Monday, June 2, 2008

First Love

I’ve been in kind of a horse crazy stupor lately. Madeline and I recently paid a visit to the mounted police headquarters with our homeschool group where we both delighted in feeding carrots to massive, beautiful Percheron-Thoroughbred crosses. Madeline giggled when their velvety muzzles tickled the palm of her hand as she offered them carrots. My fearless little girl approached one of the beautiful beasts and I found myself holding my breath, despite my horse history, as I watched her small hand pat a muscled neck.

The sweet smell of hay mingled with manure (yes, I love that smell; that’s how you know I’m a horse person) were almost too much for me. Standing in that damp stable surrounded by the familiar smells, I was gripped by a consuming nostalgia. When the officer leading our tour mentioned they had a horse for sale – a reject of the training program but a wonderful animal that would make “a fine show horse” (his words) – I had to remind myself of the million reasons why riding now just doesn’t make sense. We’re on a tight budget. We live in a city for goodness’ sake. And it’s not like I need something else – an all-consuming hobby, no less – in my life. I already have way too many interests as it is (exercising, reading, writing, theatre, blogging, journaling, singing, reading food mags and trying out new recipes, emailing and writing old-fashioned letters, to name a few).

Still, I can’t stop the obsession from taking a hold of me. And it is an obsession. Once you fall in love with the beauty of a horse and feeling the rhythm of its powerful body thunder beneath you, there’s no turning back. So I’ve been sharing stories of my riding days with Madeline, who appears to be a bit horse crazy herself. (It will be interesting to see if this is just a passing phase - any number of girls love horses at some point – or an unrelenting fixation as it was in my case.)I’ve been flipping through my old photo albums, looking at pictures of my first love – Sunny, my beloved Quarter horse – through teary eyes. One of my favorite photos of us is tucked away in a junk drawer that holds numerous snips of sentiment, everything but junk. I can’t stop stealing glances at it - a tattered photo of a gawky 14-year-old proudly holding a prize ribbon up for the photographer (my dad, I think) and broadly smiling despite a mouth full of braces.

Although it’s been years since I’ve ridden a horse, horses were at the center of my childhood. While other little girls were playing Barbie, I was painting red and white stripes on chopsticks transforming them into jumping poles to create an elaborate course for my Breyer horse models to maneuver. I had horse t-shirts, horse stuffed animals and horse books. I think I even had panties imprinted with galloping steeds. I took the label “horse crazy” to an extreme.

For me, the love of horses was not just about the riding. It was about the overall care of a horse – the brushing of coats, the meticulous cleaning of hooves and the braiding manes and tails. Long before I’d even begun to think about motherhood, I had something to take care of, a living creature to look after.

As a highly imaginative child, I was also drawn to horses’ mystic, almost magical quality. When I was still too young to even spell the word “horse,” I remember seeing a pony with a coat like the copper of a penny at a small fair. While others stopped only momentarily to watch it swish away buzzing flies with its long tail, I was mesmerized. To me the pony was nothing less than Pegasus. My parents let me ride the pint-sized equine and though he loped around the ring barely lifting his hooves off the dust, I somehow felt like I was flying. Even on the sluggish, little beast, being removed from the ground, off of my two feet, unleashed something inside of me, something free and full of hope.

When I turned 6, my parents were beginning to see my passion for horses was more than just a fleeting fantasy and let me take riding lessons. Like the stable’s other riding novices, I began my equestrian training on Shadow, a beefy Appaloosa with a coat like a white canvas splattered with black ink droplets. My feverish excitement of being on top of a horse was tempered by his dull lassitude. The gentle gelding was no Secretariat, but he was predictable – just what a beginner needed.

Once I sharpened my equestrian skills, I graduated to a larger and feistier horse – King Rex – a massive animal with racing Thoroughbred in his bloodlines. Rex offered more excitement. He had an innate competitiveness, and we would secretly race the other school horses until my trainer’s cautionary words, “Katie and Rex, slow down.” We would oblige but always felt restrained. We both wanted to run, to become part of the wind.

