If we were smart, we would hang our hearts on things that don’t think for themselves. Things that don’t feel. We would love sports cars or landscaping or the sorts of collections our grandparents had, like butterflies or stamps.
But then, we couldn’t control vandals or weather or fire any more than we can control riding wrecks or fencing disasters or trailer accidents or colics. Something bad could still happen.
And we would have missed the best things.
The wuffling of breath in our cupped hands, when we visit them at dusk. We have left our gloves behind, because we want to feel our souls inside their skins. We close our eyes to smell the warmth beneath their manes.
We feel them press about us, prey choosing predator, because they have made us something better. We let them come, though they are murderously huge and we ought to be afraid, because this is a two-handled treasure. We’ve made something of each other.
This morning, before sunrise, my farm floats in a pocket of air between two seas. The clouds above roll wavelike and dark, the valley below is gray with mist. Up close, I can see the buds on my apricot tree, bright against a backdrop of emerald pasture. The horses have buried their muzzles deep in piled hay. Consolation’s coat is splotched pinto with mud.
Yesterday saw Idaho’s first endurance ride of the season. I didn’t go. Consolation isn’t quite ready, her conditioning having been delayed by my injury in January. But we did ride. We rode in the morning in a floodlight of sunshine that poured through the horizon ringed with clouds. The day was tank-top warm, dotted red with robins and tulips. We trotted 17 miles at a medium pace, the kind that features a looped rein and stops to graze and a happily wandering mind.
Not so last week! One day we set out early under leaden skis, goaded by the scent of an oncoming storm. The wind had crept into our bones, and when we hit the perfect footing of the irrigation road, I leaned in the saddle and Consolation flew.
To ride this mare at speed is to ride a bird. She is so smooth, so quick, that I marvel at the vast, slick network of muscle and bone that bounds beneath her coat in perfect, mindless effort. Our canter shifts upward into hand gallop, The thrust of her quarters races up her back, along the reins, through my seat, down to her flashing hooves again. The oxygen in our nostrils, our lungs, our blood, feels endless. We lean on the curves, change leads on a shy, watch a harried pair of ducks fly up from the canal again, sure we’ve come to hunt them down.
It is the kind of ride that cannot be partaken alone. Both partners must be there, fully present in body and mind, in spirit and soul. Each becomes less that the other might make her more.
And then we are home, and the rain arrives, and I bring hay and blankets and rub the sweat from her hide. She leans into the brush, content, transformed from raptor back to mare, almost pony, a little treasure in my care. I rub her crest and stretch my other hand to catch the rain. In a few weeks, it will pass. Summer will be upon us. And we will ride to meet it.
There’s something about being on a horse that makes people want to say hello.
I do most of my conditioning rides on the grid of agricultural roads surrounding my farm. Just about everyone who passes in a car, driving a tractor, or riding a motorcycle offers a wave. Once in a while, someone stops to chat.
Sometimes, they’re concerned about my safety. (This occasionally leads to offers of new places to ride on private property.) Sometimes, they are horse people curious about Consolation’s breed, hoof boots, or tack. Sometimes, they just comment on the pretty day, the pretty horse, and (without saying so outright) the pretty nice feeling that most people make the world a better place.
Just last week, a guy pulled his truck over to ask if he could introduce his lovely, half-grown Weimaraner to Consolation in the hope that the pup would be less inclined to chase horses in the future.
A couple miles up the road, a faded sedan stopped in the oncoming lane. The window rolled down to reveal the gentleman with the Walkaloosas, who occasionally drops by my farm astride his mare. His face was unusually ashen, his eyes hollow. I asked how he was, and he said not well. We talked horses and weather. And then he said he’d lost one of his grandsons the day before. The boy was three months old. Found dead in his crib, of unknown cause. A foal was due at his place any day; I should drop by. I said I would.
Then there is the woman who rents the old house at the S-bend. Her driveway is full of old cars from a lot owned by her husband, who recently passed. She has a new mare, a gentle, senior Paint found on Craigslist for $250. Perhaps we’ll ride the irrigation road some evening, and she will tell her story.
Two of my favorites have names I don’t know. One is the mail carrier, always cheerful in her white Jeep with the orange light on top. Sometimes I wonder how much she knows about me, from my mail, and seems to like me anyway.
