Last Chance Corral: A Farm Fairytale

Photo by Ryan Liu

It’s been the fastest two weeks of my life, but I can barely remember who I was way back then.

For the last two weeks, I’ve been walking around covered in drooled foal milk and finding straw in places straw should not be. My hands are beaten and cracked—aged at least thirty years in two weeks—from mixing bucket after bucket after bucket of milk. The only way to get the lumps out of 5 gallons worth of dry milk powder mixed with water, Quaker oats, vanilla yogurt, pro-biotics, and a pro-gut are to use your hands. I can count the number of showers I’ve had in two weeks on just one of those hands, for there have been towels and foal blankets and Carhartts to wash on a daily basis and there isn’t always enough hot well water to go around. I’ve been soaked to the bone after falling asleep in the rain and the wet grass, because for the first week, I was too afraid to leave the foals outside alone.

It’s been two of the best weeks of my life.

Two weeks ago, my mom and I left early on Sunday morning to adopt two foals from Last Chance Corral in South Athens, Ohio. The name “Last Chance” is a humble one because the farm is truly a foal’s only chance.

The foals rescued by Last Chance are a by-product of the racehorse industry. When a racehorse mare gives birth, she’s separated from her racehorse foal so that she can be re-bred and give birth again the following year. This leaves her foal without a mother, so the racehorse farms keep pregnant stock horses on hand. When these stock horses give birth, or when they are induced, their babies are pulled away so that these mothers can nurse the well-bred racehorse foals. These stock mothers are called “nurse mares.” Their foals, called “nurse mare foals,” are typically destroyed on-site. They’re only born so that their mothers can produce milk to nurse racehorse foals. Not them.

But Last Chance Corral pays racehorse barns to keep the nurse mare foals alive long enough to be rescued. Some foals come to the farm sick and dying. Some haven’t even been allotted the critical “first milk” (or colostrum) from their mothers before being taken away. This is when the real life-saving begins. Last Chance volunteers work around the clock doctoring, mothering, and loving these tiny little foals, doing all they can to get them healthy and adopted as soon as possible, so that they can make room to rescue more. Foals may arrive physically ill, while others suffer emotionally. An old horsewoman once told me that the biggest part of a horse’s brain is emotion. The emotional part of the horse brain touches every other part, and so everything, from taste to smell to memory is associated with emotion. The first emotion these foals experience is the loss of the only world they have ever known—their mothers.

Last Chance rescues hundreds of foals every year, but they operate from donations, and because feed stores and vets all naturally require payment, every year, they are forced to turn foals away due to lack of space or funds.

Some nurse mare foals never get a first or a last chance.

It is important to note that not every racehorse barn operates in this way. Horseracing has its dark side just like every other equestrian discipline, and while horses do love to run and many jockeys and racehorse owners love their horses, some do not. For many, it is a business, just like any other sport.

So, when you watch the Kentucky Derby this year in May, maybe you’ll think of this story, and instead of placing a bet, maybe you could send your betting money to Last Chance Corral instead, because for every horse there in the starting gate for your entertainment, there are hundreds of nurse mare foals that didn’t live to see their first whole day. Unless they were lucky. If they were lucky, they were picked up by Last Chance Corral.

Well, when I first heard about all this, I was bound and determined to do something to help. Last Chance Corral posts pictures of available foals on their website, and for days, I waited for an update. The first foal I saw was a little chestnut filly that looked just like my mare, Safari, and I knew right away from the instant pang in my heart that we were meant for each other.

Safari is the greatest horse I have ever known. She’s also the stereotypical, fiery chestnut mare—except for wilder—and that might be what I love most about her. She’s a red beauty. She has big doe eyes and a shy demeanor, and she looks like a girl, and I love that. But when she trusts you enough, she’s shy no longer. She challenges everything, and nothing is ever easy. In fact, the worst moments of your life will occur either on her back or on the ground after she has just bucked you off into a thorn bush and bolted back to the barn.

Safari is strong. She is feisty, and she is occasionally ruthless.

But if you win her heart by actually learning how to ride, she will STILL challenge everything (to keep you fresh), but she will also jump the moon, save your life (time after time), and take you anywhere as fast as she can go. She’ll give you the rides of your life because you’re hers now, and nothing can change that.

So after she taught me something about tough love, I learned something about unconditional love.

“Are you sure you don’t want to wait for a paint or a palomino?”

That was a fair question from my mom, after I told her about this little chestnut filly I KNEW I had to rescue because she looked just like Safari. I also knew no one would want her because she was a stereotypical chestnut filly and would act JUST like Safari. But my mom, knowing my wildest dreams, knows I’ve always dreamed of paints and palominos.

But this time was different. I wanted to rescue the foals no one else would readily want to rescue. The paints and palominos and mule foals would easily find homes.

When I called Last Chance and asked what other foals in addition to the chestnut filly were available—because they like to send foals in pairs—they said the filly had paired up with a plain black colt. They asked if I’d be willing to take him as the second foal because it would be a shame to split them up after they’d just been split up from their mothers. And that’s when I knew with every fiber of my being that this colt was THE second horse because chestnut fillies don’t just choose anyone. If this filly saw something in this colt, then he, too, was something special. I didn’t have to know her to trust her, and the fact that he was regular colored, too, well, that was just fine with me.

Color doesn’t make a horse any more than it makes a man. I’ve been surrounded by regular colored horses my whole life, and by regular colored, I mean that their coats are considered boring by show judges, and they match the colors of the earth. Browns and blacks and reds. Nothing exciting. But I like these horses because the colors of their manes match the colors of my hair. Because sometimes when I’m galloping, I can’t tell where I stop and my horse begins. We feel the same, and I like to imagine my horse’s mane long and flowing behind us in the wind with my hair streaming behind us too, all of it intertwined with my horse. From our hearts to our hair, we are one.

And maybe that sounds just as superficial as wanting a flashy, eye-catching paint or palomino, and here I am, trying to write this blog while getting ready for a photoshoot tomorrow because the foals take up all my time, and so, I have to multi-task. I’ve also had to stop writing this half-a-dozen times over multiple days to check on the foals or go make them more milk or get an hour of sleep.

I’m not used to having to stop anything I’m doing until I’m ready to do it—writing, especially—which will probably ultimately show for whoever is trying to navigate through this story.

But I digress.

I haven’t had a photoshoot for months, after being so sick with mono. And I can’t help but think this:

I’m 26.

One day soon, I’m going to be too old for this because I’m going to look too old for this. And I know there are things I could do to fix that. To ward of time and age and wrinkles, if only temporarily, but the will to fight that battle is not in me. So—now that I’m entering old age and gray hair is only a matter of time—every shoot could be my last.

I’ve worked with this photographer before (he is always an honor to work with), and because we’ll be shooting on Easter morning, and we can’t get an MUA, he’s letting me decide how to look and what to wear. I have a few pretty dresses, which I actually rarely wear, because rarely do I have any place to go where I can wear one of those dresses with cowboy boots or bare feet, so I’m just as happy to be in my Carhartt’s. In the barn. On the farm. Yes, I have heels, but I wear those in the barn, too. I walk the long narrow cement path, kissing the noses of the horses as I go (and trying not to fall), in order to brush up for the occasional runway show. But I would have no idea how to walk in heels at a party or a wedding or wherever it is you’re supposed to wear heels in real life. Plus, they hurt worse than getting stepped on by a horse.

Dressing myself for the photoshoot also feels like a challenge because I don’t like showing skin. I like to feel covered. Clothes. I like being clothed. It’s not a body-image situation, it’s a work ethic situation. You try riding horses, throwing hay, teaching kids math in a slum, hiking mountains, sailing boats, working in labs, or navigating the Kenyan bush on safari, in minimal, impractical clothing and let me know how that works out for you. Sturdy, practical clothing and dry socks are your best friends in all of those situations, and I like being ready for anything.

And I’m uncomfortable in makeup (when someone else does it, of course, because Heaven knows I don’t know how to put it on) because I like feeling the sun and the wind on my skin. I need to taste the air and feel its chill at night, and I can’t do that if I’ve got cling wrap stuck to my face, which is how makeup feels to me.

Even mascara gets in the way. I tend to get wide-eyes looking up at the stars, as does everyone, so mascara is like dipping your eyelashes in honey and then they get clumped together, and then they stick to your face, obstructing your view and pulling at your eyelids. Maybe I just don’t put it on right, but it’s a problem when I need to close my eyes and wish on a star or kneel down to pray. There can be so many wishes in a night.

