You can go home again

The demands of modern life may take you away from the barn, but it is possible to make your way back to the saddle.
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For 27 years, my life revolved around horses. I went from a kid who raced home from school for a gallop in the woods, to one of those lucky girls who brings her horse to college, to that career woman who slips out through the back stairwell in boots and breeches to meet the other Night Riders before the barn closes. I’d drive 45 minutes each way to ride for an hour after work, and return home to flip omelets or toss salads at 10:30 at night.

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Horses were sacred. The barn was my temple; dressage lessons provided structure, long weekend trail rides, therapy. When Jenda, my childhood mare, grew too old even to amble through the woods, I retired her to a friend’s farm an hour from my home. Undaunted, I kept up my four- to five-day-a-week schedule, sometimes waking before dawn to go see my old friend and then to ride a warmblood called Max who was boarded at the same barn.

When I got pregnant, I ordered maternity riding pants, assuming that Max and I could enjoy many more rides before my center of gravity went completely off kilter. I wore those breeches five times before rare and painful complications of pregnancy forced me to pack them away.

I had a rotten pregnancy, followed by a surgery immediately after my C-section, a long recovery and a newborn son who needed surgery at 4 months. My hiatus from riding dragged ever longer. Then the stable became my son’s first non-medical outing.

Three or four times per week we made the trip to groom and coddle Jenda. (Max now had a new exercise rider.) My son would hang out in the bucket car seat and watch the proceedings. He rarely complained. I suppose he didn’t know this pastime fell outside the normal infant purview of new moms’ groups and sing-alongs at the library.

When my son was about a year old and we were both finally healthy, it was time to say goodbye to my old mare. Jenda was pushing 33, sick with a stubborn and painful infection, and had no reasonable hope of recovery. I am grateful the decision was easy. I stroked her head and neck, my veterinarian pushed in the drugs and my old friend slipped away.For a week I moped in bed as much as the mother of a 1-year-old could manage.

And I stopped riding. Because after grief came a foreign, unwelcome, almost shameful sort of relief.

I was no longer devoting 20 to 30 hours per week to my hobby. An expensive, longtime dependent was off my payroll, and since I’d left corporate America to be with my son, I couldn’t justify the expense of another horse. I missed the barn, especially when the autumn foliage peaked and the air turned crisp and dry. Aside from a few blips---a beach ride on vacation, a field trip to try a horse a friend considered purchasing---I went cold turkey. Horses had been such a huge factor in my life that dabbling wasn’t an option. Of course I missed riding, but I couldn’t imagine working the financial and time commitments into our family routine.

Finally, when my son entered preschool as a 4-year-old, I had an epiphany: I realized that I wanted to ride, but I didn’t necessarily need to own a horse. I briefly shopped for dressage or eventing lessons, since those were the types of barns I’d frequented in my younger days. Nobody in reasonable driving distance had a suitable school horse, and I wasn’t up for the commitment of even a partial lease.

Undeterred, I put the word out that I’d be happy to exercise or hack a horse for someone once a week, because as much as I missed the barn, I also craved the woods, the quiet, the simple adventure of seeing what was behind the next bend. Again, no takers within a doable commute.

Finally, I was put in touch with Allegra Valberg of Ridgetop Farm, a barn in Holliston, Massachusetts, specializing in hunters and jumpers. I was skeptical. After a lifetime of riding a balanced seat, would I be comfortable tipped forward? Riding with my legs instead of my seat? In short stirrups?

I wasn’t. I felt like a cake topper, perched awkwardly atop a cantering Thoroughbred. But I was in nirvana at the barn. The first day I went, I would have gladly paid the instructor for the privilege of brushing the horse, a bombproof schoolmaster called Junior, and feeding him carrots.

So I went back the following week. We negotiated the length of my stirrup leathers, and I relearned how to pop over cross rails. After a couple of months, I was paired with a seasoned hunter named Eno.

Eno isn’t the most popular horse in the barn, due to his penchant for biting people, his need to wear earplugs to face the outdoors, his outrageous personal space needs, and some other less-than-lovely quirks.

But he’s a handsome beast, with a flashy white blaze. And he’s athletic. At our first meeting, he attempted to take a pound of flesh out of my shoulder with his teeth; I was too fast for him. He tried to buck me off; I stayed on board. He reared and smacked his head on the ceiling; I abandoned my attempts to brush his face.

But soon Eno and I developed a mutual respect that blossomed into something close to affection. He relaxed. I relaxed. I bribed him with treats. He began nickering hello when he heard my voice. After four weeks, he let me brush his face. I learned to pilot him around a full course, to measure distances, to hunt fences.

I am grateful Eno is easing into his senior years with a good home. These facts help remove the temptation to offer to buy him. It’s not a burning temptation anyhow. More like a twinge, a nostalgia for the days when owning a horse defined me. For now, I am only a woman who rides. And that’s OK.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #444. 

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