“Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.“—Henry David Thoreau
On a chilly Thanksgiving weekend, I chatted with my riding teacher and a few other friends on horseback as I sat atop Shadow, one of the two horses I ride.
Getting married was on my mind for some time. My fiancé and I had been engaged for a year and chose January 10th as our wedding date but remained undecided on a venue for the private ceremony.
Neither of us had a current connection with a church. Our Justice of the Peace offered her home, but that didn’t give rise to any feelings. My happy place is here in the saddle, where I wallow in the delight of being at the barn with my horsey friends, surrounded by nature.
“Linda,” I said to my riding teacher. “Could Dennis and I get married here?”
She didn’t even know we were engaged, the ring hidden beneath my riding gloves. Her jaw dropped open as the other riders smiled.
“You know,” I continued as I stared at her shocked face, “with our Justice of the Peace, and Shadow and Nacho as our two witnesses?”
Linda stood by the mounting block and broke into a smile. “Let me check with the powers that be,” she replied.
A few days later, as I posted the prospect of being married at Course Brook on Facebook, a welcome text arrived from Linda: The farm’s owners not only agreed to allow the ceremony on the property but were thrilled at the prospect!
On a subsequent ride with my two friends, Courtney and Candace, we picked out a spot for the wedding. It was on the grass before a sweeping row of ten-foot tall cattails near the outdoor dressage arena. It was perfect.
On our wedding day, nearly six weeks later and fourteen years to the day from when we met in January, Dennis and I stood before Gayle, our J.P., with Linda and Nacho on Dennis’s side, and Shadow by my side. A video camera sat atop a tripod, recording every detail.
The cold air turned Gayle’s breath into puffy bursts as she pronounced the words of the equine-themed ceremony:
“Lisa and Dennis, after many years as a committed and loving couple, we gather at Course Brook Farm, in Sherborn, Massachusetts. It’s a special place where Lisa enjoys riding Shadow and Nacho, guided by her kind, patient and encouraging teacher, Linda Smith. We are grateful to Linda and the Mayo family, owners of Course Brook Farm, for their kindness and generosity.”
“Our purpose for gathering today is to give a new official status to the life that you share. Your lives are already bound together by a deep personal commitment; your marriage is an affirmation and acknowledgement of all that you are to each other. Marriage gives structure and security to a couple’s love. Marriage is a commitment to life—the best that two individuals can bring out in one other.”
At this juncture, bored or just drawn to the sweet frozen grass upon which we stood, our witnesses began ferociously feeding. Shadow, without regard for decorum, turned his hindquarters to Gayle and the camera. Linda held Nacho by the reins and, while he was eagerly munching, remained calm in position.
W.C. Fields once said of filmmaking: never work with animals or children, and he was right.
I tried to turn Shadow back to face the camera, but the maneuver resulted in a full circle. No matter. I turned Shadow one hundred and eighty degrees for the second time and announced, “This is going to be a dynamic ceremony.”
There was laughter and a whinny from one of the horses in the paddocks. Gayle resumed the ceremony and asked for our consent to one another, instructing Dennis and I to recite our vows:
I was wearing jeans and a riding shirt under a black blazer in the name of appearing fit and shivering, but I didn’t care because the love of my life was showering me with his words of adoration and that was all the warmth I needed. “Lisa, before you, life was a chore. With you, life is a joy. I want to share in that joy with you for the rest of my life.”
Dennis was suitably dressed for the elements, donning a turtleneck, wool scarf and coat. Expressing sentiment for a man has never come easy to me, but the words spilled from my mouth, true and effortlessly. “Dennis, me without you is like the sky without blue. As long as there is sky, I shall be with you.”
Shadow stepped squarely onto my foot. Good thing I was wearing cowboy boots, not high heels. I nudged him off as he continued to power through the grass like a lawnmower.
Linda began reciting the foreword to Dr. Allan J. Hamilton’s book: Lead with Your Heart… Lessons from a Life with Horses.
As humans, we insist that space represents a “final frontier.” We look out into the depths of the universe with the same naivete that the conquistadors and the pioneers demonstrated when they faced unexplored territories. Our first instinct is to try to possess it and tame it, not to truly, simply dwell in it. We want to be “out there” rather than “in here.” We see the challenge and the struggle as existing outside ourselves rather than within.
Horses see things differently. They are large and powerful animals and can at times be intimidating up close, but they are the prototypical prey species. They offer us a practical method to see meaningful alternatives to our own voracious way of life. When we spend the time to see the world through their eyes, we can visualize a path to transform our predatory appetites. They challenge us to undertake the journey of mastering ourselves, rather than everything around us.
Teaching without preaching, horses lead by example and employ the lessons of experience. They epitomize immersive learning at its best. And they challenge us with their formidable size and strength to bring results through collaboration rather than by force. Horses have developed their own compelling models of fairness, forgiveness, and leadership. They have acquired a group identity, a consciousness not as singular beings but as members of a family, a herd. They see themselves not as individuals in the isolated context of “me” but as relatives in a family in the broader framework of “we.” And they derive a powerful and gratifying sense of inclusion from it.
Horses share resources for the benefit of the herd. They are a wise, gentle species that eschews the notion that might defines right. While stallions with their reproductive imperative come and go, the alpha mare endures as herd leader. Because they understand what it means to be hunted, horses have the most profound appreciation for the benefits of peace. They yearn for harmony, kindness, and tranquility; they crave freedom from anxiety, abuse and predation. With their nonviolent attitude, horses are a testament that a partnership based on trust is far more productive than one that relies on dominance.
I thanked Linda for her heartfelt reading. Shadow was eating the grass at my feet in such a way that his body made my own disappear; the camera only capturing my head—a mythological centaur in the midst of getting hitched. Nacho had stopped eating grass and was pawing the ground with his left foreleg. Was this his sign of consent?
Gayle was moving to the ring exchange. Dennis and I didn’t want wedding bands—this wasn’t our first rodeo—and I had neglected to give him my engagement ring before the ceremony. I placed Shadow’s reins between my legs, a gesture that would make any true equestrian cringe, as I pulled at the glove on my left hand. Shadow, sensing the loosening of his reins, trotted a few steps further on, his nose down, ready to hoover up more grass.
My glove fell to the ground. I picked it up, took off my ring and handed it to Dennis. Linda was giggling. Nacho was nodding his head up and down in big gestures. Gayle was maneuvering away from Shadow’s roving hindquarters.
Time seemed to stand still until I realized Dennis was holding the ring before my finger.
“Lisa, each time you put on this ring, may it remind us both of the love, joy and commitment we share.”
I suddenly regained my presence of mind. I smiled at Dennis and thought, yes, this is truly wonderful.
Then Gayle pronounced:
“Dennis and Lisa, you have chosen each other, among all others, to journey through life together. Today, you shared words of trust and loving commitment, and you consented to marriage. Now it’s my privilege to say, by the power vested in me by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, but most especially by the power of your own love, that I now pronounce you husband and wife. You may seal your marriage with a kiss or a neigh!”
After Dennis and I engaged in a quick smooch, Linda made the suggestion of a lifetime.
“Let’s move the horses to the frozen footing of the dressage arena for photographs!”
“Good thinking,” I said, laughing and leading Shadow a mere ten feet away to solid ground, where the horses behaved picture-perfectly—calm and sweet, comical even—and we stole away with beautiful snapshots that will forever remind me of my dream-come-true of a day: a wedding in the presence of horses.