When I wear makeup, I feel like I’m lying to the world.

And when I show too much skin just because I can, I feel like I’m lying to myself.

So I think we’re just going natural for this shoot. No makeup. Ranch clothes. Horses.

Because that’s what I know. Just like I knew these foals and their earth-toned coats, even before I’ve met them. It’s all instinct.

I know nothing about raising foals, but it’s amazing how instinct just kicks in, if you let it. It’s been that way for two weeks.

Paradise, the filly, is wild and pretty and thoroughly excited by the world. She’s just delighted by everything she comes across and she takes charge of each day she’s given. She’s a mini Safari. She prances and dances and jumps and she’s just pure beauty and spunk.

Diesel is an old soul with deep blue-gray eyes and little curls in his mane. He’s not in a rush to discover the world. He’s careful, he’s sensitive, and he’s still grappling with the loss of his mother, and I have no idea how to help him through that besides loving on him all I can, even when he pulls away. He moves and explores with slow purpose; he does not like to be rushed. His Tennessee Walker gait takes him through the world in the same way an old Texan sounds when he speaks low and smooth in his deep southern drawl.

He’s also incredibly mysterious, and I’m as drawn to that as Paradise.

The two of them are like peas and carrots.

I can cuddle and squeeze them and almost pick them up. It’s hard for me to grasp that one day, I’ll be looking up at them, as they do now to me. One day, our roles and our perspectives will be reversed.

I’ll be an old woman by the time I can sit on these foals. I’ll be about 30. But it’ll probably be more like 31 because I’d like them to be as wild as possible for as long as possible, even after I sit on their backs. They don’t have mothers, so right now, they’re going purely off of instinct, as am I, and I want to preserve that instinct in them.

The ancient, wild, raw instinct God first breathed into the horses He shaped from His hands.

It’s the one gift I can give them that domesticated mares can’t.

Sometimes, at night, during the last check before I sleep, Paradise will look up at me and she’ll stretch her neck out as far as she can, as if trying to reach for me. So, I’ll kneel before her or bed down next to her from where she’s lying in the straw. And she’ll reach for my shoulder and gently bring her muzzle to my ear, and I’ll sit there in the stillness, wondering if she’s trying to whisper something I cannot hear. And in between her silent whispers, she’ll often sigh. A sweet, wistful sigh. We tend to think of angels as people in Heaven with wings, but Paradise sighs into my ear every night, and it sounds just like an angel sings. It sounds like whispers from Heaven.

First-time moments with these foals often feel like a dire crisis. The first time I saw Diesel shivering. The first time I realized he’d soaked his blanket by laying in wet shavings. The first time Paradise got a scrape on her nose. The first time I heard Paradise cough. The next day, when she purposely galloped directly into the fence to test out its hold.

Holy Heart Attack is all I can say about that last one.

Maybe this is what my parents felt like when my sister was diagnosed with Crohn’s or I fell ill with mono or announced I was leaving for college—out of state—or traveling to Africa or when I call crying because my feelings are hurt or I broke up with my boyfriend or I’m angry because the world is cruel.

Sometimes, it seems like it’s such a challenge raising parents, but up until two weeks ago, I didn’t realize how hard it was to be one.

Maybe I understand them just a little bit better now.

I look at everything differently. I go into the grocery store and buy every single tub of vanilla yogurt that’s stocked on the shelf for the foal milk. It took me days to get over the fact that regular-fat yogurt does NOT exist. Everyone wants to lose weight, so we only buy low-fat yogurt.

60 calories a serving.

Sweetened with aspartame.

But I have two foals that need to GAIN weight. I need them to be getting 660 calories a serving. But it’s not going to happen through grocery store yogurt, that’s for sure. And I don’t think aspartame exists in the wild, so I’m hoping that it doesn’t affect their growth. How does always wanting to lose wait and consuming food with zero calories affect OUR growth?

I have these terrible dreams at night, where I wake up thinking the foals are in my room, maybe even right next to me. But when I get up, I can only find one foal, and then I panic. Paradise, she’s right there on the bed next to me, but where’s Diesel? WHERE IS DIESEL?

It’s a panic worse than any other I have ever known.

As I get up to look around my room to really actually physically clumsily LOOK, my consciousness drags heavy with drowsiness and clouded confusion, teetering between the interface of awake and sleep. Then the fog shakes free and I eventually find that Paradise is nothing but a blanket and the tangle of sheets next to me. That’s when I realize Diesel isn’t missing at all.

The two of them are safe and down in the barn. Warm and asleep in their blankets and the soft straw.

But sometimes, it’s Diesel who’s right there with me in my dreams. I can just make out the shadows of his bulky frame on the floor below my bed in the darkness, and I frantically leap down to check on him because I have no idea where Paradise is and HE doesn’t look right, and then I realize it’s Gabriel instead, who has just now been startled awake after I’ve just jumped on top of him for the third night in a row.

Although embarrassed, relief washes over my body all over again, and I usually remember to apologize to Gabriel as I untangle myself from the sheets that spilled over the bed along with me. Shivering, I settle back under the down comforter.

It was all just a dream. Again.

But as I drift back to sleep to the cascading rhythm of my thumping heart, it doesn’t feel like some harmless dream. Although a muffled, dying panic now, the ache of missing or losing one of my foals is still there. I can feel it. It’s heavy. And it hurts.

Oh, how it hurts.

And though sleep begins to come, I can feel tears spill from my closed eyes and fall to my pillow because I know…

…this is how their mothers felt.

I wonder about their mothers. A mare carries her foal for 11 months before she delivers. 11 months. Almost a year.

I’ve heard so many horror stories about what the birthing process is like for mares. And foals. Mares often die during delivery. So do the foals. Sometimes, the mothers have to be killed in order for the foals to be delivered, but then the foals are missing body parts or their tendons aren’t attached to their bones or their legs have formed backwards.

I’ve always joked with my horse friends that I’ll be ready to have a baby before I’ll be ready for Safari to have a baby because pregnancy is such a dangerous thing for a mare to endure. But the joke isn’t funny anymore.

Every foal is a miracle. I don’t understand how racehorse barns see it so differently.

“Orphaned foals grow up to be like big dogs.”

That’s what everyone keeps telling me in a disdainful, lip curling voice.

“This one’s oral.” (Paradise)

“This one’s real hesitant.” (Diesel)

Well, they just lost their mothers, so let’s give them all a break.

Every foal is a miracle.

And I know plenty of horses that grew up with mares for mothers, but they crib and pace and kick and bite because their owners are like that, so I’m not too worried.

Mine are all wild and unruly (and even incredibly mis-behaved sometimes). And they definitely get that from me, which I also got from them.

I don’t know what these foals will grow up to be. They were bred to be nothing, but from the moment I first saw them, and for the last two weeks, as I’ve watched them discover the world through their brand new unaffected eyes, I realized that they already ARE something. I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time, and no one said orphaned foals would be easy or turn out perfect. But you know what? They are. They’re easy. And miraculously, they were born perfect. All they needed is a chance to live and grow, and they have one now. And it all began with Last Chance Corral.

The truth is these foals are my chance, too. Life is a mess, and you can’t count on much. You can’t count on people. You can’t take anything for granted, but these foals can take me for granted because I’m all they have. No matter what happens, I’ve got to be someone for them. They are peace and chaos and uncertainty and worry and happiness and love and awe and nature and Heaven and earth. All together.

They are Paradise. And Diesel. Two miracles sleeping down in the barn.

And I wish more than anything I could just tell their mothers thank you.

I don’t know what horses dream about, and I don’t know if a mare looks ahead and wonders what type of life her foal might have, but I wish I could rest my head on their foreheads while I stroke their manes and press into their necks and whisper,

“I promise they’ll get to be horses. I promise I’ll take good care of them. And I promise they won’t ever know they were born unwanted.”

“You and I have that in common, old girl.” I’d say. “We both wanted them.”

I wish I could explain what it’s really like having these foals. But maybe you already know.

(Photo by Ryan Liu)

***If you want to help save a horse life, please check out to learn more about nurse mare foal adoption and donation. You can also help spread the word by liking Last Chance Corral on Facebook and sharing their status updates with your friends and family. Everything helps.