And, there is the farm worker with the battered, two-tone pickup he drives among ditches, fields, and barns. We pass each other often, sometimes several times a day. My clothes and activities change — from breeches for riding to jeans for training to shorts for sprinting — and our frequent, speechless encounters make us laugh.
There is the husband and wife team that drives the school bus, the cattle rancher whose stock sometimes turn up on my land, the gardener whose handiwork I always slow to admire. There are the cyclists who call out to let me know they’re passing, men who cut the motors on their chain saws though Consolation isn’t spooky, the reining competitor whose trailer I once borrowed for a veterinary emergency. Kids who wave, kids too shy. Dog-walkers. Seasonal workers grinning under broad-brimmed hats. A loose collection of folks who know almost nothing, yet almost everything, about each other.
People sometimes ask if I get bored of riding by myself. Not often, I say, and I’m sincere. But the truth is, I don’t really ride alone.
Winter has come to town. Her hostess gift is a coverlet of snow cast unevenly over the remains of our Thanksgiving storm, disguising ankle-twisting craters of ice. She is borne on the east wind, which here is cruel and clawed.
She woke me with a clatter of hail and scratch of snow on the skylights. She stopped the hounds, solid as a brick wall to their faces, when I opened the door for them to race outside.
I leaned into her stinging darkness, muffled in a rabbit-skin cap, hustling through morning chores. The barn cats padded resolutely after, their delicate tracks obliterated like ghosts beneath the swirling snow.
And the horses! Oh, they pretended to hate the wind that wound their tails like vines about their hocks. They pinned their ears and thrust their muzzles at the sky. They chased her about their paddocks like an impertinent filly.
Secretly, whimsically, I wished to take them all back to my living room. They could curl beneath the Christmas tree, a bizarre nativity, and I would serve them gingerbread and cider and sing them carols.
Instead, I threw them extra hay. Even the cats talked me out of extra breakfast. Now, I am back beneath the domed roof of my farmhouse, sipping coffee, surrounded by sleeping dogs, and daydreaming, childlike, of horses in the snow.
The sun came out today. It spilled warmth across the snow still cast like a discarded bridal veil over the curves and valleys of my farm. The icy crust softened, no longer knifelike on equine legs. Its perfection begged to be broken.
I wasted no time on breeches, belt, or chaps. Old sweatpants and two layers of fleece would do, a hat beneath my helmet, gloves. Consolation wore only her Indian bosal, more halter than bridle. Is there any way but bareback to ride o’er deep and drifted snow?
Consolation has never carried a rider in such environs. The peculiar quiet, broken only by trains of geese that clattered across the sky, made her jump at every turn. A flurry of game birds set her heart to pounding beneath my knee. She snorted and bounced, all wild eye and fun, until the knee-deep effort set her mind to task.
Her tension ebbed, and I rocked astride her like a boat at anchor. Both hands on the reins, fingers extending lightly to keep time with her bobbing head. Both heels pressed into air beneath her ribs. Both scanning the snow for safest passage. Both inhaling chill and passing warmth between us.
To ride bareback is to play in duet. It is sex that happens because it is supposed to, not because someone planned it. It is naked dressage, riding stripped to essentials. Balance. Contact. Depth. Feel. Dare I say Love?
No. For all the storybooks, the anecdotes, I still cannot believe that horses love. Not in the way of dogs and men. That which a horse offers, to one deserving, is a finer treasure still: it is Trust.
Consolation has not been an easy horse. As recently as last April, I remained unsure that I would keep her, after all. Our relationship had been a struggle between wills, two alpha mares unwilling to bow. And yet, today, we traveled with nothing between us, partners adrift in an icy meadow crisscrossed with tracks of pheasant and quail, of rabbits and dual coyotes that bounded after.
We will ride like this again, someday. Someday, when she is thirty and I am fifty-four, Consolation and I will chase another winter sunset, together, as far as we can go.
Photo by Michael Ensch
You might also like: On Consolation
Tomorrow’s forecast reads, “High of 56, and rain.” Severe weather outlooks have been posted.
Beware: Winter ahead.
But tonight, I can see the moon. She pours silver over the horses’ backs, and I can just make out the stamp of my saddle, still etched on Consolation’s coat.
