I grew up with horses. Somewhere there’s a picture of me as a toddler on my Uncle Jay’s big black horse Ace. I’m gripping the saddle horn, my legs barely halfway down the jockey flaps, grinning. As I grew, I measured my height not in doorways, but by the length of my stirrups.
God, I loved to ride. Lots of little girls go through a horse phase but mine was all consuming and everlasting. It helped that I grew up in horse country and had a way with animals. From a young age, I understood horses and they understood me. I also had some serious guts for riding the wild ones.
I always loved difficult horses: Oreo an ornry Shetland, Sam the fractious ex racehorse, Sugarfoot the hotheaded barrel racer, Lucy, also a neurotic thoroughbred, Saturday the slightly wicked driving pony and abruptly last, Dakota.
Dakota was a mountain horse, born and raised in West Virginia. He looked like it and stood out for it. He was usually the only buckskin in the show ring. One summer, working at a trail riding stable, I plucked him out of a herd, three years old and hardly handled. I was among the first to ride him and from the start, he was incredible. That horse could do anything. He was smart and fast, strong and brave. He could run like a cheetah and would jump anything from the pasture fence to the bed of a pickup truck.
At the end of the summer, I bought him for $2,000, including delivery to Pennsylvania. He proved a tricky beast. He was too smart, easily bored and keen to keep things interesting. Tantrums came on with little warning. He rarely threw me, but he sure tried. For four years, I channeled his athleticism into eventing: the equine triathlon of dressage, cross-country and stadium jumping. We went so far as to spend a winter in Ocala, Florida, training with the elites of the sport.
Dakota was a gifted athelete, but he also had a mean streak. One day, far from home, he threw me and I hit the ground hard. I awoke alone in a field with six fractured vertebrae, two herniated discs and two cracked ribs. Dakota was gone. I spent the rest of the day dragging myself home through the longest cornfield of my life.
Recovery took years. I spent most of college in pain, some days crippling. Pain pills made me nauseous and groggy and I rarely took them, preferring to pop way too many Advil. Physical therapy was torture and I was constantly told to baby my back, to avoid any kind of strain on the damaged discs, shaky vertebrae and seared muscles. As everything weakened, the pain worsened and by my early 20’s I felt intractably broken.
Not until my senior year of college, when I adopted a young, hyper border collie and started taking long walks every day, did I begin to heal. Walking made me stronger. My balance, posture and flexibility improved. Soon I was hiking and then backpacking. But I stayed away from horses.
They say you aren’t a real rider until you fall off and get back on. Months after my accident, I did get back on Dakota, but our relationship was broken. I didn’t trust him and he didn’t trust me. Heartbroken, I sold him to a good home for a good price. A year later, another twist of the knife: My first love, my childhood pony Saturday, died in my arms after a bout with West Nile.
For years after the loss of Dakota and Saturday, I avoided horses, my wounds too deep. Horses had broken my back and my heart and I could not so much as watch one or touch one without a twinge of pain and the prick of tears.
Then, I moved to New Mexico, where you can ride to the horizons and the time felt right to get back on a horse. When my neighbors invited me to go riding with them, I said yes. From the easy way I handled their gentle quarter horse, swung into the saddle and rode across the rough terrain, they gathered I knew horses.
All these years, and I still know horses. Golden Boy is young and a little green, but after growing up astride Dakota, nothing scares me. My other borrowed mount, Runner the Arabian, has a lot of go, but he’s sweet and willing.
Everything you do with a horse is a dance. Horses are prey and we are predators. They watch and respond to the slightest changes in body language, reading the subtleties of breath, eye movement and gestures. They are all seeing and all knowing. One look and a horse will know things about you that you don’t even know about yourself.
My first winter here, out on a hike, I faced down two half-wild horses intent on trampling my dogs. As the horses charged, I stood my ground, put up my bare hands, fingers tense like claws and stopped them. They whirled around me, snorting and stomping, looking for weakness. They saw none. Our dance happened so quickly, I didn’t have time to think. I acted purely on instinct. Only afterwards, with the dogs safe and the horses watching me intently, more curious than aggressive or afraid, did I recognize my young self.
Riding in New Mexico, loose in this enchanting land, has been healing. This is the ultimate horse country — but for the skies there are no fences facing. Two of my neighbors out here have horses and as often as they invite me to ride, I say yes, sometimes several times a week. The horses are good tempered and enjoyable to ride, qualities I didn’t appreciate in my hot-horse childhood. I’ve also made friends with the feral horses,who now number 17, though they’re still not keen on my dogs.
I am healing, but I’m not cured. My back still bothers me more days than not. I walk everyday and I’m as strong as I have ever been. Someday, I hope to own my own horse again, but not yet. I have come to terms with Dakota, but I am still haunted by Saturday.
A friend of mine recently became the ranch manager at the Horse Shelter in Cerrillos. I have spent a few days at the shelter, photographing the 50-odd horses available for adoption for the shelter’s website. My friend has been encouraging me to come help her gentle four young mustangs. I want to help, I will help, but recognize a part of me is reluctant to start a relationship with another horse. I know something in me can speak to those mustangs. That little girl who loved horses still lives in me. Even after all these years, horses look at me and see her. I realize now she never left.