Just Charlie


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.



After five quiet rejuvenating weeks protected in the solitude of the great north and the Canadian winter, I reluctantly emerged into civilization for a horse expo at Michigan State, where I had the honor of presenting and selling my book on behalf of Joy Beginners School in Kangemi Slums, Nairobi, Kenya, Africa.

Friday at the expo was a whirlwind of kids and students, and on Saturday, I was lucky enough to catch up with the blacksmith who grew up in boy scouts with my dad and has been my friend and deeply revered horseshoer for more than half my life. I also got to see my dressage trainer (who is also brave enough to be the zebra’s vet) and my very first horse trainer—who I am proud to say taught me everything—and her kids, who were just babies when I last saw them and now they are in middle school and beyond.

But come Sunday, too many nights in a hotel and the roar and busy commotion of anxious, frenzied horse people had me rather worn out. Someone had walked off with the entire box of birch-tree pencils the kids love to use to write pen pal letters to my students in Kenya, the book had been thrown in my face twice because “there are needy kids right here in Detroit” which somehow makes my cause obsolete and worthy of my book thrown, and two women accused me of charging too much after moving on to the for-profit author next to me and buying those books, which cost the same and have less pages than mine.

My faith in humanity had been expended for the day, and I just wanted to go home, see my horses, and re-think this whole author thing. Because maybe my dad was right. Maybe I should have gone to medical school.

And then, the most wonderful thing happened.

But let me back up first, by fifteen minutes.

There was a little girl who had bought my book with her allowance money that I had overheard her mom say took her three weeks to earn. She was there at the expo as a volunteer with some brownie scout troop she didn’t want to be a part of, and they shoved her in the back bay of the expo and placed her next to a drafty door to re-direct any exhibitors that came in the wrong way. Really, she was just put out of the way. She was too shy to be up front, so they put her in the back where she was in no danger of needing to talk or show assertiveness. She could just sit there and wait for the weekend to be over, fulfill her commitment, and earn a patch she didn’t want. What they didn’t know is how much she loved being back there so near to the horses because one riding lesson a week was never enough time with horses.

I’d seen her eye my books from a distance the day before, but it wasn’t until I had tried to invite her to the coloring table with the other kids, as if she was any other kid, that I realized she wasn’t just any other kid. Before I could correct my mistake, she quickly retreated back to her little chair and sunk into it as deeply as she could, as if I had just suggested she walk outside into the stormy, freezing wind and snow without a jacket. Just from the deep look in her eyes, I realized my severe mistake.

But it was too late. Or so, I thought. I hadn’t been paying close enough attention, I’d blown her cover. There were so many screaming kids and their parents demanding attention. I had to get back to them. So that was that.

To my surprise, she reluctantly came back the next afternoon—which was Sunday, the last afternoon of the expo. I thought maybe she just wanted to try coloring again, but she came up to my booth and meekly picked out a book, the cover of which she had already memorized from her careful distance. As she silently handed my mom her crumpled up fist of money and purposely avoided eye contact with me, I felt so compelled to talk to her—encourage her—say to her what I wish someone had said to me—but I was afraid of scaring her away again, so I wrote her a note in her book instead. Because there she was, a reflection of me at eight years old, and at that age, that’s how we speak and listen best—through silence. Through writing. And that’s the way it will be for our entire lives, though she won’t know that about herself for quite some time.

I knew there was one thing, however, that we could talk about.

“Did you see that big Belgian around the corner?” I asked her.

Her demeanor completely changed and her eyes lit up behind the big glasses she normally hides behind.

“Oh, I did!” she exclaimed. “He’s so big. I just can’t believe it.”

“I saw his owner fill up a trash can full of water. Can you believe that’s how much water he drinks?! Did you get to pet him?”

“Oh yes, he’s soft.”

“And gentle, huh?”

“And quiet. I like that.”

“Me, too.” I watched her for a moment as she thumbed through her new book and then turned her head for another look at the Belgian. We could hear him pawing.

She doesn’t fit in. She probably gets bullied. She dresses like the characters she reads over and over in her favorite books, which are books from the 19th century…or earlier. She doesn’t have many friends. Her parents don’t know what to do with her. They think she’s too serious. She can’t tell them what she’s thinking because she hasn’t yet learned how to communicate in a world that seems so loud and aggressive and blunt. She’d find this world ugly and dark if it wasn’t for horses. Horses ease her into the interface of her world and this one. Horses are the only creatures in this world that make any sense to her, and so, she made perfect sense to me.

“He wants out,” she said to me, with a long, frank sigh.

“He’s probably ready to go home. All this commotion wears him out, I’m sure.”

The little girl looked at me in agreement before she fell back inside herself. We both knew how the big Belgian felt—I hadn’t needed to say it—and I knew she had imagined a thousand wildly exciting ways to free him, hop on his back, and gallop (run) far, far away because that’s what I’d dream and write about after coming to expos like these and meeting horses like the Belgian and surrounded by what seemed like drones of unfeeling, uncaring, unobservant people. She looked at me again to say thanks for the book, and then quickly left. She was just as afraid of getting in trouble for leaving a post no one cared about or bothered to check on as she was anxious to be left alone to bask in the warmth of a new book.

The Belgian pawed again and drew my attention back in his direction. The crowd hovering around his stall ooooohhhhhed and ahhhhhhed because they thought he was showing off and being charismatic and I couldn’t take it any longer. I forgot all about the little girl because it irritates me when people don’t understand horses and I had to go do what the Belgian could not. I had to walk. Move. Pace. Roam.

Thankfully, my mom was there with her enthralling sales pitch and a new found love for the credit-card square, and I was free to go for awhile.

I walked up and down the aisles of frantic shoppers. The mindless chatter about garlic supplements, halter charms, and that bind you get into when you find out your horse has inferior bloodlines compared to the horse of the stranger bragging to you was intolerable and suffocating. Of course, not all horse people get caught up in such trifling matters, but a lot of the people that came on Sunday sure did. I wondered what my own paperless, un-registered horses (and rejected zebra) were up to, and I got lost in the loss of being here for people purposes and not horse purposes. Every time I’ve come to something like this, I’ve always had a horse with me. My mind raced with all there was left to do. Sell the book for another few hours. Pack up. Get Gabriel at the hotel. Turn in a paper. Drive home. Home. I was almost home. After 5 weeks, I’d finally be with my horses again. But at this point, another 5 hours felt like 5 endless years.

As I tried to distract myself by browsing the oilskins (I was actually just feeling them and smelling them because they feel and smell like Montana), I overhead a woman who was trying a dressage saddle inform her shopping companion that Judy-so-and-so trains with Rachel-so-and-so, and so, neither of them should talk with either of them from now on because their trainer doesn’t talk to Rachel after a client left their barn to board at her barn. And did it look like this saddle fixed her shoulders? Because Luci-the-grand-prix-clinician says she hunches over and that’s why Sparkles is on the forehand but she thinks it has to be the saddle because her old trainer never said she hunched over and the horse whispering psychic from California told her that Sparkles blames the saddle, too.

That’s show business for you. The horse kind. Not the film kind. Though it seems the two operate similarly, sometimes.

Anyway, the conversation continued, but I couldn’t take it anymore.

Thoroughly worn out and immensely tired, impatient, and upset (which was not exactly justified), I became extremely consumed by my own distraught. The time away from the horses finally caught up with me. I flew around the corner in a blind fury on the way back to my mom, no longer caring if my anger showed and scared everyone away from my booth because then the sooner I could pack up and leave.

But something caught my eye, and I was so captivated, I stopped. Right there in everyone’s way.

There she was, that little girl again, sitting with one leg folded beneath her, while the other was bent upright, with her chin resting heavily on her knee—on that little chair of hers by the drafty door, facing the wall and reading with her back to the fluster of activity. She was reading my book. The bay was growing louder and more crowded by the minute, but there she was…silent. Invisible. Lost. In my book. A cloud of silent, peaceful solitude swirled around her. She smiled as she turned a page, her eyes ready and excitedly searching for the new words to come. And then, for one beautiful magical second, as she absorbed that new page, she laughed. An adorable, innocent, thoroughly delighted eight-year-old laugh. I don’t know what sentence she was on or which character had struck her so. But she laughed. She was no longer stowed away in a corner or trapped like the Belgian in that loud, rowdy bay. Instead, she was free. Free by way of a book. My book.