I’ve ridden nearly every evening these past weeks, changing straight from skirts to breeches the moment I get home. It is not Indian summer, for our nights fall just shy of frost, but each day passes in a certain shade of bright. Like diamonds they glisten all around, deceptive, visibly warm yet sharp to touch.
Tonight, the air is crisper still, keen as a knife blade sheathed in the horizon ringed with clouds. Breeze clatters the aspen, shocking against ice-blue sky. Along the roadside, tawny stalks of corn beseech the rain that will come tomorrow and stain their leaves with gray.
Our rides have been slow, of late. We’ve been soaking autumn deep beneath our skins. But today, we fly. There isn’t speed like this, nor grace, in a thousand fish or swooping birds!
This ride, of course, is bittersweet. It feels like pulling tomato vines and basil in October, a heartbeat before they wither black with cold. Their scent is redolent of summer. It lingers on my hands, and I am loath to rinse it off come dark.
In just that way, I sense the final moments of sunlight on bare arms, of Consolation’s sweat on ungloved palms. Perhaps she feels it, too. She is so powerful, so eager, I cannot not bear to capture her by heel or rein. She flows smooth as water over stones; I am nothing to her glory.
We canter miles until, at last, the sun catches up her train of heat and plunges to earth. Consolation asks for her head. I give it gladly, and together we chase the final, golden drop of summer, borne on a gallop to the very edge of day.
Today’s flashback is to a post I think of every October, when the endurance season yawns and reaches for covers of snow to tuck beneath its chin. The pace of my rides slows. Speed and strength yield to the soaking up of daylight, of warmth, that all too soon will slip away. Read. Ride. Enjoy.
TIMING ISN’T EVERYTHING Originally published October 28, 2008
On a hill overlooking Oregon’s Willamette Valley, there is a house with a large yard. Beyond the yard is an overgrown walnut orchard. At the edge of the walnut orchard is a yellow barn. And in the yellow barn sleep the memories of my first endurance horses. They whisper among the cobwebs, curl like cats upon the beams, press their hoof prints in long vacant stalls.
They were Arabians, of course. A black-bay mare, elderly and kind, with a stripe and snip and one white hind. Another bay mare, agitated, ever pacing. And a rose-grey gelding, the first I raised and trained from youth, the horse of my heart. Who can tell how many miles we traveled, those Arabians and I, bareback and fleet among the wheat fields and vineyards and woods that made our home?
In those teenage years, I knew nothing of the sport of endurance. I rode for sheer pleasure, alone for hours at a time with the wind cool on my temples and a horse hot between my knees, my fingers tangled tight in reins and manes. I wore sweat pants and t-shirts, paddock boots, never a watch. The shadows kept time as the trails wound on. My only rule, ‘Be home at dusk.’
These days, I surround myself with layers of data. Rides progress from planning chart to stopwatch and stethoscope to spreadsheet. The resulting lists and graphs intrigue me, and I find no sin in this.
But lately, these October days beguile. Shall I ride hills when the trees are aflame with autumn in the valleys? Must we canter when the last rays of an Indian summer could, if only we walked, cloak us in remembered warmth?
And so I slow my horse’s pounding feet. I close my eyes, sway upon his back, absorb his breaths as though they were my own. Speed and mileage mean nothing today. These, after all, are the rides logged not on paper, but on our very souls.
A little girl lives a quarter mile up my road, on a three-acre plot with a battered farmhouse and rickety fence. She runs to the mailbox when I ride by, and she calls me “her Highness” when she thinks I cannot hear.
I find this embarrassing, but sweet. After all, I have not been adult too long to perceive how an imagination, just ten years old, might transform a neighbor woman with long hair and a gray horse into a princess astride a milk-white steed.
“You know what?” the girl asked one day, when I paused to let her stroke my noble charger. “Horses are my favorite animal.” She cradled this truth in conspiratorial voice, as if it contained a wish too great for hope.
I understood. Oh, I understood!
That was two summers ago, but I thought of it today when I drove by that house to discover in the pasture something like a pony. It’s an awkward little beast of indecipherable heritage, pieced together of breeds that ought never to meet, yet blessed with a coat of palomino dapple that I’m sure its young mistress believes is solid gold.
