“9 am?”

My trainer responded when I asked if I could have a Thanksgiving Day lesson. “I should be done feeding before then.”

Her words were simple, but they had the conspiratorial gleam of someone who, like me, loved an empty barn and the way a quiet arena stretched with possibility.

As other people popped turkeys into ovens, I practiced collection, feeling my spine and hips signal the horse to change its movements as much as my legs or my hands. My trainer taught me how to correctly do a rein-back, only to watch me, the recovering backyard cowgirl, fail miserably at executing it. My lesson horse judged me for my folly but was as patient as Job, knowing that baby carrots waited in my pocket.

Twenty-twenty is the third year I have snuck out to ride on Thanksgiving. The first time was as a teenager, my grandmother’s gelding and I snorting and weaving between the snowdrifts and mailboxes The other was at an old boss’s farm where I fought off the post-stuff-your-face lethargy by working one of the mares.

As the empty arena echoed with my trainer and I making jokes at each other, I imagined a life where this became a tradition that sticks. 

Horses are my release valve all year long, but especially around the holidays. Yes, they can be a source of stress at times, but they never ask me about my career or love life. They never bring up old feuds, try to get me to join their church or their pyramid scheme. I can get along with horses, no problem. People, however… people are hard.

Because of COVID-19, I was on my own for Thanksgiving. I fried up fresh falafel in oil and ate it with pita bread purchased at the Lebanese market down the road. Even though I gripe about my family, I found myself longing for my aunt’s perfect gravy and my brother’s meticulous pumpkin pie. I pined for the leftovers and the aggressive games of Pictionary. There is much to miss in 2020 and much to grieve too.

This year has been marked by loss and struggle. The news of lost jobs, lost opportunities, and lost lives—it is hard not to feel the chilly drip of despair creep in. Yet 2020 has made my gratefulness for horses more intense than it has ever been.

When I am in the barn, I get a break from the world. When horse videos pop up on my social media feed, I stop doom scrolling obsessively. Talk of good rides, or bad moments with the farrier, break up phone calls with friends, interrupting our obsessive talk of case numbers and the endless drama of living during a pandemic.

I am also grateful for horses because they gave me the tools to embrace uncertainty. No matter how hard we try we can never guarantee a perfect ride, a sound horse, or that water trough heater won’t decide to give out during a blizzard. Like a life with horses, living through the pandemic is a dance of changing expectations, establishing boundaries, learning to let go, and doing the best with what we have got.

This year, I am thankful for the blueprint of uncertainty given to me by horses—and I hope I can take it into the rest of the holiday season, too.