by Amy Hudock
I climb into the saddle from the mounting platform usually used by children in wheelchairs. I settle in, pick up the reins, set the cast on my arm straight, and ask for forward. The motion of the horse starts a glittering splash of hormones and chemicals and vibrations. My hands become stiff and ungiving. My legs tighten despite my brain ordering them to relax. Adrenaline heightens my senses, and I feel my horse underneath me, a coiled spring wound tight, dangerously close to expanding. I want get off this horse, to run away, to do anything to save myself. I fear him like I’d be afraid of a man pointing a gun in my face.
But I breathe. I imagine the feeling of riding Replay when everything is going right. I let that crazy irrational head-over-heels love I feel for him push the fear to the side. I picture him as a baby foal, unsure and scared himself, on wobbly legs. I know he was badly abused and rescued from that violence only two years before. I know he doesn’t trust easily. I know the fear that is inside me is also inside him. Relax. I force myself to soften my hands. To breathe. To loosen up. He relaxes a bit, too.
Since Replay bucked me off and I broke my arm in two places, I haven’t really ridden. At 46 years old, I don’t heal like I once did. And since this arm was broken in the same places before, I have limited use of it. I've become one of the handicapped. I’ve sat on my horse like a child going on her first pony ride, led around by a rope. I envy my children who jump on horses around me without a thought. A child doesn’t yet know how the reins can jerk from your fingers. How out of control you can feel as a horse runs and spins and bucks and falls. How the dust tastes as you try to push yourself up from the ground. How it hurts to know the horse you love is injured and can’t be ridden again and it’s your fault.
I know how it feels.
But the need to ride is stronger than the fear. I get up there anyways. We walk over to my instructor, Lindsey Loppnow, who is giving a lesson to my daughter and step-daughter. We stand next to her, Replay and I. Him quivering. Me deep breathing. And I see him inch toward her. Put his head against her shoulder. More of the tension goes out of his muscles and some of the quivering slows. She has been riding him for me since the accident, training him – two, three times a week. I feel like my child has just run to the babysitter for comfort instead of me. My stomach hurts, and I feel like crying.
I have tried so hard to be that person for him. I spent the summer just sitting with him, letting him feel my presence when I ask nothing from him. I’ve worked him in circles around me –walk, trot, canter. We did Parelli. We did all kinds of things. Before he bucked me off and I broke my arm, I was riding him four or five times a week, trying so hard to learn a new discipline, dressage, so that I could speak his language and learn all his buttons. I’ve been patient with him, trying, trying, trying to get him to love me enough to trust me. I know now that Lindsey has succeeded where I failed. My wrist aches, and I look down at my cast. I want to tear it off.
I am not the rider Lindsey is. She approaches Replay with confidence. I’ve been running scared – my past riding accidents have weighed on me. I was worried I would not be able to earn his trust, or him mine, and my fear kept it that way. Lindsey has no such fear. At 23-years-old, she is clearly one of the better riders I have seen – and the most brave.
I’ve seen her hold on to a halter when a horse has pulled her from the ground, jump on a nearly out-of-control rearing horse, and ride a Belgium draft horse bareback through water as that horse fought her the whole way. She is currently training a dangerous out-of-control horse who spun her around like a top with the line, knocking the wind out of her and leaving her on the ground gasping. As soon as she could talk, she said, “Bring . . . me . . . that . . . horse.” And she proceeded to work him in circles until he was exhausted. I’ve seen enough to trust her with my horses, my own safety, and even my children. I know she is an amazing young woman.
As Replay leans against her, she reaches up to rub his face, and I see that she loves him, too. She has been a student of my husband's, a student of mine. She rents my old house, the one I left when I got married. Our children adore her, and look up to her. She teaches them weekly what it means to have character and strength, how to become better riders and better people. I love her like a younger sister. I can't begrudge her my horse.
We start talking about Replay, his training, his readiness to take on what he needs to do for our family. We have four riders in the family, two aged 9 and 10. My daughter, Sarah, had tried to ride Replay earlier. Lindsey thought the training had been going well enough, and he was ready, but Replay surprised her. He did not take the change in riders well. When Lindsey got off and Sarah got on, he became nervous, flighty. He tossed his head. And as they tried to do a lesson, he clearly became more agitated. Lindsey ended this experiment before anyone got hurt. But it suggested, again, that Replay may not be a safe horse for children. And maybe even not for me.
“Lindsey, do you think Replay will ever be safe for the children, for me?”
She looks relieved that I finally brought it up.
“I didn’t want to say anything because I know how much you love him. But, no, I don’t. I’m sorry to have to say this, but I don’t.”
“I brought it up. Don’t worry about it. I need to hear it.” I hold back the tears again.
“Don’t cry. Please don’t cry. I didn’t want to make you cry.” She starts to cry, too.
“No, it’s ok. I just love him so much. And I don’t know what to do. I can’t keep paying board on a horse that none of us can ride, or even, with training, just me. I can’t do that. It’s not fair. I can’t spend our money that way.”
“We can put him up for sale, and you can get another horse.”
“But I don’t want to put him up for sale. What would happen to him? What if someone else bought him and then decided they didn’t want him? If he pulls this stuff again, he could end up . . . you know, dog meat. I can’t let that happen.”
Lindsey stands there. Thinking. Clearly wanting to propose something that she is afraid to say. I wait.
“What if we trade? I give you my lesson horse Lily, and you give me Replay? I could keep training him, and he could end up a good show horse. I'll find him a great home. What do you think? . . . Maybe?”
It hurts to say it. I don’t want to, but I say it anyway.
“Yeah. Something like that. That would be better.”
I pat Replay and think how being a mom is much like owning a horse. Sometimes it’s all about the letting go.
From the August 2011 issue of EQUUS..