Tears came to my eyes, and I couldn’t help but smile, too. She was in a world I created. And she was living that fairytale. That farm fairytale. With the same flush of wonder and excitement that I get when I’m there, myself. “Look, Mom!” I whispered. “She’s reading my book!”

It was one of the happiest moments of my life. For the first time, I learned what it is exactly that being a writer really means. I used to think it just meant telling a story or opening up a new way of thinking or looking or understanding for someone else. But it’s not about that at all. Instead, it kind of feels like being a magician. Or what I imagine being a magician feels like. Making something ordinary disappear, and exchanging it for something wonderful. Creating something extraordinary for someone to experience—and to take them someplace entirely new—if only for a little while. I didn’t know moments like seeing that little girl with my book existed. But it’s made every single moment before that one worth it.

But when I smile and think about it now, I am equally flooded with gratitude for all the people who got me through all those moments leading up to that one, and who continue to meet me in the middle…or even farther…when I (sometimes, quite often) get like that little girl who is used to being in the back and on the sidelines, just watching. Belonging in a world that’s someplace else…lost at the farm or in Kenya or somewhere even farther away…with a back facing away and weary of the outside world…easily startled….easily scared off. Sometimes with nothing but horses able to coax her out and help her make sense of things and convince her to try again. Of course, I’ve learned and I’ve grown and I’ve changed a lot since those days, but the old days aren’t always far away. And I’m grateful for the people who wait them out.

Those people are people like my mom. And Cody and Hallie (who just braved emergency surgery like the warrior she is) and Bradley Michael (Michael Bradley) and Jess and Justin and so many others who will never read this, so I’ll tell them in a different way.

I have more people than horses now. It didn’t always used to be like that and that’s a testament to them. Not me.

So, I just wanted to say thanks, guys. For putting up with me and helping me get to where I supposed to be.

On Ice Skates, Horses, and Three-Piece Cookware

So there I was the other day, driving through the frigid north of Ontario and on my way to a thrift shop while rocking out to “Thrift Shop” (because what else would you listen to?).

I was on a very important mission.

I needed ice skates.

In the Canadian town I virtually grew up in, there’s a new and charming handmade ice rink near the lodge and it’s complete with a little jerry-rigged floodlight that shines all night. This was a golden discovery of mine during my recent stint in Canada, and I was not about to let the opportunity of midnight skating in the fresh Ontario air beneath a starry sky pass me by.

Nevermind that I have never ice skated before in my life.

I thought perhaps I remembered an old pair of my uncle’s skates lying around the family cottage somewhere, but after treasure hunting for an entire afternoon, that only turned out to be wishful thinking. So, I found a thrift shop within an hour’s drive, and if there was anything I could count on these days, it’s that surely a Canadian thrift shop would have ice skates.

And that it did. I expected I’d be coming home with a men’s pair, but this is Canada, and there was a perfectly used pair of off-white ladies’ skates just waiting to be tried on. They fit perfectly.

Or at least, I think they fit perfectly. I can’t say I actually know how ice skates are supposed to fit.

Across from the shoe racks and the cutlery displays, a hearty old man was carefully inspecting a three-piece metal cookware contraption. He managed to successfully drop it three times in a row…each time the three separate pieces clanged and clamored and whirled several times upon the floor before finally settling quiet. And each time, he’d retrieve the pieces in a pitiful hurry, as if he thought that by doing so, the catastrophic noise they had caused could somehow be forgotten. He’d then dutifully reassemble the pieces and give inspecting the whole thing in peace (and in one piece) another go.

He looked up at me with flushed cheeks on the final disastrous run and I could almost see his thoughts pan behind his eyes. Valentine’s Day shopping for his wife always seemed to involve some type of unforeseen commotion, and this year was no different. If only she liked chocolate.

I watched him sadly re-construct the cooking contraption for the fourth time, and I felt like telling him not to worry and that I was sure anything—even this—had to be less awkward than shopping at Victoria’s Secret or wherever it is that well-meaning American men are pressured into or expected to shop on Valentine’s Day.

I mean, let’s face it. How much trouble can you possibly get into shopping in a thrift store? There’s no such thing as buying the wrong size of cookware or ceramic kittens.

I was about to offer something of this nature when the man’s gaze suddenly shifted and he looked up slightly and considerably more optimistic. Perhaps my sentiment had dawned on him. With the ice skates still on trial on my feet, I rocked for a minute (for I was sitting in a rocking chair priced at $12), happy to see the man reconsider the cookware despite its obvious challenges. His concentration was both profound and innate, and his wife would surely know he put a lot of thought into whatever it was he thought she might want to cook with.

That seemed like a pretty good Valentine’s gift to me.

After unlacing the skates, pulling on my boots, and heading towards the cash register, I proudly handed the thrift shop lady a crisp Canadian five dollar bill. I got a looney back. I felt like I was really channeling Macklemore’s frugality at that moment. I finally mastered the Macklemore strut that day, for I knew what it was like to be truly thrifty. To have the finer luxuries of life at an affordable price.

I texted my mom and was like, “what up?…I got…skates.”

No answer.

“Maybe they’re even yo grandma’s.”

Instead of reprimanding me for joining a gang, she simply blamed autocorrect for the cryptic message, and I was left to enjoy the joke myself until I realized I was wearing my grandmother’s coat. For real.

On Saturday afternoon, with my skates proudly displayed in the front seat, I crept up to the rink in my jeep, barely able to contain my excitement. But then I saw there were other skaters there. Real skaters. And the reality of actually knowing nothing about skating really hit me. I would wait until the ice cleared before giving this a go. I’d wait until dark.

In the meantime, I thought about finding a book on skating, or perhaps Googling it. Maybe even YouTubing it. Heaven knows that’s how I learned (and survived) Cornell physics, so I’ve always been pretty optimistic that you can learn anything on the internet, specifically from Wikipedia.

But I mean, heck, Macklemore bought a kneeboard after a broken keyboard, but he never said he knew how to use it (I mean, who actually kneeboards these days?), so I’d learn by doing, too. I’d just jump…or skate…right in.

Instead, I actually stepped…no…crept…onto the ice because I was too wobbly to pull off anything else without wiping out. I was immediately thankful I had chosen to wait for the night and no one was nearby to watch. Even I would have grimaced and shut my own eyes if I wasn’t concentrating on not falling with all my might.

As you can imagine, the first ten minutes were pretty intense, and I’m not really sure you could even call it skating, but little by little, I began to get the hang of it. I’m pretty sure I could have given the little kids in Ice Princess a run for their money.

After another twenty minutes of treachery, I relaxed a little and realized I had a horse’s eye view of an arena. Feeling significantly more steady than when I began, I decided maybe I was thinking too much and I should try running through what I could remember of the third and fourth level dressage tests. I respect dressage—I really do—and Heaven knows I could use more of it in my life, but I’m sorry, skating dressage tests is only slightly more boring than riding them.

I mean, maybe it’s because I skipped the extended trot and X-halt-salute, but that was only because I haven’t figured out how to stop yet.

I will say I probably could have landed a solid 60% if ice skating dressage tests was a thing, though my geometry is much better from the back of a horse, and even making 20 meter ovals in the ice and crossing the diagonal soon gets a bit…redundant.

Similar to the way I think when stuck inside a riding arena, I began to wonder if there were any cross-country skating events. Surely, if Olympic skaters can jump and twirl elegantly through the air (which, right then on the ice in my wobbly skates seemed to be a miraculous feat and I almost fell over just thinking about it), one could learn to jump over open water and downed snowmen or maybe even skip between strategically placed glaciers or whatever creative winter hazards you might come across on a real pond or lake. I think it’d be really fun. Of course, I’d need to learn how to stop first. And probably jump, for that matter, but I’d totally do it.

Anyway, I had a hundred questions. Are my ankles supposed to be straight, or do I let them naturally lean in a bit…or am I just bow legged from riding? Where should I cast my gaze? Do I look up and forward or at the ground?…or through the corners as I make my turn (which is what horse trainers tell you to do)? What’s the best way to stay balanced? What’s my posture supposed to be like? Do I press into the ice from my calves or my ankles?

Oh yeah, and how do I stop?

If riding a horse for the first time as an adult is anything like skating on ice for the first time as an almost-adult, then I fully understand why old ladies are not very brave and it takes them 3 years to learn the posting trot and loosen their elbows and not pull on their horses’ mouths.

