The Church of Horse

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Calendar Icon February 18, 2020

I was raised Catholic. My father would put on his Sunday best and pull my brother and me out of bed for 8 am Mass.

I was never a model of devotion at church, but I liked the way the morning sun shone through the stained glass. The light reminding us all that there was a big world beyond the steeple. It was easy to find solace in the motions of Mass—the stand-up, the sit-down, the way that communion wafer stuck to the top of my mouth. Awe and comfort all neatly packaged in an hour.

I am a millennial; we are the largest demographic of non-church goers in American history. I have been in a church once in the last six months.

Still, the need for quiet and ceremony is deeply human. For me, that need for ritual and contemplation is fulfilled in another building. One that smells more like timothy than incense, and that requires a different brand of footwear finery. I am a member of the church of Equus.

Right now, I take dressage lessons between the classes I teach at a community college. I un-blanket, brush down, and tack up the same way every time. Rituals, even the most practical ones, are still rituals. They return us to our bodies, giving us order among chaos. I leave my phone in the brush bag—it can survive without me for a while.

Anyone obsessed with horses understands that our time with them, just like our time in a religious establishment, is also steeped in mystery. Any horse, even the quietest, oldest, slowest, most swayed-back gelding has bad days. Every hot, “problem” horse also has its moments of serenity. Of course, we train, we prepare, we adjust, but there are no guarantees. When we climb on, we embrace the unknown and have faith.

Horses also connect us to the seasons, to the weather, to the needs of those other than ourselves. They are often vessels of awe. I still fall all over myself when I watch a gifted equestrian practice in the arena. When a group of horses roughhouse in the snow or nap in the heat, I stop and stare with the same automatic penance of crossing myself when I walk in the church.

©Julia Rose Lewis

There are also moments of beauty, just like the light from that stained glass. There is an unnamable sacredness in having just the right amount of connection on the rein or the right bend. There is something beyond us when we go out for those stupid gallops through the woods where everything is forgotten.

For all the spiritual satisfaction and wonder, I have another perhaps less pious reason that horses are like religion. Both are perfect for laughing at.

The only thing I love more than Catholic jokes are equestrian jokes. I still crack up at the scene in Monty Python where the Monks smack themselves in the head with boards as they chant down the road. And I will always laugh a bit too loudly at the scene in Horse Boss with the horse owner screaming, “Princess GO!” to make her horse walk a few steps in the round pen. Knowing the language of a subculture enriches the pallet for laughter.  There is a sacredness to sacrilege.

So, yes. I have traded my church clothes for a pair of breaches that live in the bag in the back of my car, but I have not given up on quiet and wonder.

Gretchen Lida is an essayist and an equestrian. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. She is also a contributing writer to Book Riot, Horse Network, and the Washington Independent. She is working on her first book. She lives in Chicago and is still a Colorado native.

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