It is a cool, lazy Thursday afternoon and I am cleaning stalls while waiting for my three o’clock lesson to arrive. On one of my many journeys to and from the shavings shed, I pause a while outside the back pasture. Sitting on my comfortable log, wiping my brow, I watch the horses interact as they jostle for the last of the winter hay.
My eyes, as always, are drawn to the little chestnut mare with the golden mane and tail. She is currently grazing by herself with her ears laid back. She much prefers spring grass to hay, and only pushes her way into the herd when she feels she needs to make a point. It looks like she’s just rolled; her coat and tail are caked in mud. But sometimes she lifts her head and looks in my direction, or her mane blows just a certain way, and I’m reminded of the first time I ever laid eyes on her, and fall in love all over again.
Jon comes and joins me; he needs a break too. We make small talk and I remember that I need to go check Hunter’s lame hoof. I go out in the pasture to see how he feels, while Jon watches from the gate. On the way back, I can’t resist passing by Heaven and giving her a pat. She glares balefully at me.
“Be nice,” I admonish her, and scratch her along the crest of her neck, just where she likes it. She tolerates it for two seconds, then swings away with pinned ears and stalks off. I shake my head and call after her retreating backside, “I love you too!”
“I don’t understand how you do it,” Jon says when I get back to the gate. “Isn’t it depressing to have a horse that doesn’t like anyone?”
“Oh, well, only slightly,” I shrug. I can’t really think how to explain it. “Most of the time, it just motivates me. To be a better owner, a better partner...”
Jon thinks I’m a little crazy, I can tell. “Look at her!” he exclaims. Heaven is lunging at Sweetie with her ears pinned flat against her head, an expression of pure vile on her face. “She’s evil!”
I turn away so he will not see me smile.
It is a wondrous thing to be the guardian of another creature’s spirit. For the most part, Heaven is self-contained and not weighed down by introspection. She thinks of eating, drinking, dominating. I have no power over that part of her life. But if I’m not careful, I can dim her enthusiasm. If she looks at me and sees me as an adversary, a taskmaster, or just a stepping stone on the way to dinner, I have failed her. I have fenced her in, placed steel in her mouth, and regulated her meals and habitation. In exchange, it is my duty to make sure that she is healthy and content... and in our case, contentment goes beyond a satisfying of basic needs. I like to joke that Heaven is nineteen going on three. It is my job to keep it that way.
She has always been one of those delightful horses that enjoys her job. When she is racing around a pole, or bounding over a jump, she is in her element. So I ride her frequently, with praise for every little thing she does. In the five years since I brought her home, we have jumped just about every type of jump imaginable. We have captained at games for four years running, and gone to Championships twice. We have traversed all over the neighborhood, climbing steep hills and fording streams. We have explored wooded trails and galloped through grassy meadows. We have learned dressage together, and shown, and foxhunted, and gone to horse trials. We have ridden around the downtown square in the Apple Festival parade, and cantered along a ridge top at sunset, with the breeze in our hair and the birds flying around us. I’ve always said that she would be my partner ‘til death do us part.
Until this winter, when things started to change.
Heaven is nineteen. That makes her nearly seventy in horse years. No one believes me when I tell them this, because what they see is the attitude oozing from her every pore, and the little-girl enthusiasm that comes out when she gets to run. She doesn’t look nineteen, either. She is fat and healthy and sound. The only way you can tell, if you’re really looking for it, is in the sprinkling of gray hairs around her face.
It was pretty easy for me to forget her age, too. But one day this winter, she came out of her stall just the littlest bit lame. Not a lot. I could only see it when I turned her to the left. But it was just enough to make me worry.
The lameness disappeared a few days later. Maybe it was a stone bruise. Maybe she just tweaked a muscle turning. But didn’t feel right when I rode her, either. She wasn’t limping, but she wasn’t relaxing through her back like she should. Her canter felt awkward and unbalanced. She was resistant, stiff, uncoordinated. I’ve read enough horse books to know that this was not a Good Thing. In fact, I became paranoid.
I changed her saddle fit. I changed her exercise schedule. I limited her jumping. I tried liniment. She still didn’t feel like the old Heaven to me. After one frustrating ride, my mother turned to me and said, “Nikki, I just think the pony’s getting old.”