Because I was a hot nervous tense mess on that ice last night.

But I can’t imagine that’s what it’s really like. Truly, ice skating feels nothing like riding a horse, even just starting out.

A horse’s back is forgiving and the ice and the skates have no give. There’s nothing to sink into like there is when you’re sitting properly on your horse. Plus, the ice seems like an awfully hard place to fall. I tried to remind myself that I’m a lot closer to the ground on ice skates than I am when I’m on a horse, but we don’t take horses on ice. At least, not on purpose. And when a horse bucks you off or refuses a fence or bolts or rears or both, you usually have a little time to plan…even while flying through the air.

We also wear helmets on horses.

I probably should have been wearing a helmet last night.

Falling just seems considerably more painful when ice and metal blades are involved. When you get thrown from a horse and she gallops miles back to the barn, just leaving you where she threw you, which is a giant tangle of dense thorny bushes…any pain from that is typically masked by the fury for your ex-best friend and the dip in cowboy pride as you make the long walk back to the barn….especially if any of this happens in the show ring or in the middle of a cattle drive. But ice just plain stings.

But of course, it’s more than all that. Skating is fun and energizing, of course, but there’s nothing like being on a horse.

Skating, or anything else, for that matter, is nothing like riding.

There’s no heartbeat beneath you. No flying mane. No gleaming muscles laced with pulsing veins. No methodical breathing or the rhythmic thunder of striding hooves.

There’s no horse.

There’s no friend there. The one you’re mystically joined to and together launched into freedom and flight.

There’s just you.

And ice. And metal.

I guess that must be the real (and obvious) difference. That there’s no horse.

That’s a very lonely place to be.

When there’s no horse.

I’ve never missed my horses more than right then on that ice. Acquiring the perspective of an ice skater is one I could have, in fact, quite readily done without.

But I guess the rink will have to do until I’m home again. At least it’s a way to get out and move into the fresh air of the night.

Maybe I’ll try speed skating tonight. That’s kind of like show jumping.

…If only there was a jump-off. And a wholesome use for the sugar cubes and remnants of hay I found in my pocket.

There’s no place like the back of a horse. It’s better than being home.


God Made A Horse

Away in Canada and missing my horses. Longing for big sky, mono to be over with (it almost is), and the long, warm days of summer.

Melancholy is in the air, and then I am reminded that

God Made A Horse:

I have five of them waiting on me back at home (plus a pony and a zebra). And that is solace enough.

Every horse is an extraordinary spirit…a living gift…a soul set free and wild with strength, bravery, gentleness, and heart. God made a horse.



Once Upon A Day In Montana


July 17, 2011
Morro Bay, California

I’m supposed to be writing stories for the sci-fi editor in the next few days. He said I can write anything I want…just as long as I write something. He wants me to write something. That’s like a dream come true, but I’ve let everything else…anything else…take priority. Which doesn’t make much sense…because I love to write. And I have two story ideas in mind for him. But neither are sci-fi. I hate sci-fi. After feeding the horses, I went to the coffee shop where Glen and I always have breakfast, figuring I’d write after glancing through the Bay News and The New Times…I have a soft spot for the New Times after all the filming we did there. I feel connected to the New Times…even last week’s issue, which is all this coffee shop keeps stocked…always last week’s issue.

Finally it was time to write and this coffee shop is good for that kind of thing, because it’s not very inspiring here. It was re-painted a few weeks ago and it only made the situation worse. So without any outside inspiration or distraction, there’s nothing to do but look within and turn inside inspiration into a story…right? That was my theory.

Unfortunately, this coffee shop has windows and I happened to glance out just before I began to write the sci-fi I didn’t want to write, and I was literally stopped in my tracks. Stopped in thought…time…everything stopped. For there, on a yellow hill with a big blue sky…was Montana. I mean, cows. There, on a yellow hill with a big blue sky…were cows. Big beautiful black ones resting in the sun. Moving ever so slightly, but my horse eye doesn’t let any slight go without longing and appreciation.

I don’t know how long I was drawn into that mirage of Montana. It’s a phenomenon, the way memories and dreams and time and recall intertwine. Or maybe they don’t, and that’s the true phenomenon. There is one day in particular at the ranch in Montana that will forever be with me and it all came rushing back just now. I knew Montana would stay with me on that very day, so I tried not to think too much…and just let the raw mountains, land, sky, cows, and air imprint away. Just as they are. The day was well into September and it was the first time it felt like fall. It was the day fall arrived. The sense of fall is never so acute as it is on its first day. When summer is only a lingering feeling from yesterday—a long time past. Fall might be the greatest sense in the world. And this day was full of it. The sky was dark and made the yellow hills glow. The air was crisp and cool and crept under my Carhartt and long sleeved flannel shirt, creating an interface between me and the magic of the day. It was all the same. My horse glowed beneath me, too, and we kept each other warm. It was like the saddle wasn’t there. I couldn’t tell where I stopped and he began. We were all the same. We walked and long trotted and loped all around that day, brushing pastures for strays, climbing peaks to survey, racing…flying over the grass to head off a few disgruntled head. I hardly said a word all day and either did my horse…our thoughts were the same…we had a job to do, for in a few short days would be shipping day and four feet of snow. Somehow we knew that this was only one of four days of fall, and so, we worked with purpose, as if it was any other day.

The glowing yellow hills just kept glowing and rolling. Sometimes the grass got long and swayed like waves in the wind. Sometimes it was short and crackled under the stride of this steady, hearty horse. Whose great grand sire walked these same lands underneath real cowboys, and together they only feared bears and rustlers and blizzards and there was no other way to live. There was nothing more worthy to live for. Just like today.

We moved hundreds, maybe thousands of cows that day. And my horse and I passed plenty of other cowboys. Sometimes we were one of twenty pairs, for the entire county had showed up to help, and sometimes it was just us and one other. I started the morning, when it was still dark and cold, riding next to Sam. We rode in focused silence, though it was not really silent, for cowboys on horses on a cold morning with cows to tend make their own quiet sounds as they traverse frosted terrain. Sam and I did not know each other well, and that was mostly my fault. There was enough gossip on that ranch to haunt a ghost. I wanted no part in any of it, so I learned pretty early on to keep my head down and to focus on the dust in front of my boots. I learned too late that Sam was not like the others, and I could have trusted him.

But I finished the day with Sam, too…at twilight at a long trot back to the corrals. He talked to me and I felt my cheeks warm, though the temperature had dropped considerably. A smile came light and easy, and we covered Cornell (me), Yale (him), and a cowboy’s life, in five sentences. That’s just the right amount of talk at twilight. Sam and I knew each other after that, and I liked him an awful lot, but when the cows were shipped, I never saw him in Montana again.

Sometime earlier that afternoon, a big strange corporate fellow who sat exactly on his horse like he most certainly sits at his desk called my horse and I over to talk about Africa and politics because he had heard I had some connection to Africa. He was of little use on his horse, and I could not figure out why he was there. I’d never seen him before and he didn’t seem to associate with anyone there on the ranch, yet he had an air of authority and ownership, and I was afraid that if I didn’t at least approach him at his request, I’d later find out he was part of the corporation or something and I’d be kicked off the ranch for being rude or refusing orders. That’s how it worked out there.

He wasn’t a city slicker, but he certainly wasn’t a horseman. And he obviously had no appreciation for the sacred land or beast he rode upon, for all that was on his mind was opinionated, elite views on third world countries and a political agenda I knew he had no firsthand experience with. He wasn’t trying to impress anyone because I think he already assumed he was impressive, but he was desperate for someone to agree with him, and I could not. I felt trapped riding next to him, tangled in his gutless, pointless theories of the world, but until I knew who he was and if it was okay to excuse myself, I stayed focused on my horse’s ears. He had one on me, and one on this man. My horse didn’t seem to understand the man any better than I did, and I took comfort in that, but the ear on me told that me that he especially didn’t understand why we were meandering alongside this fellow when I was obviously so restless to be anywhere else. I could feel him slow up a bit as he rocked back on his haunches, ready to gallop forward at the slightest indication the restlessness won out. I let my body go limp in response, mostly to tell my horse I felt as forced as he did but partly because it was getting harder to pretend this man’s conversation was captivating and sit up straight at the same time. I was done with pleasantries by that point. Some guests would come through that ranch as wonderful as human beings can possibly be. Others would come and let you groom their horses and cook their meals before the sun was up and then ask you to eat on the cold dark porch because they preferred the hired hands out of their sight during mealtime. The best people were the ones that had never been around horses before (or at least, regularly), and the worst were usually the ones that lived with horses, back wherever they came from, but never noticed a saddle rub or a foxtail or could even see their own child filled with grief and loneliness and no desire to be around horses whatsoever.

