When I got the call in the morning of the Saturday after Thanksgiving last year, I was devastated. I had a wonderful night the evening beforehand catching up with ol' college friends of mine. I was feeling pretty great all around, except for the wicked cold I was battling. I woke up to lots of texts from the barn manager where I boarded my horse, Bear. "Please call me, it's an emergency," they said. I was half dazed, barely awake, and feeling rather ill that morning, and I'd assumed that maybe Bear had hurt his leg, or something. I didn't expect to hear the words, "Bear died last night."
The only words I could utter out of my mouth were, "... how?"
Bear had been my dream horse. I'd dreamt of having a horse for my whole life; ever since I was a little girl who played with My Little Ponies. I attended all sorts of trail rides, Girl Scout camps, and even took weekly riding lessons with my sister for a while as a kid. When I was a kid, though, I didn't really get what all went into having a horse. I found a sense of freedom when I was on their back riding them. As a child, I had no fear. I never felt afraid on a horse, and I never fell off a horse. Perhaps I developed an ego about horses, which is definitely one of the lessons I was to learn... never get too comfortable and assume that you are unbreakable.
I took a long break from horses, minus the occasional low key recreational trail ride at a resort or ranch. Despite that break, I still never felt afraid when I was on horseback. That all changed on a trip to the Bahamas. I went on my first ever beach ride. I went in very cocky and sure of my abilities. The trail leader even let me ride in the back of the group so that I could slow down, speed up, do circles, etc. All was going really great, and the beach was beautiful. On the way back to the barn, however, the unthinkable happened. My horse spooked. Someone in the neighborhood left their gate open and their dog came out barking. Next thing I knew, I was sliding off that horse's back and onto the hard pavement below. I hurt... bad. But, I got back up on the horse to ride back. Another lesson... when you fall down, get back up and keep going, even if it hurts. I never got checked out to see if I broke or fractured anything. I lived on ice packs and pain relievers for the rest of that vacation as I hobbled around the resort.
That fall shook me more than I realized at the time it happened. A month earlier I had actually been going to a horse rescue and was riding one of their horses that I planned to adopt. She was a spitfire of a filly, but I wasn't afraid of her... until I got back from this trip. It changed everything. All of a sudden I noticed that whenever I got near her my pulse would race, I'd start to sweat, and I'd get shaky. Even though, in my head, I would tell myself that I wasn't afraid, my body was telling me otherwise. She noticed too. Horses are very sensitive to human emotion. She needed a confident rider, and I wasn't one anymore. Sure enough, she threw me off and I hit the dirt. I was stubborn, though. I didn't want to give up, so I adopted her anyways and moved her north to be closer to me. The lesson here is this... know your limits and don't be ashamed to admit them. I didn't recognize the fact that she and I wouldn't be a good fit anymore. After a month of her being up north, unhappy, and having thrown me two more times, I decided that enough was enough. I learned that it's ok to end a relationship if you realize that it's not the best for either of you. She was unhappy, and so was I. The rescue took her back and she got adopted out to another home. I hope she loves it there.
At that point it seemed like all signs pointed to me giving up on horses, but I didn't want to. I didn't want to let fear win. I was still looking for that thing I wanted since I was a kid, that connection between human and animal, but I also wanted to kick my fear in the face! I kept taking lessons at the barn on the north side to fight my fears, and they knew I was still looking for the right horse for me. They suggested to me that I should check out one of their school horses, his name was Bear. At that point I needed a very good natured horse. I needed a horse who would help me regain confidence in myself. I needed to learn to not be afraid anymore. Bear ended up being the perfect companion for that.
During my first few lessons with him, he did test me. But the way that Bear tested his riders wasn't a scary thing to overcome. When I was able to connect with him and get him to better work off my cues, it definitely helped to raise my confidence. I decided to buy him a couple months later, and he became my horse. I was supposed to be his "forever home." I found whatever time I could in my busy schedule to be there with him for riding, turn-out, or just some grooming time. He was a big, beautiful, dappled bay Quarter Horse. When he had his turn-out time, he was very playful. He loved to roll in the dirt, and then he'd buck it out and fart his way around the arena. He showed me that it's important to really enjoy the free time you are given, and never stop playing. He also taught me discipline. He showed it greatly, because he showed what energy and freedom he had during his playtime, but he was able to gather himself and listen and work when he was being ridden. I always enjoyed my time with him, and he truly helped me work my way out of my fears.
The longer I had him, though, the more I started to take that time for granted. Things built up in my schedule, and I didn't make it out as often. I made sure that he was cared for and he had others who loved him dearly and also took him out riding and gave him turn-out. He taught me that I really shouldn't take my time for granted, though. He was a young horse, only 10 years old, so I'd assumed I'd have him for 20 more years. Little did I know I wouldn't even get 2 years. Colic can strike a horse of any age down suddenly and without warning.
The last visit I had with him before going home for Thanksgiving, I remember just hugging his neck and feeling his breathe and his warmth and being grateful that he was mine and I was his. We had a great ride. We cantered all over the arena. My time with him allowed me to gain enough confidence to ride at a canter again. I avoided it for over a year after my fall. I wish I had known that that would be the last time I'd see him. I am glad, however, that it is a good memory that I have of my last time with him.
I dreamt that, one day, I would give him a home where he could run free in big open fields, and not be stuck in smaller spaces in the suburbs of Chicago. I wanted to be his perfect "forever home." He made me want to be better. I still want to learn to be better and honor his memory for all that he gave me that I never got to say "thank you" for. I hope that you, the reader, will also learn these lessons I did and work to make your life better for yourself and those you love as well.
10 Lessons From a Horse:
1.) Don't let your ego run away with you.
2.) When you fall down, get back up and keep on riding.
3.) Know your limits, but be willing to work to expand them, because they can be raised.
4.) Recognize when a relationship is unhealthy and be strong enough to end it.
5.) Never let fear win!
6.) Never stop playing.
7.) Know how to gather yourself and be respectful when it's important to do so.
8.) Never take your time for granted... in your own life, or your time with others.
9.) When you can be better, always be better.
10.) It's ok to get a little dirty sometimes...
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