After 20 years of riding other people’s horses, I finally have one of my own.
As I latched her stall door for the first time, a familiar sense of worry wrapped itself around my spine. Even though she is the first one with my name on papers, she is not the first I have been responsible for—this anxiety had a well-worn groove in my brain.
I know I am among a horde of horse people who stress out about walking away. There is a quiet agony in leaving a new horse alone at the barn. It is as if we believe that the unthinkable could be prevented if we could constantly stand watch over them—with vigilance, our horses won’t unexpectedly colic, cast themselves against a wall, or split themselves open on God knows what. A Kafkaesque PowerPoint of horror playing through the minds of most people who have ever taken care of anything more alive than a Breyer horse.
Once when I worked at a breeding farm, I berated one of my coworkers after she used moldy hay as bedding for a mare and foal instead of the clean straw. “If a horse can hurt themselves on it, they will,” I snarled.
But, of course, it isn’t just walking away that could damage our steeds. Our fallibility could too.
My own list of equine mistakes is long and full of terrors. I once left a hose in a trough on a 90-degree day, and it siphoned off all the water, so the horses in that pasture had nothing to drink. Another time I forgot to turn the hot wire back on and then had to chase loose horses at sunrise. These are but a few of the idiotic things I have done. I still wince at the thought of them.
A part of me still believes that if I were smarter, more self-aware, less cerebral, and oddly thinner (yeah, I know that doesn’t make any sense), I wouldn’t make mistakes, and every horse I ever touched would be perfectly healthy and perfectly well behaved.
There is a belief among horse people, and most everyone else for that matter, that life is just a series of choices. If we choose right, we will be rich, famous, always attractive, successful and everyone will love us.
That idea, of course, is a filthy lie. If there is anything horses teach us, it is that the margin between transcendence and swearing at the door of a horse trailer after getting stepped on is tiny.
Life is like that one masochistic lesson where the trainer takes away one stirrup. On the side, where mercifully there is still an iron to put our weight into, we have the possibility of making good choices. If we engage our core, relax that ankle, and balance, we have a glimmer of control. On the other side, where our leg hangs with nothing to support it, all we have is the hope the horse doesn’t spook and pitch us forward into a face full of mane.
Horses remind us that existence is a strange balance of chance and agency. Yes, knowledge, hard work, and a solid plan will help, but cold hard luck is always a factor.
As I stare at a horse of my own, you might be thinking that I am a nervous wreck—sometimes I am. Uncertainty can be frightening. I might be able to choose her grain, her saddle, and how much bedding I put down, but when you love a living thing, a lack of control is always part of the equation.
But, uncertainty is full of wonder too. It reminds us that the choices we have with horses and life are a gift. If we embrace uncertainty’s constant presence, it makes us more grateful for those things we do get to choose and gives us more patience for ourselves and others when everything blows up in our faces.
May horses keep us humble, may horses keep us kind.