Truly, this particular man (I never found out who he was) was nice enough, but I wished for a stray cow that needed to be galloped after or new orders or a glimpse from Sam or Brett that said he needed help—anything to escape—for nothing but Montana exists in Montana and its ridiculous to talk about a bigger world out there. New orders finally did come and sent me to a far corner of the ranch. I savored the escape and gulped in the crisp air and all the flavors of fall, as my horse and I followed a new path to freedom, and the sky warmly darkened into purples and blues, gently pressing and swirling around anything that wasn’t earth, imparting a feeling of heaven and peace. The day seemed to last forever, and for that, I will forever be grateful. The sun hung low in the sky, and the land reflected golden yellows of honey and cornflower. My horse and I went on for miles and hours, as did everyone else, but it never felt so. I can’t imagine riding a cloud would feel any smoother than the back of my horse, and I knew dying would no longer be something to fear, for God had given me a feel for Heaven.

There’s always a touch of melancholy in fall, and on this particular season it was that the horse, the old saddle, and the land underneath and all around me…would never be mine. It’s not that I wanted ownership, I just wanted a tie. I couldn’t think of any thing better to be than…Montana. A Montana cowboy that couldn’t separate herself from her or horse or the mountains or the tall grass. I didn’t want to lose who I was or where I belonged that day. Memories fade. But I guess imprints don’t. I knew the day and the magic would forever be with me…but I was afraid the restlessness of a civilized, noisy world might swallow me up before I could return to this life for good. Everything about that day was so crisp and beautiful and rugged. But today, this day in California, upon a glance at a yellow hill dotted with cows, it all came rushing back, and I feel what it’s like to be a Montana cowboy who can’t separate herself from her horse or the mountains or the tall grass. It’s a connection that feels far from human and so it sits just right.

‘Tis Still The Season



This is a story about a Christmas Miracle.

I don’t know if many people believe in Christmas Miracles.  But I’m writing to tell you that they exist.  Like all my stories, my Christmas Miracle is a long tale to tell—perhaps the longest yet.  I know it’s been almost a month since Christmas, but I read on my friend Sally Price’s Facebook wall that Episcopalians celebrate Christmas even after Christmas is over.  Since my Christmas Miracle didn’t happen exactly on Christmas, this made sense to me, and I wonder if God’s trying to tell me I should be Episcopalian.  I’ve been without a church for awhile.  Last year, I got kicked out of the one I grew up in.  They called me an idealist and said my ideas condone sin.

What does a Christian fight for if not for idealism?  I don’t know.

But I think that’s where I went “wrong.”  I fought.

There’s a kid’s church song that was always taught in Sunday school:

“Lord I want to be a sheep, bah bah bah bah….”

Sheep get lost a lot.  And they’re not very smart.  They never seem to know who they are or where they are going.  Their keepers are dogs.  DOGS.  Not even real shepherd men.  The shepherd men (and women) manage the dogs who manage the sheep.  Kimberlee Jacobs, one of the best people I know, she takes the most beautiful pictures of this life.

Sheep, as sheep, have their place, but I don’t think God wants for US to be sheep, too.  They seem like a real headache, but sheep are probably a lot easier for a church to handle than…I don’t know…a room full of idealists.  So I fought because I didn’t like being treated like I was lost and oblivious to what was going on, and they kicked me out.

Maybe I’m nothing more than the proverbial black sheep.

Anyway, I like the idea of being an Episcopalian, and I don’t think it’s too late to be telling this story because it’s still the Christmas season, in my opinion.  Plus, my grandfather says it’s never too late to tell a story especially if it’s true.


It all started a long time ago, when my parents decided I was old enough and serious enough about horses to have one of my own.  I imagined finding a beautifully colored paint or a pinto or a white horse with a black mane and tail (my dream horse), but as soon as I set my eyes on a gangly, awkward, unwanted gelding, I knew he was the one.

His name was Ozzie, but I had already decided that I was going to call him Oz-Man.  His coat was the color of the sweet potato casserole my grandmother made for Easter.  Ozzie was not a chestnut, but truly, almost orange, flecked with white.  Like a tabby cat or the inside of a pumpkin.  And he was so big.  Divinely big.  Almost 18 hands.  A giant.  He was so gentle and friendly, but he scared most people, just from his sheer size, and I think that’s what I loved most about him.

Oh, how I loved him.

I loved that he was different…because I was different.

I was in love with him after the first ride, but I rode him four or five more times before my trainer and my mom agreed that we could proceed with a vet check and finalize the sale.

I went to bed dreaming about him every night.  In school, I’d doodle his name all over my notebooks.  I could never decide if his name looked better in cursive or print.  If I closed my eyes, I could picture the two of us together and how it would feel galloping under his great stride into the show ring, as confident and regal as Alec and The Black Stallion.  I could even hear the announcer from the judges stand, “Ladies and Gentleman, in the grand prix ring, we are pleased to welcome Jennifer Sulkowski riding Oz-Man…”

Of course, Ozzie wasn’t a grand prix horse (he was barely a “C” circuit children’s hunter), and I wasn’t jumping more than 3 feet at the time, but hey, we had our whole lives ahead of us.

Or so I thought.  I never actually had the privilege of calling Ozzie my first horse.

A profound wave of sorrow washed over me when my mother told me the vet had found something wrong in Ozzie’s hip.  There was some sort of mass that had accumulated from a fever he had when he was a foal, and within a matter of months or a year, his working career would be over.

None of it made sense.  I hated the vet for ruining my life.  I despised my mother.  I pleaded and cried for three straight weeks, offering to give up everything….showing, riding lessons, and even my life savings of $175.20 if only I could still call Ozzie mine.  I vowed to take care of him, even when he went lame, and I promised I’d never complain when I couldn’t ride him anymore.

But no one would listen.  My mother would not relent.  And I never saw Ozzie again.

I’ve never forgotten about him, though, and the older I get, the more I realize what a saint he was, packing me around over fences like that, with some poor mass on his hip, never complaining and always just happy to go and have a job and take care of some ten or eleven year old kid he only met four times.  He probably treated everyone like that.  But when I was little, I only knew him as the greatest horse in the world…and it only took a single ride before I was swept off my feet, certain that we were destined to be together forever.  I will never forget him as long as I live.  Nothing and no one has ever made such a profound impact on me as that poor, forgotten, gallant gelding.

I still kept up with my training after that, but it was awhile before I was ready to start looking at horses again.  I kept hoping that we’d get a phone call from the vet saying he’d mixed up the x-rays and that Ozzie was really as healthy as…a horse…should be…and then this nightmare would be over.  For a good few months, I always kept the house phone within an arm’s distance.  Eleven-year-olds didn’t have cell phones back then.

But that miracle, soap opera phone call never came.  And I was always riding an ornery old lesson horse that bolted during lead changes and bucked me off over fences and although that’s funny looking back and I sure did learn a lot (for both a good laugh and perspective, watch “Ed Being Naughty” on Youtube), it sure wasn’t much fun at the time.  After riding my Ozzie, who would walk through fire before letting harm come to me, I had finally had enough of riding an old sour grump.

On one very cold winter day in January, I remember driving for what seemed like a long, long time to a faraway barn made entirely of brick.  I was excited to meet new horses, but the sadness I experienced with Ozzie had turned me into a realist, and I told myself not to expect anything.  I remember standing in that cold barn, feeling a dark cloud hanging over me and being very uncomfortable with the harsh reality of the adult world.

The trainer of that barn brought me out of my gloom when she asked me, straight and square, as if I was an adult, which of two sale horses I wanted to see.

“Boomer or Phantom?”

Neither of those names sounded promising.

…But I did have to admit that it was pretty hard to beat a name like Ozzie, so I tried to keep an open mind.  I had read a lot of “Goosebumps” and watched plenty of episodes of “Are you Afraid of the Dark?” to know that phantoms were always personified as headless horsemen, and that just seemed like bad news.

