Solstice to solstice
After more than 13 hours on the road, the trailer carrying Marah, my half-Andalusian mare, from Houston to Lubbock, Texas, arrived at close to midnight on June 21, 2013, the summer solstice. Her arrival on this day felt like a sign, for it was on the solstice exactly seven years earlier that I knew definitively that I was pregnant with my daughter, Sophie. That connection might seem like a stretch at best, but it’s important to me: I had come to horses and to riding only after I had a miscarriage the previous August.
Before all this, back when I still thought I would have a second child, Sophie rode a horse for the first time. It was a sunny July afternoon in London’s Hyde Park when we found the stable tucked into a quiet cobblestone street, a remarkably well-preserved window into a much earlier time when horses, and not cars and buses, filled the streets. The ride cost an exorbitant amount, and initially I resisted, despite Sophie’s tearful pleas. Then we found ourselves on a street corner at the edge of the park, and an elderly, sportily dressed woman turned around and said, “Why is your daughter crying?”
“Because she wants to ride a horse through the park,” I replied, expecting the woman to side with me. Many friends, not to mention my own mother, said I indulged Sophie too much.
“Oh, you must let her,” the old woman said. “And tell them that Lilo Blum sent you.”
“Lilo Blum?” I asked, studying her.
“That’s right. I used to run the stables back in the day,” she said.
And so, outfitted in a velveteen riding helmet and rental boots, Sophie climbed into the saddle of a Palomino horse named Button who walked calmly into the park, guided by Sophie’s companion, a pink-cheeked blonde named Rose.
“I can ride horses, Mama!” she exclaimed when the ride was finished, her smile as proud as I’d ever seen it, as she dismounted and fed Buttons a carrot.
Not long after that, we returned to Texas, and I lost the pregnancy. Three weeks later, Sophie started kindergarten, and on her first day of class, she printed, “I can ride horses” on a smiley face picture.
Within weeks, she was taking riding lessons at a barn on the outskirts of town. Her lesson horse was an ancient pony named Angus who dutifully carried her around the arena for 45 minutes each Sunday afternoon. She enjoyed the experience, but what surprised me was how deeply I, too, came to treasure this time. Being in the presence of horses brought unexpected comfort, from the velvet of their noses to the earthy grass-and-sweat smell of their bodies. Just before Christmas I began taking lessons, too.
Five months later, my trainer located a horse in Houston named Bella Media Noche—Beautiful Midnight. Many people thought I was crazy to consider a young horse, especially a mare who had just turned 5, given my limited experience in the saddle. But when Sophie and I drove down to Houston to meet the dark bay with the star on her forehead, something in the way she nuzzled Sophie, exploring this small person with such care, and the inexplicable current of sunlit energy that flowed between us—a current that said “yes, we could make this work”—made it seem less so. Less crazy, that is.
I ultimately renamed her Marah, the Hebrew word for “was bitter,” which I prefer to translate as “is bitter no longer.”
Not that horse ownership proved the least bit easy. Next to raising my daughter, learning about Marah, and taking care of her, has been the most challenging and possibly the most rewarding experience of my life. As a friend once said, “What in this life that’s worthwhile is ever really easy?”
“You’ll probably spend much of the first year walking,” Jen, the horse dealer in Houston, told me after I rode Marah for the first time.
She was right about that. Given my years studying ballet, ice-skating and yoga, I gravitated toward learning to ride through the Mary Wanless method, which stresses biomechanics and proper form. Throughout that first year, I spent a great deal of time working on my own body position and trying to understand what my trainer meant by “controlling the speed of her legs” or “not letting her run away with you.” Which she did. So there were many days when I began to doubt what I’d done. The situation was made worse because Marah became really spooky at the busy barn where I initially boarded her. She spooked when someone suddenly appeared in the sunlit doorway or when a pair of gloves accidentally dropped to the ground while I was grooming her.
The last straw came when Marah shied over some unknown and tried to jump the rail she was tied to. After my trainer called to tell me that there’d been an accident, I raced the 20 minutes across town to the barn. As soon as I slid back the door of her stall, that same current of energy moved from Marah’s center to mine, and I understood. Neither of us was suited to this bustling nexus of activity. I needed to find a new barn with lots of open land, a quiet place.
After months of searching, I finally found that place just north of town—a haven of open pastures that brought with it new challenges as well as untold pleasures. Here, the grass grows knee-high within a matter of days, and yellow and blue wildflowers pepper the landscape. A variety of birds live here, among them yellow-breasted kingbirds and the pair of speckled prairie falcons that live in the barn. There are also cottontails and jackrabbits that occasionally dart out of the grass while we ride.
Marah initially shied when we encountered them; in fact one time she threw me pretty hard—so hard that I thought I’d broken my ribs and couldn’t walk, much less ride, for nearly three weeks. But now she can trot right past the rabbits, as well as the toads that come out with the rains without skipping a beat.
My greatest joy, though, is that Sophie loves it there, too. During the final days of June last year, just after another solstice, Sophie and I drove out to the barn at dusk and didn’t leave until the stars pierced the wide west Texas sky—one of this rugged landscape’s greatest charms.
“I figured out something tonight, Mama,” she told me as we were leaving.
“Oh yes? And what’s that?”
“If you come here in daylight, the land doesn’t tell you any secrets. But if you come here at night, it tells you everything.”
“Wow, pretty wise statement,” I said, marveling at my creative, energetic girl, who’d discovered coyote tracks, nesting cottontails and a variety of feathers on that trip.
Marah and I, now in our third year together, are working on trot and canter transitions, and together we can weave through pasture after pasture with confidence. Still, I’m not sure I have felt more joy than on the afternoons Sophie and I spend at the barn together, talking about what we see before us, with Marah as our beautiful, wind-streaked and truly content guide.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #460, January 2016.