My Irish Catholic father was a difficult man—hard working all his life and hard drinking for much of my youth.
Gay boys and their daddies often have complicated relationships, and we did. He sold cattle at the Chicago Stockyards and, as a young boy, I often tagged along with him on weekends to meet with farmers.
None of my siblings had any interest, so this was our special time; farm visits were safe common ground. I have so many fond memories of the sights, smells, and sounds. Later in life, I told my dad I learned how to listen to people and patiently build a relationship with others all from his fence-side conversations with farmers about their livestock.
One rainy day in 1962 on a farm in Milledgeville, IL, a Shetland pony mare gave birth to Raindrop, a beautiful roan filly. I had never seen anything so miraculous. I was smitten. For years afterward, I ran with Raindrop in the fields, groomed her in the barn and rooted for her at county fairs.
In the city, I earned animal husbandry Boy Scout badges, became a member of the American Shetland Pony Club and devoured every page of that group’s journal. Once I was in high school, life was taken up with other activities. Any connection to ponies became increasingly distant as college, my professional career and unending busyness prevailed. But throughout, I kept photos of Raindrop as iconic memories of unmitigated delight.
Fast forward 40 years. At the age of 55, I reconnected with my childhood passion and learned how to hitch up a pony and drive her with me seated in a cart. My pony’s name? Raindrop. Same coloring, both born in May during rainstorms—seemed like kismet indeed. Perhaps an odd midlife crisis to some, coming full circle for me, including healing memories of my dad.
Learning to drive the cart has not been without its complications. Twenty-three years ago, I became paraplegic from complications from spinal surgery, losing much function in my legs. I have no sensation on my right side. My left side has no awareness of location. It’s complicated to walk. My legs are heavy with neuropathic pain. I navigate the world slowly, assisted by a cane.
Blessedly, I find a different kind of mobility with Raindrop. Gravity cannot compromise our time together, since legs are not engaged in driving. I harness her up to a two-wheel open cart and off we go. I communicate through my arms, voice and light driving whip. For these fleeting moments, I am not disabled. As a young man, I was a professional dancer. Later, I ran marathons. The pony allows me to dance and run again, reconnecting to my lost kinetic self.
Training intently every day, I seek to learn the animal, not master her, as we hone our physical abilities and mental focus, acquire skillful means and embedded trust. Success is hard won in the training arena. Over the years, some very patient trainers have worked with me on adaptations to keep the pony, “Calm, forward, straight.” As she pulls me along, we work on cadence, trot and turns. The arc of her neck and impulsion from her hindquarters are my focus. Her relaxed mouth accepting the bit results in a sublime interplay between us.
Being a novice at midlife is both gratifying and humbling. Acquiring new skills is rejuvenating. Laughter, rather than embarrassment, at failure and learning from mistakes propel improvement. My competitive self is satisfied with a training session well done; thrilled that Raindrop and I have done our best for that day.
In working with my pony, I must first understand the world through her eyes, her smells, her experiences, her fears and her relationships. Equine logic is quite different from human thinking. I try to see the world as she does. Human vision is focused straight ahead; horses see at 350 degrees, encompassing peripheral vision.
Imagine the world opening in startling ways. Space and light are transformed. No place is more important than another; the image behind is equal to that in front. As I drive her in the ring, I must embrace the entire arena and look beyond the animal before me and perceive the environment as she does.
At the barn, the virtues of simplicity are revealed through the quotidian of mundane chores. My professional self has no gravitas here. Status is irrelevant. It’s hard to be grand mucking out stalls or pounding through ice in frozen buckets.
The teenagers know more than I do, and I often seek their advice, as well as from one friend who is 89 and rides regularly each week year-round. Given my physical limitations, I am codependent on stablemates for help heading the pony once she is hitched up, for me to safely get in and out of the cart.
My husband is a real champ. When work or travel commitments preclude me from going to the barn, he is there in below zero weather mucking out the stall, cracking ice to provide fresh water, picking frozen impacted earth out of hooves and exercising the animal.
Late one night after work, I drove out to the barn to exercise Raindrop. The weather was extremely cold. The lights were off, and the barn doors were closed. Turning on a few lights, I took the pony into the indoor arena and let her loose to run free. What fun we had, me with my walking cane and her bucking with legs akimbo, darting and swerving around me in ever changing circles, trotting with gleeful abandon.
When I ambled around the perimeter, she followed just out of reach. I had brought along treats for encouragement. She inched up to me, stretching out her neck and lips to grab an apple biscuit, and then darted away. We eyed one another at opposite ends of the arena. Cuing off each other’s shoulders, we followed the other’s lead in an exquisite tango. When I sat down to rest, she meandered toward me and gingerly reached for another treat. Then, encouraging me with a nudge, she zipped out of arm’s reach to begin the game again.
There were only the two of us, but it wasn’t silent in the quiet arena: her hooves flying over the uneven dirt and her steamy breath filled the space. Sounds also rushed in from outside, horses stirring in their stalls and an occasional passing car provided accompaniment to our wintry duet.
Eventually, she let me know she was done frolicking. Nuzzling my shoulder, she put her head through the halter, and I led her back to her stall. Once I gave her some fresh hay, she was done with me, so I put on her blanket and turned out the lights.
This is my favorite time at the barn, late at night, when no one else is around. The sounds and smells of two-dozen safe, warm and protected equines are divine. Just being there, in sublime stillness, through her quiet eyes, I am part of the herd. It’s at these moments that I experience a profound state of empathic bliss.
It is such a gift to be in relationship with this animal, because it requires me to be present: no past, no future, just now. What happened that evening will have no agency the next morning. Each day, we begin afresh. I wish my father was alive to share the joy.
About the Author
John R. Killacky is serving his first elected term in the Vermont House of Representatives.