I walked out of the farmhouse at midnight tonight, on my way to check the horses and thinking about how I had nothing to write. But then, an owl soulfully hooted from the barren winter trees as the starry sky illuminated the night, and I felt as though I might burst with words about what that moment felt like.
The pony whinnied shrilly—rudely disturbing the silence and threatening to wake the neighbors to let them know I was an hour late with his hay. The truth is, I’m almost always an hour late with his hay because I tend to lose track of time when it’s this late—when the world is quiet and anything is possible.
Regardless, ponies are pretty quick to let you (and the rest of the town) know when you’ve disappointed them. They may be short in stature, but they have very high standards.
Gabriel excitedly bounded off ahead of me, as he always does, for he is always sure that tonight will be the night he will finally catch a rabbit. There are several of them that linger along the shoreline of the meadows and the trees, night after night, waiting for us (I’m sure of it), if only to watch Gabriel, in his exuberant confidence—as though he has never failed—to chase the entire lot of them down from 40 yards away, only to wind up quickly and wildly disappointed in failing to snag one for the 984th time. In a row.
I checked on the blanketed horses and threw them some hay. I noticed Charlie—the Indian horse who needs no blanket—was beginning to shed (a sure sign of spring), and I wasn’t sure I could sleep knowing he could use the first of many spring groomings.
I grabbed the shedding blade, caked with dust from the winter, and made my way back to him.
“This is Charlie.”
That’s what I said to my very good friends and their cute little son today, when they came to talk about upcoming projects and we toured the horses while we did so. But now, looking at Charlie and thinking of all the springs we’ve had together, I wondered if maybe I’d been disrespectful.
Unlike the pony, Charlie is pretty forgiving, but I got that pang of ache you get between your eyes—the one that threatens to bring tears—and that corresponding heave that knots your chest.
“This isn’t ‘just’ Charlie,” I thought, because we have names or introductions for the meaningful people we introduce to other people. “Hey, this is my mom/the woman that raised me” or “I’d like you to meet my better half,” or “this is my best/lifelong/childhood friend.”
And I’m like, “Hey, this is just Charlie” even though he’s literally saved my life over fences countless times and I’ve known him longer than just about anyone besides my parents and my sister.
“This is only the horse that knew me before I knew myself.”
Maybe that’s a bit heavy for a Sunday night, and I’m the first to admit Charlie was probably too interested in getting treats to worry about the way in which he was being introduced, but I think about these things, and it bothered me that considering THIS particular horse, I’d been pretty nonchalant. Plus, I read somewhere that how we respect animals and nature is a good indication of how we respect each other as people.
I tried to put that thought out of my mind, as I began to groom Charlie, starting with his rump, which looked like it needed the most work, and then moving towards his neck. The curves of his back and the cowlicks of his coat are so familiar, I don’t even notice them anymore, which is perhaps why I take him for granted. Of all the horse and riding books and theories and videos and lectures I’ve come across, I wondered if they should all just be summed up with “know the backs of your horses like the backs of your hands. Or better, if you can.”
I hope one day I can say, “I do” to that.
As every horse person knows, there’s something about a barn that warps time, and before I knew it, the other horses were real quite, almost through with their hay, and although I was still grooming, I was somehow on the opposite side of Charlie from where I had started.
I felt a little guilty for drifting off on him, my mind swirling with trifling matters and life decisions—thoughts on spring cleaning projects, grocery lists, and Kenya, emails I need to return, books I want to read, what the next year will bring, and how I’ll know if any decision I ever make is the right one. But lately, if I stop and think for too long, I just get mad about something that’s virtually in my backyard.
Because a week ago, the church I grew up in justified the revoking of millions of dollars away from people (mostly children) on the other side of the world under World Vision because of a small internal agency change in hiring policy, which would allow World Vision to hire anyone who wanted to help change the world for the better. And by anyone, I mean it would not matter what your sexual orientation or gender identity is—World Vision would only hire you based on your desire and ability to contribute to the world. Which, if you think about it, makes sense. Because the last time I checked, whoever you love and whoever is sleeping in your bed really bears no weight on your capacity to do good in the world.
I’d be in trouble if it worked any other way because it’s a dog that I love and a dog that sleeps in my bed. And he lives to chase rabbits every night, all to no avail.
But World Vision was forced to re-change its policy after 2 days, and fire and not hire any employee with an alternative sexual orientation or gender identity solely BASED on alternative sexual orientation and/or gender identity because churches threatened to pull too much money, and World Vision would no longer be able to support the millions of people who depend on the agency and also have nothing to do with its hiring policies.
The churches argue that leaving millions of needy people in the lurch is justified because homosexuality is a sin. But even under that pretense, how can the church choose which sinners are allowed to help the world and which are not? Because let’s face it, we’re all sinners.
But I’m not just angry at church. I’m angry because those who do fight for equal rights (specifically in terms of employment and health insurance) haven’t been talking much or fighting on this and it makes me think they’ve just accepted that America is indeed as backwards on this as it once was about race and segregation and even women’s voting rights. I don’t think anyone is giving up, but they sure are a world more patient than I am, if they can just stop talking about it for now.
