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The lessons of Cleo

All I want for my birthday is a horse

May 1st, 2016

BY SUSAN BENNETT

Is it true that every girl wants a horse? The ongoing popularity of National Velvet, My Friend Flicka, and a myriad of other books, movies, and television programs would certainly indicate so. Psychologists and parents like to speculate on the deeper meanings of this attraction. “Horses give young girls a feeling of freedom; the ability to control a large animal gives girls feelings of power.” “Give a girl a horse, and she will stay away from boys.”

womanoncircushorse*Whatever the profound significance, like many of my gender, as a child I always wanted a horse, but I knew better than to actually ask my parents for one. Our family pets consisted of an occasional goldfish if we were lucky at the school carnival; my father didn’t like cats, and my mother considered a dog too much trouble. With the exception of the three-year-old me posed on a pony for a photo, I never rode a horse. I had to satisfy my childhood fascination by checking out every horse book in my public library.

The closest I ever got to owning a loyal steed was when I purchased with my birthday money, at age ten, a turquoise and chrome Huffy bicycle. I named him Fury after the horse in the library book I was currently reading. Fury and I kept the secret of his identity from even my best friends. But I spent the next two years careening around my neighborhood on Fury until I reached junior high school and Fury went the way of Puff the Magic Dragon and other childhood fantasies.

I’m not sure if horse-crazy is a genetic predisposition, but twenty years ago after a family move to rural, northern California, my two daughters brought horses into my life by constant nagging. First they convinced me to arrange weekly riding lessons, then twice-a-week lessons, then to look for “horse property.” The same week we bought our house with the empty barn in the backyard my then fourteen-year-old purchased Djin Fizz, a seventeen-year-old Arabian, with the money she had saved since the age of four. A month later, her ten-year-old sister purchased, for a dollar, Will, a twenty-six-year-old, rescued, quarter horse.

In order to escape the accusation that I was living through my children, I only watched from afar as my progeny groomed, tacked up, led their horses to the nearby riding stables, and, eventually, on a series of four-legged “family members,” competed in local, regional, and state dressage competitions. I loved being a Horse Mom as long as my equine chores were limited to throwing a flake of hay over the fence. In spite of my childhood yearnings and extensive book-learning, in truth I was afraid of the large creatures. I convinced myself that the girls needed to assume full responsibility for their horses as a justification for keeping my physical distance.

“You should get yourself a horse,” our farrier suggested each time he arrived to shoe Fizz, Will, then Omega, and Gypsy, Marko, and Dorado. “You pay all the bills and what do you get for it? Not even a ride on the beach.” Little did he know, I trembled with anxiety at the thought of holding the lead rope while he trimmed a hoof, let alone actually walking the horse from the stall to the shoeing station.

“I’m too busy with work,” I always answered, figuring I was too old to overcome my fears or to satisfy childhood dreams.

Then the inevitable happened; my daughters grew up, left home, and took their horses with them. Much to my surprise, I developed an acute case of “empty barn blues.” I missed the sounds of soft nickering at dinnertime, the thunder of hooves as the horses frolicked, and the sweet smell of fresh hay piled high in the barn. I even missed the aroma of fresh manure, and endless discussions of stone bruises, alfalfa versus grass, absorbent stall bedding, and all the other conversations equestrians love.

So I started thinking about getting a horse of my own and stopped by the riding stables one afternoon to collect some reactions to this idea of mine. One well-meaning barn acquaintance told me riding a horse was like riding a bicycle, “Once you get back on, you’ll remember everything you learned as a kid. Your body will automatically react like it’s supposed to.”

“But I didn’t ride as a kid,” I answered, “unless you count Fury, my trusty two-wheeler. I’d be starting from scratch.”

Long pause. “You’re never too old, I guess,” she stammered.

“Horses are opportunists,’ warned the barn pessimist. “A horse will have your number in no time. You’ll be an accident waiting to happen.”

“Are you crazy?” asked my perpetually protective mother. “You’re fifty-five years old! What if you fall off? You’ll hurt yourself.”

“Hey, don’t get discouraged,” countered another former Horse Mom turned trail rider. “Borrow this magazine with ‘tips for the beginning mature equestrian.’ That should give you confidence and some strategies on adapting to riding in middle age.” But once I started reading, the article defined a “mature equestrian” as between thirty and forty-five. I wasn’t mature; I was ancient! Maybe I was too old, after all.

My non-horse friends thought I had gone over the edge. “Typical mid-life crisis,” responded my former college roommate. “Get a sports car! It’s safer and less expensive in the long run.”

“You really miss your kids, not horses. You have empty nest syndrome,” lectured my work associates. “Horses take up a lot of money and time. Why not use your resources to travel?”