I’ve smiled all afternoon at the thought of that girl. Though stifling hot and thunder torn, today is, for her, that perfect day. It is magic, but it is real! She knows nothing of devastating colic, mysterious lameness, a crushing fall. She’s never borne the weight of a thousand training hours destroyed by one bad step, a gate left open, a twist of wire buried in the weeds. She sees nothing in that pony but her fondest dream come true.
I had that magic once. We all did. And yet, somehow, it slipped away. The travesty struck in silence by the same, subtle shift that degraded running and jumping from play to exercise, contorted sleeping on a friend’s floor from adventure to necessity, and ravaged the sensuality of meals with stomach-turning guilt.
Conditioning our horses has become a duty. We want not so much to ride as to have ridden. Because we are supposed to, because we said we would. We focus so hard on the minutiae of tack fit, of hoof care, of speed and feed, that we forget to cast our hearts over the horizon and ride to find them.
And so, our hearts are simply lost.
I was recently gifted another chance. Two weeks after our race at Owyhee Fandango, Consolation tied up. It was my fault; I cut her grain ration while she vacationed post-race, but I should have eliminated it entirely. The excess carbohydrate crashed her system only a few minutes into our first warm-up as we started back to work — and the result was a month of no work at all.
Disaster! Disappointment! The angry slap of goals thwarted again. Again. Again! All the things of which my little neighbor is innocent, because she knows things that matter more.
Consolation is back at work now. (Forgive me — back at play!) Today we trotted through the world, all shifting skies and wind abluster, and I smiled to think of that little girl and her shambles of a pony. I may have better horses than hers, better tack, better technique. But she has something better still.
She has, in full measure, that which I clasp like water in my hands: The sunshine sense that a horse — any horse! — is spun of purest joy. And to have one of your own? Such is heaven, most of all.
You might also like Timing Isn’t Everything.
This is the horse I will ride this year. You know her already. I call her Consolation.
Many of you have commented on Consolation’s name — how appropriate it is to our journey, how you read it as Constellation for weeks, how it is strange and somehow perfect.
Well. The truth is that she was originally registered under another name. I changed it — registry and all — to suit the circumstances of the time. Yet even I have been surprised by how thoroughly this powerful mare has lived up to her gentle name. This is our story.
Consolation was born a very dark black-bay with an odd star on her forehead in the shape of her native state. Being a filly by Arivaca out of Dove, she was christened Idaho Dove. I first saw her as a two-year-old, one of the most awkward in the herd, when her coat was greying in patches and her star had faded like Venus into daybreak.
Among the other fillies — the blacks, the chestnuts, the grullas and buckskins and bays — she stood out, but not for anything good. I knew her bloodlines were strong, but was not impressed with the gangling beast I saw. The others were rounder, brighter, altogether lovelier.
This was in the fields of Quien Sabe, where I worked weekends for a year and lived for several months with the goal of training to take over care of the Barb preservation project as its founder aged. Moving to the ranch had been a lifetime decision involving the sale of my house in town and sacrifice of a decent job, but it was a dream the likes of which few people ever have opportunity to chase.
Chase it I did, but it got away. Relationships aren’t always what we’d like them to be, and a few months at the ranch proved enough. It wasn’t going to work out. Sadly, painfully, I made the wrenching decision to return to life in the mainstream and leave the Barb project to its fate.
A few of the Barbs came with me. They were payment for labor completed, hours spent, hopes dashed. Insider and Tuetano, Acey and Sandstorm…and Idaho Dove. Though I had hand-picked most of the others, that gray filly was not one I’d have selected. But, she was a Barb with good bloodlines, and one of the few made available as payment. I accepted her — and re-named her Consolation.
She was, you see, a sparkle left behind when the meteor fell. A piece of Quien Sabe, beloved, carried home from battles lost. The scent of a lover, long abandoned, left upon clothing at the back of a drawer. I determined to cherish her, awkwardness and all.
But oh! As time passed and her belly grew round with the foal she carried, the rest of her body changed too. She transformed from a disorganized filly into a mare capable of stopping me in my tracks when I glanced up from farm work or from the window of my house. To this day, I find myself gazing at her, awed, stunned by her balanced proportions and regal carriage.
There is more. The part you already know. The part about the years of heart poured into dear Aaruba, molding him from a disturbed colt into a promising endurance prospect. The part about his battle with ulcers and chronic colic and, eventually, the devastating decision to retire him well before his prime.
