You could tell it was the 1980’s because I’d done something with my hair that made me look like a Portuguese Water Dog. A permanent wave to posterity.
I was in a laundromat washing horse blankets. I wasn’t trying to save the mess at home. I didn’t have a washer. So, two horses in a boarding barn but no washing machine. That sounds about right.
The place was empty except for a little boy who stared at me while his mom folded clothes from a dryer. He’d peer over at me and then pretend he wasn’t looking when I made eye contact. Just as I was picking up to go, he asked his mom, “Is she a cowboy girl?”
I tried to look cool, buckles dangling from an armload of blankets, as I wedged the door open with my foot. Backing my way out, I gave him a crooked salute and a toothy smile. It was a great guess; I didn’t dress like Dale Evans. Besides, I’d take any acknowledgment I could get.
Back then, I didn’t fit in and I was too mad to even try. I felt like a fringe dweller in my own species. Back then, I got defensive when people suggested that horses were a phase I was going through. Ends up that they were right that I was in a phase; just not the one they thought.
Do you know Proud Spirit Horse Sanctuary? I was in Georgia last week and I wrangled an invitation. It wasn’t hard; Melanie Sue Bowles and I have been online friends but after meeting her, I think we’re twin daughters from different mares. She and her husband Jim have run the sanctuary for decades. There’s a large mixed herd of horses, a handful of longears, a quirky pack of dogs, and Mimi and Nina, a charming pair of pigs. Sanctuaries aren’t like other horse facilities.
In this age of superlatives, overstatement is the rule, so I’ll just draw a sketch. It’s a large piece of property with stands of trees and rolling meadows. The horses are shiny and well fed. Their health is maintained but there are no adoptions; this is a herd for life. They are not “owned” by human expectation but instead live as naturally as a domesticated herd can. It isn’t entirely flattering to see how well they do without our overt influence.
There was palpable peace among these horses, many abused and neglected previously. Driving through the pastures, many of the horses don’t bother to look up. It dawns on me that this is what it really means to be accepted by the herd.
Home finally from my last clinic trip of the year, I got up early, anxious to be with my own herd. I was privileged to muck, build fence, and bake pies, all in the same day. I have a washer now but not much else has changed. More horses but that sounds about right, too.
But a Thanksgiving sunset like this one stops time. It gives you pause to do the math. I’ve traveled to seventeen barns this year, teaching what I know, but more than that, being given the opportunity to work with an incredible extended herd of horses. At 63, I’m on a huge learning curve. How can that even be possible?
I’ve been blessed (a ridiculous understatement) to meet an exceptional group of women. Founders and volunteers at therapeutic riding programs who have a deep understanding of how hard their horses work. Veterinarians and bodyworkers and trainers who do rehab and retraining, patiently bringing horses back from the worst experiences with humans. And everyday horse lovers who really, no really, just want the best for their horses. Each person, a horsewoman in the finest sense of the word. You all make me proud, standing on my little farm and remembering my crazy luck this year.
I guess in hindsight, it was a phase I was in, one that started out feeling like the fringe. The thing I never expected was that loving animals would circle back and reintroduce me to a better version of my own species. And there’s nothing unique about me.
There’s a whole world of us. We’re grown-up horse crazy girls; we’ve gained some power and vision. Our voices carry on the wind to the far side of the planet. We understand the meaning of collaboration. We learned it from mares, but one day at a time, we’re changing the world. Take a breath and snug your hats, my friends. We’ve only started.
My gratitude is like a prairie sunset. Beyond words, but the photo above sums it up.
Then last night at our annual used pie exchange, people were telling great stories about being told they smelled like horses but being more proud than embarrassed. After breaking my nose a couple of times, I wouldn’t know if I carried that odor with me. Then the Dude Rancher noted that if someone had smoked one cigarette, I’d sure notice that. Too right.
It all came together under the stars during the late-night feed. These days I hang out in more airports than laundromats. I’m usually working with a horse and rider until the last minute. Then we trot to the car and head straight to the airport with no time to spare. I change into Crocs, put my boots into my checked bag, and head to my gate.
This last flight home, I was seated beside an older gentleman. He was reading a Jack Reacher book. I tried to make polite small talk as I passed to the window seat. He seemed a bit put off by me but I hide in books sometimes, too. I took the hint and spent the flight scribbling out a poem and working on a halter design.
Thinking back now, I wonder if my Cowboy Girl perfume offended him. Nothing’s changed; I’m still so grateful for horses in my life that I’ll take it as a compliment.