At summer camp when I was 12, our counselors gave us a huge treat on the last day: a trail ride. It was a misty Cape Cod day, and we were allowed to canter along the scrub pine-lined paths.
My mount that day had a highflying gallop that made me feel a little wild. I usually rode in riding-school arenas and in round pens, so bounding along through the trees inhaling the salty sea air offered real excitement. I remember very clearly that, as we flew down the trail, I experienced a sensation of true happiness---and then the fear of losing it. A few beats later, I was shaken right back into joy.
That summer, I’d been reading books that imagined time travel, and I was captivated by the idea that some things---love, magic necklaces, certain wizards---persist across years and even epochs. In those books the scientific nature of time gave way to notions that it can shift, become distorted or---at the very least---be experienced in different ways by people in seemingly similar circumstances.
Pounding down the bridle path, I suddenly had my own revelation about the meaning of time: I couldn’t stop to preserve the bliss of that moment---if I grabbed a branch all I would get was a handful of pine tags and a spooked horse---yet I’d felt time stop, just for an instant, while I took everything in.
That summer camp was a distant memory when, many years later, I moved to Tennessee and had a horse of my own, named Romeo. Now all grown up, I boarded Romeo at a barn adjacent to a mowed grass track bordering a cornfield. I’d coax him from his lopsided canter into a hand gallop, and then dared to ask him for even more. Corn flew by on one side and trees on the other. The exhilaration that I felt was not that different than what I’d experienced on that Cape Cod gallop more than a decade before. And just as it had when I was a girl, time seemed to pause as I realized how amazing a specific moment was---trees, horse, thrill---before I returned to the immediate tasks of steering or sitting up just enough to bring Romeo back a bit.
At that point in my life, riding was not just a rare treat. In fact, I rode all the time in those days---jumping courses, meandering through woods, trotting across open country. But I never got the same kind of rush that I did when Romeo and I were pounding along the lane by that cornfield, just the two of us, lost in time.
Sometimes, these time-capturing moments don’t have anything to do with speed. The particular brand of quiet associated with horses brings its own rush. “The greatest sound in the world is horses munching grass. It really is.” That’s a quote from Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, painted on the wall at the Kentucky Derby Museum in Louisville. In his career, Lukas has heard some incredible sounds: On four separate occasions, for example, he has listened to a Derby crowd roaring as a horse he trained galloped to victory. But even he comes back to the timeless pull, rip, chew rhythm we can all recognize. It’s the sound of a contented horse.
Perhaps that is part of what makes horses so special. They can’t make us forget that things change, but they do help us make our way in the world. They guide us, offering us moments to hold onto, even years after one particular canter through Cape Cod woods.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #462, March 2016.