Even my children were flummoxed by my interest. “Mom, you’re afraid of heights. You’re afraid of speed. You were even afraid of the Dumbo ride at Disneyland,” one daughter reminded me.

“Are you kidding?” asked her sister. “You were afraid to hold Fizz’s bridle so I could go into the bathroom. I don’t think horses are for you.”

But I would sit on the back deck, watch the sun set over the bay, and feel a longing. The chickens, goat, sheep, dogs, and cats claiming the back pasture and barn could not satisfy my horse craving.

Typically, I turned to reading to address my quandary. I pulled out back issues of horse magazines looking for insights and inspiration. I read about horses trained as therapeutic animals, freeing the disabled who are captives of mental and physical disabilities, guiding the blind, and rehabilitating wounded soldiers returning from war. If these people can do it, surely, I can, too, I told myself. At the same time, I realized a weekly lesson with a horse trainer would still leave me on my own the other six days a week.

“Oh, go for it,” encouraged my husband, originally a city boy, who had gotten accustomed to the steady stream of rescued cats, puppies, guinea pigs, birds, reptiles, and an occasional sheep or goat, and seemed mildly excited by the prospect. “What’s one more mouth to feed? You like the fresh air and exercise, and you’ll get to hang out with your horsey friends.”

So, for my fifty-fifth birthday present, I signed up for a riding lesson with JoAnne, the trainer with the lesson horse the local children had learned to ride before graduating to their own horses. I would be one of her few adult students — and undoubtedly the oldest.

“I’ve always wanted a horse of my own,” I told her when she asked me my goals. “I don’t care if I never trot, let alone canter. I don’t need to gallop on the beach with the wind in my hair, tackle a twenty-five-mile endurance ride, or compete in the dressage ring. I only want to learn to handle a horse with confidence: tack it up, sit on its back, and walk around the arena unassisted. I want to have a special relationship with a horse. I want a horse to nicker when I approach its paddock. I want a horse to recognize my voice and my footsteps. I want a horse as my best friend.”

One small step led to another, and nine years ago, after two years of lessons on three different horses, my friend, Lisa, called and said, “Grab your boots and helmet and get over to Bob’s ranch. We have something to show you.” A mare who had arrived that day at Bob’s training and sale barn stood saddled and ready for me to ride. “I think this might be the perfect horse for you,” he drawled.

From the first time I, a still nervous novice, perched tentatively on her back, Cleopatra has made me smile; I guess you could say it was love at first sight, and Cleo and I have been developing our partnership ever since. In fact, we plan to grow “old” together.

Having a horse has changed the pace of my life. I plan my work and leisure schedule as best as I can to maximize our time together. My favorite part of our routine arrives late afternoons when the sun warms my back as I observe Cleo chewing her hay. I leisurely muck her paddock while listening to the water trickle into her drinking bucket. I can put aside the stresses of work and postpone the hustle and bustle of the dinner hour. As the last rays of the sun turn Cleo’s white coat with chestnut blotches a shiny silver and copper, I think of how far I have come in facing old fears and realizing even older dreams. I pat Cleo’s muzzle, return my rake to the hook, and head toward the house.

Currently, I define success as a “good horse day,” a day when I have independently completed basic tasks that more experienced equestrians take for granted. For example, on a good horse day I walk down the lane with a carrot in my pocket, halter Cleo, lead her to her stall, brush her, pick out her hooves, saddle and bridle her, grab my whip, and enter the riding arena. After tightening her girth, I bring her to the mounting block, ask her to stand still, and swing onto her back. After practicing walking, trotting, and other riding skills, we pass through the arena gate, and amble down the lane taking in the fresh air. Then we reverse the process, and I return her to her paddock where we share the quiet of the day.

But unlike seasoned riders who might consider my routine tame, I have accomplished feats I never imagined possible. I, who had barely been on a horse until I turned fifty-five, have done these things on my own, giving me the pleasure, confidence, and thrill surpassing many other personal achievements. I still read horse books and magazines for information and inspiration. But now I can put into practice what I read. I’ve even fallen off twice, so I guess I can call myself a real horsewoman.

Cleo and I have developed a deep relationship. Like any good friend, Cleo is glad to see me, knows my voice, even the sound of my car as it pulls up to the stables where she now lives. She nickers when I walk down the lane, and offers her velvety nose to be rubbed. And when I am on her back she, as they say in equestrian parlance, “takes care of me,” and knows what I am thinking even before I give her a command. But most importantly, she is teaching me what it means to grow old with dignity; that is, Cleo has shown me I am not too old to feel young again.

And, who knows, maybe before I turn seventy, Cleo and I will canter down the beach as the waves wash up onto the shore, seagulls circling overhead, the breeze blowing through Cleo’s mane as we run like the wind. •

From the September 2013 issue

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Animal Issue, Bennett | Link to this Entry

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