, I’ve been a fairly disturbed person, struggling with depression and substance abuse. Negativity overwhelmed every thought and action. I’ve been in therapy and on medication. Nothing helped. But I’d always loved horses and dreamed of a life with them, even as I inhabited a 400-square-foot apartment in New York City. Someday.
Then, 10 years ago, my mother died suddenly. And, I realized, the number of “somedays” I had remaining were finite. I quit city life to pursue my dream. Only it wasn’t a dream at first. My first two horses almost killed me.
But soon I met a mare named Cheyenne. She was a rescue, so I don’t know her age or breeding, but she made me feel worthy. Working with her, I could feel my self-esteem beginning to heal. Eventually, I decided to start participating in local horse shows. I had never shown before, and I was pretty sure Chey hadn’t, either. With the help and guidance of the barn owner, a devoted and very successful competitor herself, we entered our first horse show in September 2014. We came home from that show reserve champions.
Through the next year, I continued to pursue healing. In 2015, I participated in an online experience that included a guided meditation on the power of living a life through gratitude. How it lifts your consciousness to a higher place and drains negativity---loneliness, depression, self-pity---from your life. It was quite remarkable. I never realized the power I had to change the way I experience the world. But it was Chey who really drove that lesson home.
That July, we entered another horse show. The day was predicted to be a hot one, and it sure was. Even at 5 in the morning, as I drove my truck and trailer through the steamy wetlands of the lower Hudson Valley, it was already near 80.
Was I doing the right thing? You can certainly enjoy horses without competing. But lately, Chey and I had been achieving levels of refinement, balance and carriage that made me proud, even as several more-experienced horse- people warned me that my mare was a very common animal and if I wanted to really go places I needed a “good” horse. I felt she was plenty good enough, and I wanted to prove it.
So on the one hand, I was really eager to go to this show.
But, then again…. Chey has a stout, muscular build, well suited to with-stand the cold but not heat. And we are both, shall we say, “seasoned.” I am in my 60s, and I think she was about 20. We’re both quite fit, but we both also find it challenging as the temperature-humidity index rises. So I wasn’t sure if taking her to this show was in her best interest.
The day didn’t start well. A group of us had decided to leave the barn by 5:30 so we could park in a shady spot at the venue. The horses were loaded, and we were ready to roll … until the barn owner jumped back out of her truck, shouting, “My battery’s dead! My battery’s dead!”
None of us could give her a jump. Our trailers were hitched and loaded, and we didn’t have room to maneuver. She called for the hired man to bring another truck. Time was passing. Finally, the other truck arrived, we pushed hers off the trailer and rehitched it to the new truck, and we were off. We made it to the showgrounds just five minutes before the first class. We had missed our chance to be in the shade. We pulled up, unloaded the horses, ran to the booth to pay our fees, raced back. The horses were already sweaty, and so were we.
Quickly I changed into my show clothes, put on Chey’s silver laden halter, and off we went to practice a few minutes before our first class, in Showmanship. I was flustered and distracted. Chey was lagging and inattentive. She didn’t set up well, and she wasn’t really interested. It was like she was not all there. This was not at all like her. I tried again, but nothing.
Then, I heard the call to line up for the class. And as I stood there next to Chey at the entry gate, sweat rolling down my face until it soaked the waistband of my jeans, I had a transcendent experience. A tide of gratitude welled up in me, so powerful it stretched my throat and brought tears to my eyes. I’d been through so much, but I was so grateful that my life had brought me to this moment---to have this horse, to be standing here with her, to do the things we do together, to go where she takes me, both mentally and physically. I was transported.
And suddenly, through the grati-tude, I felt Chey with me. She was there. As we walked into the ring together, I looked at her from the corner of my eye, and I saw she was looking at me out of the corner of hers. I took a deep breath, gave the first cue and off we went: Right feet first, perfect rhythm, perfect sync, trot, trot. She kept her head exactly here, we made our turns around the cones and we hit the walk, boom. We halted---one, two---an arm’s length from the judge. I turned my feet to 45 degrees toward Chey, smiled at her and she set up with all four feet on a plumb-perfect rectangle.
The judge was wearing sunglasses but I saw a delighted smile on her face. You are not supposed to talk unless the judge addresses you, so I just smiled back.
“What kind of horse is she?” she asked. I get this question all the time.
“I don’t know. She’s a rescue. I don’t know her breeding or her age.”
“She is beautiful.” The judge performed her inspection and dismissed us, and Chey and I made a 90 degree turn and marched in lockstep, left, right, left, right, to our place on the rail. And, for the rest of that sweltering day, this wonderful horse gave me everything she had. Up to and including a blistering gallop in the final class, Road Hack.
Lining up after that last class, the judge stopped by each horse-and-rider team to say a few words. Chey was breathing hard and dripping with sweat. The judge started saying lovely things to me, and I was trying to listen to her, but the loudspeaker began announcing the placements: “Showmanship, First Place, Stephanie Rogers and Cheyenne. Western Pleasure, First Place, Stephanie Rogers and Cheyenne.” And so on.
But the real prize I took home that day was the lesson Chey taught me: When I was practicing with her before the show, I was coming from a place of ego, focusing only on what I wanted. Ego is isolating, and excluding, and Chey would not engage with me while I was in “me, me, me” mode. Who would?
But when we took our positions at the gate, I was suffused with gratitude, and ego dropped away. My heart expanded to offer room for Chey, and she joined with me and gave me her all. I felt like I became more than human, and it was wonderful.
Over the past 10 years, my life has been a journey from negativity to better things, and this day will stand as a real milestone. I hope that in the future I will learn to spend less time consumed by the petty desires and frustrations of ego. I see that the key is gratitude.
With gratitude also comes acceptance, which is not resignation, but a recognition of what is. From now on, I’ll know the antidote for the negative emotions that once took up so much of my life. It wasn’t just Chey who made me whole; it was the joy I felt for having her in my life. From now on, I will try to be grateful for every oppor-tunity, every experience and every challenge---especially the challenges, because as I learned from this experience, you don’t grow when you get what you want. You grow when you don’t.
I hope I’ll remember all of this. But if I forget, I have a wonderful teacher who already knows the way, and she can take me there again. She’s out there, right now, eating grass.
This article first appeared in the August 2017 issue of EQUUS (Volume #379)