I knew I would be dealing with arthritis someday. It happens. Heaven had been a speed event pony all her life, and the joints in her hind legs had taken a beating. But it doesn’t lessen the adjustment that you have to go through. It doesn’t lessen the pain of thinking about how maybe games and jumping isn’t the best thing for her anymore, or realizing that her rallies may be numbered. My best friend and I have been talking about teaming in games when she gets out of college and now I have to honestly admit that I don’t know if Heaven will still be doing games then. There are things I can do to help manage her pain, but there is only so much I can do about the fact that time is starting to catch up with us.
Now her hocks have started making mysterious noises. I run my hands over them constantly. I flutter like an overprotective mother. Horrible words fill my head: spavin, permanent. There is no swelling and no lameness. I have no reason to be so anxious, except that once again, I’m reminded that Heaven is not immortal.
I repeat the words of one of my favorite literary characters, Atticus Finch.
“It’s not time to worry yet.”
I say them over and over, to a chilly March sky, until I almost believe them.
We watch the movie Seabiscuit. During the race scenes in this movie, the cameras have been strategically placed to give the viewer a feeling of being inside the action. There are views from directly above, from the saddle, from in between the straining shoulders. I enjoy the detail this provides, but the truth is that I don’t need innovative camera angles. I already have a connection with the race riders. I know what it feels like. I’ve been on the back of a thousand pounds of hurtling horseflesh. I’ve smelt the sweat and shed the tears as the wind whips into my eyes. I’ve buried my hands in a flying mane and called out some inarticulate encouragement while the pounding legs outrace my frantic heart. No matter how good the camera, you can’t possibly understand unless you’ve done it. The experience changes you.
I try to articulate this to my family – what it is like to gallop, or to jump a huge fence, or to perform some great feat with a horse. It is not the adrenaline rush that calls to me. Riders do not crave danger; the danger is simply a part of the whole, and so we accept it. It is something else, something a little deeper. “We spend so many hours learning to control our horses,” I finally say, “and then when it comes to it, in a moment like that, you have to surrender yourself. If you’ve got any kind of a bond with your horse, and you give yourself totally to trust, then you have unity.”
Polite agreement. They don’t get it and probably never will.
During the night, I dream of riding Heaven on a racetrack. I am alone. The stands are empty, and the sound of her hooves echo in the stadium. I am still carrying this dream around inside of me when I arrive at the barn this afternoon.
It’s September, amazing shining autumn. Each breath of air is revitalizing. The sky is so blue it hurts the eyes, the sunlight an ever-present mantle of gold. The days are clear and warm, the nights crisp and cold, and at sundown, when I call the horses in, Heaven comes galloping straight for me and rests her head on my shoulder.
I swing up on her bareback, thinking, I’ll just ride for a few minutes. I can’t not ride on a night like this.
Here we are, bareback with a just a halter and rope, just riding around the sun-dappled field without a care in the world. Behind us lies a summer of heat, battered hooves, calcium deposits, and frustration. Heaven is loose and lively, so I let her canter. Heading back towards the barn, the canter turns into a gallop and I realize that I am being properly run away with. Yet, somehow, I don’t care. Heaven is all flash and fire and having more fun than I think she’s had in a long time. When we finally settle back into a walk, I can tell she is happy. It’s just something you know when you’re close enough to a creature. You can feel happiness radiating from their soul.
We ride up the fairy hill. The weeds are taller than I, but at last we arrive at the top, and find it unchanged. The beauty and the stillness of it go straight to my heart, and it takes a moment for me to notice something remarkable.
Heaven is not screaming, or fidgeting, or staring avidly towards home, as she usually does atop the hill. She is as serene as the forest, looking around calmly and taking it all in with lustrous eyes. Zahtar and Sage call for her, but she does not respond. She merely turns her head and nuzzles my hand. Although she is eager enough to head home when I finally turn back, I realize, hardly daring to believe it… she is content just to be with me.
My joy carries us down into the back pasture, cantering wildly through cool shade. As we reach the far end I turn without hesitation towards the highest log jump. Heaven strains with enthusiasm, and about three strides away I throw caution to the wind and let her go.
She jumps as Pegasus might. A leap, and a bound, and we are airborne, her winged hooves crashing into the setting sun. It takes me the whole length of the pasture to stop her, but I am only half-trying, still dazed by our fleeting moment of perfection.
I can’t remember the last time I have felt so much a part of my horse, and I suddenly know, deeply and truly, that it does not matter if she never goes to another games rally again. It does not matter if she grows too old to jump, or even ride. What matters is the connection we have, the relationship we share. That is something that cannot be broken down by age. That is something I can carry with me always - that my selfish, grouchy pony has invited me into her world.