The Horse in My Head May 7, 2022

Tale Spin

 

For a minute there, I was living two fairy tales at once; now I feel like I’ve been turned into a frog, dropped far down into a well.

 

I have ridden horses since I turned six, which will be four decades in just a couple years. Owing to the rigors of ranching, divorce and rebuilding a life on the other side of both of them, I hadn’t bought a horse of my own for over twelve years. It is almost laughable understatement to decide one is ready to add a horse to one’s life, but I had made the assessment, decided it was time, and was reveling in the amount of healing I could claim in order to come to that decision.

A few horses for sale hadn’t worked out; I had looked, or ridden, or both, then decided for veterinary or other reasons, we weren’t a good match. I saw Fiona’s ad on Saturday afternoon; by Sunday morning my trainer and I were on a flight to meet her. I rode her that same day, rode her again Monday and felt I had found the pot of gold at the end of my more-than-a-decade-rebuilding rainbow. This was a horse I could begin again with; one I could learn with; one who would tolerate the flaws and mistakes an amateur rider makes without complaint. Thursday she was vetted; Friday night she arrived at the barn. I trusted my instinct. I trusted my trainer’s chain of contacts who led us to the seller, and the vet known and trusted by both my trainer and the seller, as that vet had worked in both locations. We had asked all the questions, they had disclosed all the information. Everyone had done everything right.

The following Friday the mare lost her mind.

What had been a docile, curious-but-mellow creature was now on the end of my lead rope prancing, snorting, pushing, at times into me, so hysterical as to either not note or not concern herself with my presence. She would have run me over half a dozen times that day had I not moved aside. Lunging in the round pen, I may as well have been the footing for all that she acknowledged me. Her eyes were on stems, ears stuck on their swivels, and body tense as a ratchet strap as she called, screaming, for the herd she had been turned out with that week.

It is the customary care at the barn where I board that all horses are turned out in the morning, then come into their stalls for the afternoon and evening. Mares graze together, younger geldings play together, and older geldings collectively ignore everyone else. Any newcomers are turned out on their own for a few days to get them used to the surroundings before introducing them to the herd. Evidently, in her mind, Fiona was well past introductions, gone straight to committed, and was now acting committable any time we tried to separate her from them.

My trainer took her from me, delivering a firm impromptu lesson as to the expected code of equine conduct, telling me our job as handlers is to be Alpha. “You have to think you’re bigger than she is,” she instructed. I nodded, but I wasn’t sure I could comply.

A YouTube horsemanship search and binge-watch later, I had learned separation anxiety in horses is a thing, often successfully managed with strategic groundwork. So educated, I arrived Sunday, with not a little anxiety of my own. I was at least a few steps into grief for this long-held dream to once again partner with a horse: past the shock, anger, and sadness, now into bargaining. Maybe – maybe – if I could meet her where she was with the groundwork that would communicate what she needed to know from me, we could at least be safe enough together to see if we still had a future.

A friend of mine says it’s the sign of intelligence to be able to hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time. I can’t claim to be Einstein, but I did notice the schism happening in my awareness between the need to approach this horse behavior problem rationally with  patient trial and error, and the visceral and almost total despair that with every shriek and push, this mare was stomping my long-held dream under her frantic feet.

Sometimes the advice to quiet my mind gets the response of a rowdy classroom toward a meek substitute teacher.  Deciding that if I couldn’t shut the opposing voices up, I could at least ignore them, I walked through the mare pasture that Sunday morning praying to everything listening to make both the mare and me receptive to each other.

I got her haltered.

I led her with reminders as to her recent groundwork lesson, but without incident.

She stood to be saddled.

I mounted and rode.

She was lovely.

Relieved, I chastised myself that of course getting to know anything new takes time. I had been foolish to expect a horse to adjust so soon, even more foolish to declare us partners. No one gets to skip steps in any relationship– as I had learned from other horses before this.

 

Three days later on a day off from the barn, I marched to a trash can to dispose of a doggie bag at a popular trailhead. I was feeling good: Fiona and I had done well together the day before, more improvement and a lot of try evident from both of us. It was a cool morning, a blue desert sky, had been a peaceful hike with my canine bestie brightened further by blooming ocotillo, and a man approached from the other direction, smiling when it was clear we were headed to the same trash can.

I smiled back. He was cute, and tall and muscular…and still smiling.

He asked me about our walk.

I told him.

We talked feet from the trash can in the parking lot for over an hour.

 

I used to meet people like this. Pre-Covid times when the world was open and people more at ease with proximity, I tended to cross paths and speak to someone just in passing that could turn into a conversation, a walking buddy, a date—the last time had been quite an extraordinary love.

That was three years ago, also on a dog walk. (No trash can.)

I know I’m not alone in feeling that quarantine felt like protracted January: the “always winter and never Christmas” from C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, tinged with the additional sense of having to begin over and over again. More recently, the surge then recession of Omicron had felt like March—and almost matched with the calendar—a windy changeable time when newness is trying to bud but is often driven back to shelter by storms. Now in late April, in every sense, springtime had finally come, the world and me welcoming each other, with flowers and smiles—and a business card with an invitation to be in touch.

