What’s Love Got To Do With It? [Horse Version]

We love horses. We love to say it loud and proud. We love the ones we grew up with and the ones in stories that we only dreamed of. Famous horses, of course, but we love the ones our friends own and the ones we drive by. We love them when they are alive and when they are dead. We declare our love as if it is an extreme achievement. We repeat it as if anyone who knew us could doubt it. We say it as if it proves we are a rare breed. It’s always been that way. We love our romance with horses.

What’s love got to do, got to do with it?
Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?  (Tina sang it. T.Britten/G.Lyle/G.H.Lyle wrote it.)

Let that little earworm crawl in because I can’t be the only one who has noticed love doesn’t always work out. Love can be fickle and insecure and it can evaporate. You’d think that love meant happily-ever-after the way we act. You’d think loving horses was a fairy tale.

I want to write about those among us who are maybe a little more experienced at loving horses. Or humans for that matter. Those who walk it out more than talk about it because our rose-colored glasses were lost in the manure years ago. Stoic horse people who don’t post selfies or talk about mystical experiences. It isn’t that we take loving our horses for granted. It’s the opposite. We’ve spent enough money on an undiagnosable condition on an unrideable horse to put a kid through college. And the money is the easy part.

Over at our Barn School, we have an event called Happy Hour, a name that has become an inside joke. Last spring, we did a roundtable discussion on Lameness. There was so much interest and expertise that we did two sessions. We had no shortage of experience and each person did a seriously impressive job. I can’t get it out of my head, but not just because of the incredible journeys that people shared, the techniques that worked for them, the lengths they had gone to, and current scientific studies and the alternative possibilities. I moderated the sessions but had a tough time focusing on the information shared.

I’m knocked back in awe by the actions of these women. There was nothing poetic, no magic, no whining. Everyone was in it for their horse, come hell and high water. We’re women who have seen a bit too much sun and don’t care about impressing anyone. If someone we loved got in a spot, we would lean in to help, offering all we could spare. We’re dependable to a fault; we keep our word and see it through even when the romance has dulled and the unspoken promise has been broken. We’ve gained prudence, a skill few of us wanted.

I can’t call the resignation and endurance that each horse owner wore on their face any kind of classic beauty, but I couldn’t look away. Each was spellbinding, simultaneously circumspect and uplifting, with a life-worn glow that felt trustworthy. It was something truer than love.

How do we always manage to forget how fragile these huge beasts are? If I were the ungrateful sort, I’d list things to hate about horses. You could hate their frail digestive systems. You could hate the poor design of small hooves for big bodies and the Bermuda Triangle of their stifle area. It’s fair to hate them for not living longer and for having less complicated lives than us. All that and still it can’t ruin the feel of their stride rising through the saddle all the way to sky; the rhythm of seamless movement between a horse and rider, if only we can allow them to move. If only we can let go.

When I was younger and smarter, I saw marriages that didn’t fit my ideal. I swore I would never submit to less than my dream, but now I know how it happens, just a day at a time. It’s what it means to have a barn filled with unrideable horses. Our fathers would have sent the horses to slaughter years ago but we keep them. We don’t have the heart for divorce. We’re committed and we don’t need to be reminded that riding isn’t necessary. We know that, but it was still the promise we fell for. It was the dance we wanted to share, instead of the day-to-day watch of degenerative lameness, chronic conditions, or just the ordinary but brutal passage of time. Loving horses is a long-term relationship, for better or worse. We don’t like it, but we quietly find the courage to choose it, and there are more of us than you’d guess. I am so in love with who we have become.

At the Barn School, the conversation continues. Now that you have all the horses you can afford, none are rideable, and you are a gray mare of a certain age yourself, now what? Are you done riding without consent, but by default? Lots of us never did ride, not that it’s easier for them. What if you don’t want to be a cheerful railbird? Does the longing ever ease? Is there a thing beyond this love; A passion that would be as self-sustaining as the wind in a horse’s mane has always been? We are haunted by bittersweet memories of all that has come before, balanced against all that is unknowable in the future. The horses graze on, while we worry because none of the answers are easy.