I don’t know a lot of things, but I do know that this world has a lot of horrific problems, and alternative sexual orientation and gender identity is not one of them.
So this really makes my blood boil, and I suddenly wake up, and here is Charlie, just standing next to me, on the opposite side from where I started, and his head is low, and he’s calm and quiet, even though I’m a world away wondering if there is any hope for humanity. All while grooming him on autopilot.
But really, that’s how it’s always been with this horse, from the beginning, which is why I’d felt guilty for casually writing him off earlier in the day. Because back when I was little and I couldn’t see over his back or reach his mane, I’d stand on a bucket to brush his head, and I’d desperately wonder why the boy I like in school wouldn’t talk to me or I’d go over and over a terrible riding lesson with missed distances and late changes, or worse, both, or I’d think about the terrible things I’d overhear people say about each other and I’d wonder if they were true.
Those problems once seemed as big as these now, and regardless of what’s important and what’s not, Charlie confronts them all in the same dignified, soothing way: He just listens.
This is what horses do best. They listen. And you don’t even have to talk, which is good, because sometimes I can’t. Horses understand silence better than anything. They feel if you let yourself be felt. If you just let yourself BE, which I eventually discovered is terribly easy around horses and horrifically difficult around people (and also cats, but that’s another story).
Well, I kissed Charlie on the nose to say “thank you,” and after promising never to introduce him as “just” Charlie again, I flipped the barn lights off and closed the doors.
That pony was still at the gate, and although he finally had his hay, he made it a point to glare at me just to say he had not yet forgotten what I’d done to him for the 31st time this month. I realized I still had the grooming blade in my hand, so I thought maybe, as dark as it was from inside his pasture, I could make it up to him.
As snow white ponies tend to do, Napoleon had covered himself thoroughly in mud, so even though I couldn’t see the mud (and therefore, him, either), I knew that once his white coat began to glisten in the darkness—as only whiteness does—I would know I’d made leeway. That pony stood proud and steadfast, as if he’d been patiently waiting for me all night, and without really thinking or trying, the shedding blade went gliding over him while we both took great big gulps of the lingering wintery air and looked up into the stars as they sparkled and shimmered, and it seemed as if those shimmering stars produced an inaudible music of infiniteness, quiet, and the angels flying far overhead. Because something that looks so pretty must sound that way, too.
Our reverie was occasionally interrupted by the zebra, who circled us impatiently and snorted to let us know it, for zebras move with effortless stealth, and he otherwise would have gone undetected. Here, before the zebra, was an extremely painful display of domestication, not just by the pony, but by Elvis, too, who was standing nearby and patiently waiting his turn for a grooming. For Sura, this behavior was virtually insufferable for a zebra of his caliber and wildness, and he desperately tried to look like he was up to exciting and interesting things among the mud pools of the pasture, in an attempt to lure his herd back to him. But no one budged a hoof, although Napoleon licked his lips as we both listened with amusement to the sounds annoyed zebras make.
When I could finally see Napoleon’s white form in front of me, along with great torrents of loose hair at our feet, I moved to Elvis. Sura attempted to intervene, and tried to push Elvis away from me. I went to head him off, but Elvis was already on it and gave Sura a warning nip, his teeth clacking together for emphasis and in preview of what would be to come should the zebra try to press him again. I had stopped grooming briefly while I watched this, and no sooner has Elvis swung away from nipping at the zebra did he swing the other direction, towards me, to gently wrap his lips around the edges of my fingers, which I couldn’t actually even see myself. He nudged my elbow holding the shedding blade, as if to say, “Carry on.”
So I went back to work. Every once in awhile, he’d paw the ground or stretch out his neck to say that, indeed, right “there” was the right spot.
Beyond the fence, I heard a rustle off in the brush and from it, I felt bright friendly eyes emerge and bed down along the fence, which was the quiet, trained, and respectful distance in which to join our company. Besides perked ears, none of the horses appeared particularly alarmed, and I called out to Gabriel, telling him he was a “good boy” and that I hoped he had stayed out of the thawing swamp.
But when I finished Elvis’ grooming and excused myself to bed, I was surprised to find Gabriel lying on the dirt floor of the barn, waiting outside the stalls, right where I’d left him long before. I wondered if the shy companion outside the fence had actually been the lone gray wolf that came the summer I got Gabriel, which was two years ago. She rarely made an appearance last year, but the occasional and exceptionally large dead rabbit always laid fully intact and perfectly centered upon my doorstep—as if to say I needn’t worry about the horses (or maybe to try to show Gabriel it could be done)—let me know she was still around, though why she had suddenly turned cautious last year, I didn’t know.
But I was glad to assume she fared the winter, and seeing as how the rabbits are as plentiful as ever, she won’t go hungry this summer.
I walked back to the farmhouse with Gabriel at my side.
The owl hooted again and the stars shifted, with Orion sinking to the west and the tip of the summer triangle pushing up like an arrow against the northeasterly horizon.
Once I was inside, I peeled off my heavy layers, as I’ve seemingly had to do for endless months of brutal winter. But instead of running to make tea and warm my hands, I walked back outside, thankful to the stars for pressing in and making the big world with even bigger problems feel small and simple—full of nothing but horses and the promise of spring—if only for one night.