Although I grew to love the schooling horses, something was missing. The bonding wasn’t complete.

I wanted a horse I could call my own.

When I was only 10, my wish came true. (I was one lucky kid.) My parents surprised me with a golden Palomino. I named him Sunny and to say I was in love with him is an understatement. I was obsessed with him. If the pony from the fair was Pegasus, then Sunny and I were a centaur.

Not surprisingly, my love for horses was, at times, seen as overzealous. On the school bus, boys would sneer and whinny at me, clad in my horsy fashions and stomp their Nikes like hooves.

But their mockery could not keep me from first love. Instead it made me seek solitude on a horse even more. I wanted to ride Sunny all day, every day. And while might argue that horses are peanut-brained animals dedicated to exertion and incapable of love, mine was not an unrequited love. I knew it. I felt it. Like a loyal dog, he came when I called. During lazy trail rides, he allowed me to stand on his back and spring off it like a diving board into a lake. He nuzzled me when I needed to be touched. When I was in the throes of teenage angst (it really wasn't all that dramatic; I actually had a fairly placid adolescence), he would stand stone-still as I sat on his bareback, buried my nose into his mane and let the tears spill out. I could smell his sweet, earthy aroma, and I would lose myself - at least for awhile. I’d forget about the teasing – the boys calling me “horsy girl.” I’d forget about the part of me that longed to be beautiful and popular like the other girls. I'd forget about the growing conflict going on inside me - the need to be a child versus the desire to be an adult.

Sadly, like so many first loves, my affection for Sunny began to slowly fade. My chubby torso slimmed. I got breasts. I got rid of my braces. The same boys who had called me “horsy girl” were now asking me out on dates. Feeding carrots to horses was replaced with searching for the perfect prom dress. Weekend trail rides were replaced with dates. A boy-crazy teenager took the place of horsy girl. Sunny was left to grazing in the pasture as I became absorbed in adolescence.

Before I left for college, I made the decision to sell Sunny. I didn’t even say goodbye. How could I? It’s rare a girl on the brink of becoming a woman has a chance – an exact moment – to give valediction to her youth. I don’t think I wanted to face the finality of it all.

Joyce Carol Oates wrote that “there is no other love like the love for your first horse, but that love is so easy to forget, or misplace; it’s like the love for yourself, the self you outgrow.”

But I haven’t forgotten my first love. Just seeing a horse now stirs something inside of me, a longing for the youth I so desperately wanted to rid myself of. There are days when I want Sunny back. I want to smell his sweet, horse smell. I want to feel the cadence of resounding hooves beneath me as we gallop across an open field. I want the feeling of possibility and adventure I experienced when I was with him. I long for the horse and that self I’ve somehow outgrown. The spirited, carefree self, the innocence of youth that I can now so clearly see in my oldest daughter.

“What age?” Madeline recently asked during a recent conversation about horseback riding.

“What age can you start riding?” I clarified.


“Four, but Mommy didn’t start until she was six.”

Silence. That will seem like a lifetime to a 3-year-old, but who knows if horses will still captivate her by then? Other interests could easily replace her obsession with horses. In some ways, I hope this is only a fleeting fancy. When I saw her stand by those massive police horses, I couldn’t help but be a bit nervous. I realized how much trust my parents put in me, my trainer, the horse and even God to allow a peanut like me to hop on top of a huge, powerful and let’s face it, sometimes unpredictable animal.

Wherever her interests someday lie, I do hope she won’t be in such a hurry to grow up and shed herself of whatever her first love proves to be – horses, Little House on the Prairie books, singing and dancing without abandon or concern for her audience…

I’ve done plenty of things that make me feel independent in the "adult world" I was so eager to embrace. It would be easy to disregard my love for horses and the carefree quality of my childhood. But catching a glimpse of the photo of me smiling beside a beautiful animal of God’s creation, not worrying about my appearance (how could I? I smelled like horse manure and had hay in my hair) or money or an impressive career, and now seeing my own children and their wonderment and innocence, is like holding onto a part of my once-forgotten youth and I don't plan on letting go of it again any time soon.

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