“Boomer, please,” I said, feeling pretty proud of my rock-solid deduction regarding the unknown.  Maybe I’d be okay in the adult world, after all.

An older lady soon emerged from the cold barn shadows with the horse called Boomer.  I don’t remember much about our first encounter.  I don’t remember what he did while we were getting him ready, but I imagine he probably tried to get at the crossties with his lips.  When it was time to bridle him, he probably looked for a treat after dramatically taking the bit into his mouth, checking to see how pleased everyone was with him about that.

Because that’s what he’s done for as long as I can remember.

There was nothing push-button or fancy about him, but I knew from the second I got up onto his back that he wouldn’t buck or bolt or even refuse a fence, if he could help it.  And he didn’t.  He seemed to love to jump as much as I did, and when I made a mistake, he didn’t seem to mind, which was good, because I’d always beat myself up for a mistake over fences (sometimes, for days), and the fact that he wasn’t bothered made me a little less hard on myself.

I remember his owner looking a little sad when I got off.  She was one of the oldest riders I had ever seen—she was at least 50, which was pretty old to me then—and her wrinkles from years of riding in harsh weather really stood out as we put Boomer away.  She called her dog, a loyal golden retriever, and she handed him Boomer’s leadline, and that dog led Boomer to his stall.

As you can imagine…I was pretty impressed with that.

My mom and my trainer asked me what I thought, and before I could answer, his owner said, “You’re welcome to take him on trial for a week.”

Surprisingly, the thought of getting to ride Boomer again made me pretty happy, and I told his owner so.  She had raised him from a baby, so I understood why she said what she said, and that it was important for her to know I’d look out for him.

A few days later, Boomer arrived, and I rode him for as long as I was allowed to stay at the barn after school.  A week after that, Boomer had passed the vet check and he was officially mine.  It only took a couple rides before I realized that I could love another horse besides Ozzie.  Boomer and Ozzie were nothing alike, so I think that’s why.

I was over the moon to finally have a horse, and it’s something I had been waiting for my whole life.  Having your own horse does something to you…it makes you…stronger and braver and bolder in all aspects of your life.  Life suddenly has meaning and purpose.  Home becomes the barn because that’s where your horse lives.

Truth be told, Boomer was a half-breed.  Half thoroughbred, half appaloosa.  Given the world we were headed into, that’s like going to the shelter, picking out a mutt, and parading him around Westminster, certain you’re best in show.

But for me, the appaloosa in Boomer is where all the magic was.  Appaloosas originated from the Indians, and that breed is not common in the English world (ironic, I know).  My grandmother (my mom’s mom) was an Indian, so I was virtually half Indian, too.  For Boomer and I…it was like fate.  I imagined that my great-great-grandfather was a chief and Boomer’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great grand sire was his horse…and here were our spirits….reunited once again.

Like me, though, Boomer didn’t look much like an appaloosa.  He was a dark bay, with a full mane and an uncharacteristically long, thick tail.  He had strong hooves, and only a few white spots (three of which I think originated from an ill-fitting saddle before I got him).  What I mean is, I don’t look much like an Indian.

But our Indian blood ran through both of us hot and strong.  And that’s how we found each other.  Plus, he could jump anything.  He could gallop fast.  He was incredibly friendly and personable.  He was handsome.  He was young.  He didn’t crib.  There was a striking resemblance to The Black Stallion and the Piebald from National Velvet.  And he was half Indian pony.

So basically, I thought he was the $***.

I don’t normally swear, but I can’t think of a better word or way to describe the way I felt about him.  I do know there wasn’t anything I was more sure about in my entire life, and that was my new horse.

But there was just one problem.

The name Boomer just didn’t fit him.  His sire was called “Barn Burner,” which to me, was just asking for bad things to happen, so I wasn’t about to follow tradition and re-name Boomer after his sire.  Slightly less appalling was Boomer’s show name: “Roll The Dice.”

Being a very solemn student at Plymouth Christian Academy (a Baptist school) where gambling, dancing, and Harry Potter were strictly forbidden, “Roll The Dice” wasn’t going to be something I could bring up in my “What I did over winter break” essay, so that was out, too.

I have no idea why I settled on the name “Charlie,” but that’s what I named him, and I remember it coming to me pretty quickly.  And because Charlie had a white spot on the end of his nose, which very much resembled a fingerprint (even to this day), I just KNEW his show name had to be “Private Eye.”  Like, I thought that was SO brilliant.

And THEN, as if the stars didn’t line up straight enough, during an indoor winter show, my mother forced me to read my social studies book because I had a test coming up, and there was a section on the magnificent leader named Charlemagne.  According to the book, “Charlemagne” means “Charles the Great” and that was just fate all over again.  I knew, right then and there, that when I grew up, my farm would be called, “Charlemagne Farm.”  After my Charlie.  Because he was a GREAT horse.

Charlie.  Private Eye.  Charlemagne Farm.

I was just like, “OMG, we ARE the $***.”

Thankfully, I was SO awkwardly different I didn’t know it and everyone was nice enough not to tell me, because in the horse show world, kids under twelve are supposed to ride horses or ponies called “Daddy Said No” or “My First Smooch” or “Yum Yum Bubblegum” because judges like cute, corny names like that.  Judges especially like cute, naughty ponies because I guess it’s funny to see ponies go around—with cutsy names and cutsy kids on their back—while they have their ears pinned the whole time.  Truth be told, it IS pretty funny (seriously, watch “Ed Being Naughty” on Youtube) so long as you’re not the kid trying to keep your naughty pony from bolting out of the arena before he tricks you and slides to a purposeful stop in an attempt to throw you off.

Little girls are also supposed to wear their hair in long braids tied with oversized bows and little cutie riding jackets and little jodpurs with garter straps.

But not me.  My mom sewed my show coat from a pattern from 1972 and I insisted on wearing traditional riding boots, with my hair hidden in my helmet.  Basically, I looked like a boy, but that is exactly what I was going for because I wasn’t riding a pony or any old horse.  I was riding my bad-@$$ Indian pony, named “Private Eye”…all because he had a spot on his nose that looked like a fingerprint…and also I was totally into Sherlock Holmes (the books…not the show), and as we all know, Sherlock Holmes is BAD-@$$.

We stuck out like a sore thumb.

But you know what?  Judges like underdogs, too.  Because we won.  A lot.

But Charlie helped me with a lot of other things.  He saved my life on countless occasions.  He saved me over so many fences, and when other horses would have thrown their riders right off, Charlie nobly and gracefully did the best he could to save the fence and my pride, too.

Charlie helped me make friends.  Human friends.  Keriann Griffin was one of the first.  Our moms were the best horse show moms there ever were.  Keriann and I both had dark bay horses, and it rained a lot in the Midwest, especially on horse show weekends, so we called ourselves, “Bays in the Mist.”  And Keriann’s mom would take off our martingales for the flat classes and put them back on for over fences and my mom would wipe the slobber from our horses’ mouths and check our boots for splattered mud.

I wore a bikini for the first time riding Charlie, which was (and still is) very risqué for me, and I put a beach towel over his back, which I just thought was so clever because we were competing in a fun “beach” themed bareback class at the end of a show.  Charlie also got a snorkel and mask stuck to his head.  He tolerated that like a champ.  I still have the towel, and I think of him every time I pull it out.

Charlie and I didn’t win that class.  We didn’t even place.  Because the cutie thing to do was to put floaties on your horse’s legs and buy buoys to swing over your horse’s back and get a custom life ring made to fit around your horse’s neck, complete with a horse sized lifeguard whistle and a bubble machine which spat out real bubbles, while you held a squirt gun so you could playfully squirt the judge every time you passed by at the sitting trot.

Pony kids go all out.  You have to when your pony’s show name is “Yum Yum Bubblegum.”

Charlie was my whole world, though, and if it wasn’t for him, I think I would have turned out a lot differently.  I got pushed around a lot in school, and I never knew what to do about it, so I just waited for the bullies to show up and then I cried.  I hated school.  I dreaded going, but I always knew I had a horse to come home to, and that made all the difference.  I belonged to a horse and a horse belonged to me, and that’s all I needed to be okay.  I know a lot of kids don’t have that, and I can understand why things turn out very sadly and very differently, and that’s not fair.  It’s a tough, lonely world out there, in school, and I think it’s even harder now than it was then.  I can see it when I visit schools to read the book.  You can see it on every kid’s face, even the bullies.  It’s not easy being a kid.  I worry I’ll forget that one day.

