Life Happens: The Unplanned Dismount

“I owned horses for 20 years until divorce happened,” the reader said, asking me to write about it. “I think they are the only thing that kept me sane and leaving them was the hardest thing I have ever done.”

The reader said it was literally a matter of life or death. I believe her because isn’t that what it would take? Do you raise your voice with brassy bravado to say you would keep your horse no matter what? Well, bless you for the luck of your vantage point. May your life be a straight flat road.

It isn’t always as dramatic as a hostile divorce. An ordinary divorce is challenging enough. Lots of us take a short detour even earlier and we only see how far we’ve wandered in hindsight. We step away from horses to go to college. Maybe we join the military and have a gypsy life, never in one place long enough. Along the way, we fall in love and have a baby thinking it won’t change a thing, and then one or two more brilliant, beautiful children, and a decade has run past. Lots of us live in town and would need to board our horses, which ends up being practically a second mortgage payment. As if that first mortgage payment was easy, but we have a plan for an eventual horse, even as the distance grows.

Some of us are blessed with a career we are passionate about but it requires long hours and a few years to establish ourselves. We take the strength and focus that we learned from horses into our work, maneuvering our way over obstacles, and keeping our eyes on the horizon. We are aware of the personal price we pay, but like a good workhorse, we get the job done because we know the satisfaction that comes with making a difference. There is a price to be paid for birthing any dream.

Sometimes the separation happens later in life when, at a certain age, the impracticality catches up with us. Horses have always had an edge of danger, but people depend on us now. Horses carry the burden of our lost youth but we won’t let go. Then it’s our turn to care for our parents or maybe it’s our own health that needs our attention. Some of us were born loving horses but never even had a chance as a kid and now the dream of a pony is just a small splinter that got under our skin but we never managed to pull it out. Now there is a hard lump of callus, a rock of pain and hope just under the skin, as true as a scar but without the initial injury.

We are no more in control of our lives than we can defy gravity. Maybe the hold horses have on us is that temporary possibility of flight.

Horse-crazy girls all start with the same plan. We know we’ll have horses forever. We’ll never give them up. Then life happens and we take detours, we build lives and we help others. We are indispensable in the world for all the best reasons, but we might get bucked off horse ownership along the way, no matter how hard we fight it. What then?

It takes a while to figure out that pain is equal to how much we cared, and then we’re grateful in a bittersweet way for the gaping hole in our hearts that lets pain wash through us. We’re tougher than most, so when the wound starts to heal, we tear the scab off. We look at old photos. We slow the car while passing horse pastures, and if it’s spring and foals are landing, we just pull off the road entirely and let the pain and love wash over in equal measure. We can’t do this alone, so we take in a couple of elderly stinky rescue dogs and a one-eyed cat who’s a mouser. They sleep next to us on the couch while we watch the same horse movies we’ve watched a hundred times, bleary-eyed and hungover for days after. Sometimes late at night, slouched in a hoodie with a glass of whiskey, we ride the internet, looking at videos of competitions and horses for sale. There is sweetness that horses exist in this world, whether we own them or not.

We tell ourselves it’s better to have loved and lost, loved and never had a horse at all, than to give up that sharp rock of a dream. After all, the dream of a ride and a memory of one reside in the same place, remarkably close at hand, and on the hard days, you can close your eyes and feel yourself be carried through. Some obstacles are jumped and some, we must outrun. We are born predators but still prey to the experiences of life. We’re only human in the end, but the addiction to a notion of freedom, first borrowed from horses, has become our own. We can stop being victims of what we lack and rise to gallop at the sun. Our gaits might be arthritic or ungainly, with scars that are visible and scars that still cut deep inside, but we are also invincible.

Some of us find a way to circle back and find horses at another time in our lives and some don’t. Either way, there comes a time we understand that not having a horse doesn’t stop us from being a horseperson at all, a reality is as freeing as a gravity-defying gallop on the beach.

There is a call to arms, disguised as an adage, that when you get bucked off a horse, you climb right back on. It isn’t about punishing a terrified horse or showing some caricature of woeful dominance. It’s about the bigger picture in life; it means we aren’t quitters. We get back up because we’re strong enough to believe in second chances.