It is simply the easiest thing to fall in love with horses. It takes no skill. But in the end, if you have done it right, love is always a blessing and a curse. Horse people wear that battered badge without pride. Living in limbo, we hold for a soft eye, even as we know our love guarantees nothing.

We are trapped and free at the same time. Kind of like horses.

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward, now scheduling 2022 clinics and barn visits. Information here.

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Anna Blake

41 thoughts on “What’s Love Got To Do With It? [Horse Version]”

  1. This hits SOOOOO close to home. I swore I’d never give my heart to another horse… having broken it too many times already, giving everything I thought I had to help my horses to be rideable and happy and never compromising on the latter for the sake of the former. And yet somehow here I am, about to make the commitment all over again, with a new spark of hope, because I just can’t stop loving them.

  2. “Stoic horse people who don’t post selfies or talk about mystical experiences … We’ve spent enough money on an undiagnosable condition on an unrideable horse to put a kid through college. And the money is the easy part.”
    Now that you have all the horses you can afford, none are rideable, and you are a gray mare of a certain age yourself, now what?”

    Tears are ever at the ready since Jake died but this one really got to me, Anna – laughing and crying with recognition. We are something, these Barnies… (drip)❤️

    • It’s funny, I was thinking of that little mare you took in when I was writing. You and so many others… I am in awe, laughing and crying along with you. Thanks, Kaylene.

  3. Oh yes, Anna, that and much more.
    All truths. I think as we all become ‘old mares’, we care even
    more for our little herds.
    And is there even one night during which we don’t worry?

    Horses carry our spirits with them.

    We are truly trapped and free. Perhaps that is why we love them so much.

  4. Anna, Thank you for this love letter to us, the ones who’ve “gained prudence, a skill few of us wanted.” I no longer have a horse and have chosen to take a probably permanent break from horses due to serious injuries and family responsibilities. When you wrote, “does the longing ever cease?” I can tell you, (though you already know) that it is still so deep in me that I cry anytime I talk about it. How to describe the satisfaction of looking into a freshly bedded stall? Or the bliss of handgrazing at night under a full moon with fireflies winking and the smell of honeysuckle? Or the sense of competence after soaking and carefully wrapping an abcessed hoof? We are indeed a tough, complicated, bittersweet and beautiful group of women. Thanks for celebrating us.

    • Thanks, Karen. It was meant as a love letter to, just as you say, tough, complicated, bittersweet and beautiful women. Beautiful bittersweet comment.

    • Or the last night when he feels so bad & rests his head against you – and you know the next day will be the end of such a beautiful life & the 16 years you spent with him. No – twenty years after that night – still the absolute longing for the smell, the feel, the sound of chewing (what is there about that sound?) No one other than all of us here understands – I’m not sure I truly understand the feeling, the longing as Anna says. Oh boy, the tears this morning!!

  5. Nothing like waking up in the morning and seeing yourself laid out in print. Kind of hard to avoid the cliche – it’s tribal.

  6. Ah Anna! Yet another which tugs at my heartstrings. Thank you.

    It’s another which I will read to my hubby with feeling when things settle down later, hoping to communicate that there ARE other horse crazed women of a certain age ::ahem:: who are my kindred spirits.

    But for now, it’s off to sit on my walker and hold things in place while my husband installs a second set of gates in hopes of keeping our 25yr old elder horse escape artist from escaping… again. I don’t think our solar charger is holding a charge well enough.

    I’m so glad our youngest is such a noisy tattletale and screams out her alerts. And that the elder guy stayed on the barn side of the stream. He never was one for steep banked water hazards, thank goodness!

    Also thankful our van is the right length to block the bridge over the stream when placed at the right angle.

  7. Love may not have much to do with it, but for me like your essays, it sure helps the chores go down easy. Thanks for this one, Anna!

  8. oh. made me cry more big fat tears. “trapped and free at the same time” . does the longing ever cease? not so far. i may just sob for the rest of the evening, and be eternally happy I have horses to sob about. And all the other things everyone else has said- especially the bit about being laid out in print!
    thanks Anna…….i guess.

