Amateur Hour

My Empty Nest and How Riding Helps Me Cope

©Ashley Collins

I was tired when I arrived at the barn to ride. I had already been running with the dogs, gone to yoga, and I hadn’t slept well. My thoughts had kept me awake, tumbling through my mind like rocks in a polisher.

In less than a week I would take my youngest child to college, and the ramifications on my life had seemed darkly epic in the middle of the night. My days as a stay-at-home mom were dwindling, the last grains of sand through an hourglass, and I could feel myself bracing for impact.

Charlie was too.

Our Corgi had been chewing between the pads of her left front paw until it was raw. I think she was worried about the accumulation of things in the garage, the Bed Bath & Beyond bags left unpacked, the boxes that kept arriving from Amazon Prime.

I put a sock on her foot to keep her from licking it, but she kept pulling it off. When I scolded her she looked at me with such hurt eyes that I realized telling her to stop was as pointless as her telling me to stop feeling sad. I might have to put a cone around her neck. I wish I could put a cone around my heart.

In some ways Tomasa was that cone, I thought as I walked my horse around the outdoor arena. The pale footing reflected the sun like beach sand, and Tomasa and I were both sweating.

The weather had felt like the tropics for weeks, hot and humid, with thunderstorms and pelting rain every night. Only part of my face was exposed to the sun under my helmet, the rest of me was covered in breeches, boots, a long sleeved riding shirt, and gloves.

Tomasa swished her tail as we walked, occasionally lifting a back foot to scrape against her belly at the flies biting her. She stopped mid stride to scratch her nose on her front leg, then whipped her head around to nip at a fly on her shoulder, bumping my knee with her muzzle. I had covered her in fly spray before I got on, but by late summer the flies seem immune to it.

Horses are sensitive creatures, both physically and emotionally, and I have developed a deep bond with Tomasa in the nearly six years I have owned her. We have a good working relationship, a professional partnership in the context of show jumping. She is a proud athlete, and she’s all business, whether we are just practicing, or competing in the show ring.

We both work hard, are eager to learn, and find challenge in even the most basic of exercises. But we also enjoy the simple pleasures, like ambling in the woods, or galloping across the field, while cobalt sparrows dive in and around us, even just standing quietly together in her stall, breathing each other in.

We had had a good lesson today. Tomasa is smart and remembered what we worked on yesterday. She had to carry her own balance no matter how fast we were going, and stay soft through her body at the same time. It’s not easy.

Today we added in ground poles to simulate jumps, and I could feel her listening to me closely, trying to anticipate my directions. When we finished, I pulled up in front of our trainer Amy.

“Overachiever,” she said softly to Tomasa, stroking her damp neck.

I grinned, no longer tired, pleased with our progress. Endorphins had pumped new energy into my body, and my mind had made room for the technical aspects of the lesson, pushing aside loss and fear of change for that one hour.

When Tomasa had cooled down, I waved goodbye to Amy and walked her out of the arena, onto the narrow path between the lunging ring and the drainage pond, trying to catch a glimpse of the turtle that is usually paddling through the murky water.

As we hit the shade of the trees the air was cooler and easier to breathe, devoid for the moment of the brown deer flies that pester Tomasa’s face until she shakes her head in fury and dances on her hind legs trying to get away from them. But today the forest was quiet and calm and Tomasa walked loosely, my body swaying with her gait. My limbs felt boneless.

As we came out of the woods and walked up the small rise to the field, I could hear hawks calling to each other in loud mournful shrieks, echoing the silent cries inside me, and reminding me of my own empty nest. But being at the barn, riding Tomasa, had given me space to feel, to let grief in, and to be able to let my daughter go.

I wasn’t alone, nor was I going to break into a million pieces with Tomasa’s big warm body moving underneath me. Part of her job is to literally carry me over huge obstacles. But figuratively, she helps me remember who I am.


Ashley_Collins-IMG_0153About the Author

Ashley Collins has three grown children and lives in Connecticut with the pets they left behind. Her work has appeared online at Grown and Flown, and in several anthologies. She is currently working on a memoir. Find her online at ashleycollinswriter.com or Facebook.com/ashleycollinswriter.

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