[The Back in the Saddle, a Comeback Conversation course is starting in a week in our Barn School. It’s for humans getting back to horses, horses coming back from time off or rescue, or anyone looking to start over in an affirmative way.]

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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51 thoughts on “Life Happens: The Unplanned Dismount”

  1. So happy to read your voice again! Your words continue to inspire me – I occasionally catch a whiff of the aromas of horses with the freedom they brought, and I still have a beautiful saddle in my den to remind me to get back on when I fall off.
    Only now, my 18 month old granddaughter is learning the importance of holding on to the horn.
    Glad you are staying safe and well.

  2. This. This is it and who we are. What a perfect distillation, crafted from pain and love and dusted off breeches. Talk about getting it.

  3. This is so affirmative! There are so many ways to get back on the horse, and you don’t even have to “own” a horse to do that (whatever that concept means…my horses actually own me, but hey/hay). This is just telling us to stay open and listen to our hearts, and let our lives unfold based on that. So important!

  4. Beautiful piece! I have been able to *pay it forward* with my goddaughter. After a 40 year gap in having my own horse, once I retired I made sure that we moved to a place where I could keep one (or two, or three) once again. It was one of my great regrets in life that I did not have a child to share my love of horses with. When my goddaughter was born, I got my wish. She was barely able to walk when she first sat on my horse. She’s now 17, working in a lovely barn where the horses are more important than the ribbons that she won at her first barn experience. She dreams of being a trainer that helps kids and horses in need. We emphasize that she needs to finish her education to fulfill that dream, but I sure hope she doesn’t have to experience the forty year gap that I had. We are horse people!

  5. Thank you for this timely article, Anna. I’ve mountain trail ridden for years, some days were 8 to 10 hours long. Now, as I hold onto the wonderful memories of those rides and campouts, I just do local riding in the foothills. This past winter was a long one without much riding because of cold, wet, snowy weather. Yesterday was warm and sunny so I decided to do a nice 3 hour ride. I was so seized up I didn’t think I could get off my horse. The reality of my advancing age (76) and the physical limits I now have really hit me for the first time. I realized I need to remain diligent about working out to stay in shape so I can ride for as long as possible. I also realized there will be an end to this trail I’ve been on for so many years. I feel blessed I have so many wonderful memories horses have given me and look forward to spending many more years with them, if not in the saddle, then on the ground volunteering at a local organization , SAFE, who rescues and rehabilitate horses. Horses are in my soul, they always have been.

  6. AMEN!!!!!
    Horse crazy kid whose parents were afraid I’d get hurt or lose interest – ha!!! Til the day she died, my mother was always on my back to “get rid of” the horses… Even the ex-husband knew better than to suggest such a thing! Got rid of HIM instead. Had a doctor make a comment about my physical issues resulting from the association with horses – “think somebody’s trying to tell you something?” People who REALLY know me, know better than to suggest I part with them. Nope!

    • It’s the way that the visible loss can be easier to define than the advantages that are so huge that they dwarf our physical bodies. Thanks, Leslie

      • Just watched the last video of your Back in the Saddle-Comeback Conversation. What a great group & super conversation. Had no idea! Will make a point of watching more. Just like coming home (to the barn, that is)
        Thanks so much Anna

  7. I can’t love this enough. And for those who have grudgingly had to move on for awhile, please know that the best horse I have is the foster who came here as the result of a sad and tragic dismount from ownership. I’ll always hope his former owner can find her way back to riding someday. She certainly raised this boy right. My hat is off to her for the outstanding job she did as his former owner and for the maturity and bravery she showed when she had to move on. I’m three times her age and I don’t know if I could have done that or made the sacrifices she made. Respect.

  8. “Either way, there comes a time we understand that not having a horse doesn’t stop us from being a horseperson at all, a reality is as freeing as a gravity-defying gallop on the beach.”

    Yep. Thanks for this one Anna…:-)

  9. Whether in the past, present or future, whether in the saddle or on the ground, to be sure they have saved each of us. Thank you, Anna.