  9. …and when all the love and months of trudging across frozen marshes to hand feed one’s too thin horse (who you know instinctively has something more serious underlying the weight loss regardless of what the vet says) doesn’t create the miracle you hope for… and you rage against your powerless love as you know you are going to lose the most important living creature in your life. And your horse manages to live through an early sunny Spring like a ghost but a happy ghost with his little herd.. then you find him lying in the hedge..as you have expected every new morning, but he still whinnies at your presence, waiting for you with that magnificent loyalty that only a horse has. So all that life was before will now change forever and you want to die with him but at the same time you need all your love to reassure him that he is free to go… he’s a good boy.. you love him forever. When my beloved horse Othello died in my arms two weeks ago the love and angst was as devastating as the extraordinary love I felt at the birth of my sons.. We are never ready for that love, we can only imagine it to prepare ourselves. Othello had a beautiful death.. in the early hours of the morning as the snow fell silently and one bird tried to sing and we shared our warm breath.. but finding that life force that we need to make sure the herd arent neglected while we mourn, and understanding their loss which may be greater than ours.. that requires something very (feminine ?) resiliant.

  10. This evening during chores, an old grey semi-retired ottb graced a (weary) old grey mare with a trifecta: well-timed lean into the feed room displaying hopeful treat-faces, impeding the progress of the wheelbarrow to suggest manure fork scratches, and best of all – not charging through a gate when the opening was nearly horse-sized. 🥰🥰🥰

  11. Thank you Anna, this about sums up my on-going until the day I die love affair with horses……heartbreaking and making my heart sing all at the same time 🐴💜

  12. We are trapped and free at the same time. Kind of like horses.

    Exactly this — and how unexpected to find this liberating.

  13. What ?!?! You don’t have the answer to this vexing dilemma ? Geez…

    Well, Anna, you knew I would love this as you have written my story, and many other horse women’s, too.

    Owning a rideable horse has come to seem like the Holy Grail. How did this happen ?? I am very lucky that my two are alive and breathing. Just being with them is indeed magic, but still have that longing to feel the motion of a horse underneath me.

    I guess I can quibble with you in another format about the word “love.” … seems to me love as a noun is indeed fickle and maybe a second hand emotion as you and Tina sing, but feels like love as a verb is the essence of what I am doing here.

    THANK YOU for writing about this hard business of unrideable horses, and I agree with what Cheri said, this is one of your very very best !

  14. Very touching in so many ways Anna. A tribute to all the horses & dogs I’ve loved, who have each taught me so much. A salute to my cousin who finally put her foundered mare down this week after 5 long months of trying & holding out hope that she would get better. A reminder to keep trying to find that true connection with Willy who is such an amazing horse in so many ways. Another reminder to stay very sensitive to Mo, who has given me 19 years of miles & smiles & who doesn’t quite want to give up yet but is definitely slowing down. And a grand salute to us grey mares (of a certain age) who keep on loving horses & trying to balance being trapped & being free!

  15. You’ve done it again Anna…made me cry. Every word. I think of it as grounded, six footfalls instead of four. We haven’t flown together in six years… when sight was lost to sounds, smells, feel and taste. No lead ropes guide better than his neck to my shoulder. He still flies, I’m ground control. As he homes in to my voice in his dark space at all gaits, I sense his joy in unfettered movement… and we laugh.

  16. After being without power (have generator, so not really) but no phone, cable or internet for 4 days (18 inch “spring” snowstorm) – finally got my voice mails Friday & heard that the farm where I used to board Chico & where hes buried had a fire – NOT the barn, but the beautiful log home of the owners. She happened to be across the driveway at the barn when she saw the house on fire. Actually they were lucky – only in the fact that the barn with all 30-35 horses inside because of the heavy snow & of course the hay upstairs did NOT catch on fire. At that point she was alone there – the young guy who works there had left to work with a farrier. Losing their home is a disaster but no person or animal was hurt – dogs were with her at the barn. But their home that they built probably 35? years ago – just a few years before I moved Chico there – is gone. This young couple & their boys were close to family for me & others when we first boarded there – at that time it was a small barn with an outdoor arena & lots of trails. They eventually added an indoor & another 16 or so stalls, so more boarders, but very nice place.


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