I was. As I was leaving town for the weekend, texts flew between us like flights of mating birds, a courtship dance on screens for three days. I could barely sleep at night for the excitement, declaring an embargo on any further suggestive verbiage until such time as I had recovered from sleeplessness, with the exception of this poem I wrote this morning just to let you know, like you needed telling, that this is really exciting. But really, please, we’ve got to knock this off or I won’t be able to function.

He said the exchange had definitely been testing him.

I said I saw no reason for that; things happen in their time and there’s actually no need to rush – I may be enjoying this, but I’m not in a hurry.

Well, about time, and timing, before he met me, he had been dating someone, was around her again just this morning, and felt really conflicted because he had started to develop feelings for her.

I felt as though Fiona had reared—her hooves pawing at my mind.

We all have lines we won’t cross. With horses, mine have to do with safety. Unwillingness is one thing; hysteria is another. The line between them is where I stop feeling I have any business handling the animal. With relationships, I know that once sex starts, seeing others stops, but I was reminded that I also have a feeling line: between admiration and sentiment.

Well, with that information, I need to back way off, I wrote, because I wouldn’t want a partner of mine receiving messages like the ones I’ve been sending you.

 

He thanked me, acknowledging my respect for her, hoping I felt respected that he told me.

I thanked him for the many smiles.

 

I understood his point of view – I hadn’t been truly conflicted about two suitors for two decades—my memory of it is that it’s not actually a great situation, as the chances of hurting someone start at one hundred percent with the risk of doubling. I wanted to feel respected, but didn’t really. I would have felt respected four days ago. Now I just felt loss.

 

A couple days back home and a good deal of sleep later, I decided maybe those four days had been the relationship equivalent of winning a free trip to Hawaii: coming out of nowhere, someplace I was never going to get to stay, so am I really going to be upset that four days wasn’t five or more? It had been gorgeous and exciting and I get to keep that it happened, with all the reassurance that I can attract and be attracted by that magic that can only happen between people.

 

Maybe it was the equanimity, but the next day Fiona and I had our softest ride yet: a little hitch at the mounting block with her not wanting to go in the opposite direction of the mares, but nothing a second nudge didn’t convince. I felt we had genuinely connected, and marveled that the story line with a quick reversal then brokered reflection had happened twice in two weeks, both with a similar lesson: no beginning guarantees the plot we want. Any beginning is, and can only be, a beginning, not an indicator. Life is just that unpredictable and must be lived into before any kind of conclusion can be drawn, and, even then, we might be surprised.

Friday, the mare once again lost her mind.

This time, not only did she not want me to mount, but facing away from the mares she ducked her head, sidestepping, then shot backward. She could have outpaced crawfish.

My trainer caught up to us, asking if I was OK.

I was OK enough to dismount, which I opted to do, feeling I was well beyond my amateur’s depth of ability to ride a protesting horse.

Fiona backed, sidestepped and tried to rear with my trainer, who informed me, “we’ll be schooling here today – she needs to act like a lady between the pasture and the arena.” Understanding that meant there was no possibility of actual arena work, I removed my helmet and boots and took a seat on a barn bench, feeling my heart distance into grey abstraction.

 

The twin story arcs bit into my pride like blades, threatening to sever my confidence in instinct, my faith in hope.

Not for the first time, I want to be able to consult the Great Table of Contents in the Sky, to ask “what is, and where are we in, this story? How many more chapters to the good part?”

I can already hear the answer back: “It’s all the good part.”

 

Two Fridays ago, with the attention of a beautiful horse and a handsome man, things felt better than good. Today I have the urge to stop, put this story aside, outsource finding out what happens next to someone else, feel small inside my warts, croaking to myself about how little we really get to choose in life, allowing myself the occasional swim in the shadows of past dreams.

 

Except, that story doesn’t feel right.

Acknowledging my bias of being a writer, and an aspiring young adult fiction author, I strongly believe in the power of stories: their ability to transform entropy into purpose, happenstance into perspective. Granted, stories are tricky, as apt to change with the character, and the meaning we assign, as they are to change us with their course (usually an advanced one) in events. Without any expertise in psychology whatsoever, I will venture that entropy, the inability to anticipate what’s next, is the single most destabilizing force to the human psyche. A dim bell from my high school survey course in world religions reminds me that Hindus worship Creation and Destruction as the same God —what happens for good or for ill happens for reasons beyond us, and perhaps the only healthy response we can make to that level of unpredictability is to acknowledge that most of life is well beyond our control, with the exception of our response.

I could tell myself a story about what’s been happening here —that these events were sent to teach me something—that the gods of horsemanship and courtship are demanding tribute of my visions for myself before they will reveal their gifts to me—or that all of this is one universal wild card lesson in acceptance—but I think the truth is that any storytelling I attempt could only be fiction because the story is still in play.

A writing teacher advised me once that we should only write about material that is at least ten years old, because otherwise it’s simply too close to us to describe well.

With ruptured instincts and my heart in a sling, I don’t know that I need ten years, but I’d be well advised to take a minute. Especially since the other thing we usually get to choose is the timing of our response.

So, I’ll wait—just as long as it takes until I find one worthy of a story I’d want to hear again.