  10. Wow, just read all the comments here and am so impressed with all these amazing horsewomen responding to your essay today ! You clearly articulated something very powerful.

    I am so fortunate that I decided to circle back after a 30 year hiatus from horses!! It’s been a tough journey in some ways but wouldn’t trade it for anything. When I think about the time when Zen Bear and Cash will be gone, a bleak, cold wind blows through my innards….

    • Can’t imagine you without them… Thanks Sarah. I am constantly impressed and inspired by the horse owners I know.

  11. Thank you for these beautiful words; they brought tears to my eyes. I am one of the lucky ones, who learned to ride a horse before I rode a bike. I had to take a brief hiatus from horses during my 20s and again after a riding accident, which could have killed me. As soon as I was cleared by my doctor, I was back on again. I tell people all the time that horses are a sweet sickness that is only really understood by the afflicted. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  12. oh goodness Anna I love how this speaks to me! and to so many others from the comments. what a wonderful horse sick bunch of girls we are! i will be reading this again and again and again !! might even have to do the old fashioned thing of printing it off!! thank you

  13. Wow Anna, just wow! How you were able to distill this line of thought into literary perfection, is unfathomable, and timely. I thought about “the dismount” this morning when I saw my ancient horse lying completely still on the snow outside his stall shortly after his morning mush was served. I thought “I can’t lose anymore precious souls, I think I’m done”, but the idea of being done directed my mind to recall the treasure of rich experiences they all have shared with me. They have shaped me, they have shaped my life. I’m not done. Happy ending: the twitch of an ear, a labored rise to standing, and return to morning feed has left old Hawkeye to add a bit more to his story.

    • I hear you. Having one near the edge is excruciating. Have an old dog falling down lately and I hate it. But what else would I do? Best wishes to you and Hawkeye.

  14. This beautiful piece of writing reminds me of so many thoughts I’ve had about horses in my life for the last 16 years. I remember, during a lesson on my aging horse, asking if he thought I was
    too old to get another horse. He said he thought not because I was a lot like the horse I was riding, I would just keep on going. Of course, there are a lot of things that can happen, but I have been riding my new, wonderful horse for five years. I am now 74, and my old guy is 33. Despite two strokes and being blind, he is still with us, and still seems to enjoy life. I hope that we both keep “keeping on” as long as we can.

  15. What a beautiful, heartfelt piece of writing Anna. As with so many others, it sums me up perfectly.
    Horse-mad from the very beginning, I learned to ride as a child. Spent a few years begging (and sometimes ‘borrowing’)rides off anyone, on anything. I then married my childhood sweetheart, had 4 children and spent 27 horseless years having a wonderful time with my family. Bringing up my children has been fulfilling and amazing, but the yearning has remained, always.
    The need to feel the warmth of a horses’ breath, the need to lean in and inhale the smell of his skin, the need to be near a horse, any horse.
    4 years ago my amazing husband decided he’d had enough of me getting teary-eyed whenever I saw, read about or even thought of horses. He bought my daughter and myself a little piebald cob whom we adore. The day he arrived I felt like all my Christmases and birthdays had come at once! I know I’m incredibly lucky to have my own horse. I pinch myself every day, and I will never take him for granted. To be touched by horses is a special thing. To live a life like this, is indeed a gift.

  16. Anna,
    I’m 64 years old, a lawyer, supposed to be the strong one – always the adult in the room. I left my horse, my friend, my love, close on a half century ago for graduate school. The hole in my heart never really healed. I’m writing this comment with tears in my eyes after reading your essay. Just 2 months ago, my wife and I brought a rescue horse back into our lives. She was less fortunate than I in that she never had the chance as a little girl to own a horse, and has wanted one forever. Now I watch the two of them bond with more happiness than I’ve felt in a long time. And after the larger fraction of a lifetime, I’m reading and dreaming about horses again. Please keep believing in and writing about the mystical bond between humans and horses – you have a gift.

    • Oh my heart, this makes me so happy. What a wonderful comment. Not sure who I am the happiest for… it might be the horse. But just wow. Thanks for commenting, and I hope we’ll hear from you again.


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