But she was waiting, my Consolation. Waiting to occupy my mind and emotions with the challenges only a willful and intelligent mare can offer. Waiting for me to become who she needed, so she could do the same for me.
We finished a few races last year. Little triumphs, in the big scheme of things. Big triumphs, in our little sphere. And really, does anything else matter when you’re among horses? This is their gift to us — the shrinking down of all that matters. Here. Now. You. Me. There is no tomorrow. No one else. This is freedom, my friends. This is Consolation.
Want to read more posts like this one? Subscribe to The Barb Wire
Last November, I wrote a post outlining my goals for the 2009 ride season. They were ambitious but reasonable, focused on building my horses’ athletic foundations on plenty of moderately-paced miles. I remember sensing, as I gave the post a title perilously close to the famous words of Robert Burns, that my hopes for the year might be too high. I called it The Best Laid Plans.
Indeed, 2009 has proven a year of schemes gang aft agley.
One evening in March, mere hours after an exhilarating conditioning ride that left my nerves singing, I found Aaruba colicking in his paddock. Thus began a week-long ordeal that culminated in the wrenching decision to retire my young, talented partner — the horse with whom I’d bonded deeply over years of training — from the sport we both love.
I turned my attention to Consolation, believing that I could at least have her trained and fit for several races throughout the season. But it was slow going. Our relationship, never smooth, was further challenged by my grief over Aaruba. Switching from faithful Aaruba to willful, balky Consolation felt much like adopting a puppy too soon after Ol’ Jake dies in your arms. I struggled to remain patient, consistent, and hopeful for my new endurance prospect.
And then, just as it looked like Consolation and I would be ready for her first race in May, I tore my right hamstring in a bad fall. Ten weeks, said my physical therapist. Then maybe you can ride again. And so, hours in the saddle were replaced by hours of icing and stretching, coaxing my damaged muscles back to health. Finally, at the beginning of July, I was ready to mount up. The ride season was half over and Consolation remained green and unconditioned — but have you noticed that there’s never anywhere to start but here? We began again.
Meanwhile, however, other plates were shifting in my personal life, setting off earthquakes to distract me from my goals. Most of you have either been the one, or been close to someone, to walk into the courthouse and sign the papers that say we made a mistake or I’m not who you thought I was, or even I love you enough to let you go. You know that even when the attitude is amicable, it’s never easy.
No, never easy — but sometimes, it’s for the best.
One of my favorite things about endurance conditioning is that it gives a person plenty of time to think. Rhythmic hoofbeats, steady physical effort, open space and air. Endless trail spins spins out before us, mile on mile, freeing our minds to connect the dots in our lives, linking high points of pleasure and pain to form a picture worth posting on the walls of memory.
Life, after all, is not so different from endurance riding, at least for those willing to approach it with energy and enthusiasm. Most of the time, it’s full of fun and companionship, brilliant with adventure, a ceaseless exploration of what it means to be alive.
But there are hard times, too. Stone bruises. Tumbles. Training problems. Mistakes. Times when, despite our best efforts, the trail just seems too long. Sometimes, the last twelve miles are almost more than we can bear. And yet, we keep going because we know the loop will end and when we finish, friends will be waiting to clap and cheer and throw their arms over our shoulders, press energy bars into our hands, to ask us how it went and what we learned.
And because the race was hard, we will have something to tell them.
Endurance is about pressing on when it would be easier to quit, when there’s nothing to make you finish but sheer commitment and the knowledge that you will only be satisfied with yourself when you’ve done your best, and a little more, and even more than that — whatever it takes to do what you promised. It’s about remembering, when the trail seems endless and your knees ache and you swear you’ll never do this again, that most of the ride is about speed and breath and bonding, spectacular vistas, thrill and timing, glistening sweat and pain that serve to sweeten the evening’s rest.
Ultimately, who wants to get to the end of the trail without a story to tell? If it wasn’t a challenge, it wouldn’t be endurance. It wouldn’t be life. I, for one, am determined to embrace the hard times. Without them, I wouldn’t know what triumph really is.
Photo by East End Portrait Photography
Want to read more posts like this one? Subscribe to The Barb Wire