Eventually, I began to outgrow Charlie.  I had another horse at that point, and I was learning how to jump bigger, more complicated courses.  I was ready to start showing more seriously…more professionally, and Charlie didn’t have the ability to come with me and do that.

My mom sat me down and laid out the options.  1)  Sell Charlie.  2) Find someone to lease him and pay his bills.

I hated both options, but I chose the latter because I could not bear to let Charlie go and I DID understand horses were expensive and money was tight.

Beyond obvious twelve-year-old reasons, I did not like the family that leased him.  The little girls were silly and immature, and their step-mother introduced them to riding for looks, and not for sport or passion.  I didn’t trust their trainer, and I had no say in any of it.  As we packed up the trailer and prepared for five months of straight showing across the United States, I said goodbye to my beloved Charlie knowing something was very amiss…and knowing no matter what I said (and did say), I’d be treated very much like a twelve year old and told to be quiet because I didn’t pay the bills and I was not a horse expert.

Five months later, I came home to a horse that was so lame he could barely stand on his own.  I didn’t recognize him.  Charlie looked completely broken.  After a series of vets and a dreadful trip to Michigan State, we found out Charlie had EPM, which is a neurological disease caused by a protozoa that slowly eats away at the nerves in a horse’s spinal cord.  The disease can be terminated with treatment, but the damage cannot be undone once incurred.  With clueless leasers who took no interest in the horse they were riding and a trainer that did not want to lose money on a horse that was laid up for treatment, no one said a word or bothered to call.  So Charlie continued to deteriorate until he couldn’t be ridden by the girls anymore, and he got to the point where he could barely walk.  He was then left in his stall to rot until we returned, and by that time, he didn’t know where all his legs were.

We started treatment immediately, but the vet wasn’t sure if it was too late.  He wanted to do a spinal tap to confirm his assessment, but he said there was a chance Charlie might not be able to get up after the anesthesia.  However, if he was able to rise, then he would be coordinated enough to roll in the pasture and lay down like a normal horse, which meant he would still have a quality of life, and he could live humanely.

I think my mother felt her own share of guilt for what happened, but she also knew I would not make it through the loss of a horse.  At least, not under those circumstances.  She agreed we would keep Charlie if he could get up, even though the vet still recommended putting him down because he wasn’t of any use.  He said he’d never be able to be ridden again.  He didn’t even know if it was safe for a farrier to trim his feet.

Being sent to school on the day Charlie was taken off the anesthesia and offered the chance to get up was the worst day of my life.  Thirteen year olds did not have cell phones back then, either, so I had to wait until 2:30pm to find out the fate of my horse.

My mom pulled up in our red minivan…twenty agonizing minutes late… and as I ran to her, she rolled down the window and yelled that he was standing in his stall and we could bring him home that weekend.

When I knew Charlie was safe and that his life would be preserved, I couldn’t bear to be near him.

To this day, I will never forgive myself for just abandoning him.  For years, I just left him alone at the farm with his pasture buddies.  I never knew that the worst things can happen to the most giving, honest, kindest, innocent creatures, even when they are wholly, fully loved.  I thought bad things only happened to the people and creatures that were bad or were forgotten about.  It seemed like that’s how it should have been.  I thought loving something was enough to keep it alive and well and perfect.

It was my first encounter with injustice.  And every time I looked at my dear Charlie, I was reminded of it.  I was reminded that I was just a powerless, insignificant kid that was not able to keep the most precious thing in her world safe.  I felt like I let him down.

And so, I left him to his pasture and our life together.  I tried to forget about it.  All of it.  And in many ways, I did.  I grew up on the show circuit and my life was consumed with training and competing and trying hard not to make my trainer angry because he had an awful temper.  I learned that most girls just sell/give-away/put down their horses for reasons way less significant that what happened to Charlie.  I knew Charlie was living a good life…a retired life.  I was lucky enough to have other horses to ride, so the fact that he could never be ridden again…well, I just tried to forget.  And I assumed he’d forget me.

Many, many years passed.  Twelve, in fact.  Twelve years passed.

At twenty-five years old, I reclaimed the family farm with my other horses and the zebra.  And I was in charge of them, plus Elvis (my mom’s horse), Charlie, and the pony, all on my own.  This meant I was around Charlie again.  Every day.  I fed him and watered him and groomed him and led him to and from his pasture.  He was as wobbly as I remembered, and it was hard to remember.  But, of course, he captured my heart all over again.

Twelve years is a long time for a horse.  It’s a long time for a 13 year old girl, too.  But it was like nothing had changed, at least, not for Charlie.  He’d walk me to and from the barn every morning and every night, for as far as his pasture would allow him to go.

With the zebra to account for, I had to switch up the herd, and I ended up putting most of the horses together because the zebra did better in a bigger group.  I noticed that Charlie seemed happier and livelier after that.  He’d canter around sometimes…and even buck and play, but I tried not to notice.  Without really deliberately realizing it, I still kept my emotional distance.

But one day last summer, a family friend came out to fix the drain in my bath tub which is actually a horse trough, and he brought his twenty-two year old son with him.  Twenty-two year old boys are an interesting sort, I have found—very cocky, even when they are self-proclaimed gentlemen (never a good sign) and they often mistake wit for stupid in an attempt to impress girls.

As he was looking out the farmhouse window, this chap’s line was, “I see you have a pasture ornament out there.”

“What?  Where?” I asked, frantically looking for a rusty bird feeder or some other piece of junk hanging from a tree that perhaps I had missed, for the previous owners of the farm were peddlers, and trinkets often annoyingly appear after a good rain or seemingly out of thin air, in the garden or sticking out of a bush.

“That black horse out there.  It doesn’t really look like he does anything.”

He was referring to Charlie.

“Well, he’s retired,” I said.  “He got hurt a long time ago.”

“So basically he’s useless,” this boy replied, with a smirk on his ugly face, and clearly feeling ridiculously proud of himself for such a keen observation.

I thought about punching him (I’m not proud of that).

“Useless?  No.  He’s not useless,” I said (hollered).  The anger I had for this ignorant punk just filled me right up.  “First of all, that horse took VERY good care of me when I was little.  Second, he HAS a job…it’s…babysitting.  He babysits the zebra and the other horses.  THIRD, it’s not his fault he got hurt.  It doesn’t mean he’s useless.  He’s happy.  He lives a very happy life.  He makes other people happy.”

I always feel better when I count during an argument, but I was surprised at how quickly I had become defensive.  And yes, I WAS aware at how *slightly* irrational I was being.

I ignored that kid for the rest of the day (and every day since), even though he did fix my drain…and the washing machine.  And the porch light.  But he called my horse useless, so I’m not sorry.

But he did make me realize what a horse Charlie truly was…and still is.  Charlie IS the $***.  He’s still got it.  And I started spending a lot more time with him after that.  I guess my heart could finally accept what happened.  Besides my parents and the farrier, hardly anyone I know has known me since eleven years old.  And here I am, now twenty-six, lucky enough to still have my first horse.  He probably knows me better than anyone, and when we are together, it is as if no time has passed at all.  We forgot nothing about each other, and I was relieved to discover nothing had changed.  He even accompanied me on a few photo shoots when I needed a dependable horse I didn’t have to worry about keeping tame or stampeding the photographer.

But that not the Christmas Miracle.  That’s just the back-story.

Christmas really brings out the dysfunction in the Sulkowski household, so Christmas never feels like Christmas, unless Christmas is supposed to feel like a disaster and all the black-and-white Christmas movies just play it up.  This past Christmas was also around the time I started to feel a bit unsteady (mono hit 10 days later), but I was still okay.  As I trudged through the snow banks and down to the barn on the next dark cold night to look in on the horses, it started to snow again.  It was just a little bit before midnight on the night after Christmas.

“I need to ride,” I thought to myself.  “This is too beautiful.  I need to ride.”

I walked into the barn and tossed hay to the horses in a hurry.  I HAD to ride.  I quickly went through the string: “Le isn’t into rule breaking, Safari doesn’t like snow, Rivaldo’s hungry, Elvis is keeping the zebra company, my feet will drag in the snow if I ride the pony…so… I guess I can’t….”



I whirled around and looked at Charlie, who was completely ignoring his hay (unusual) and looking at me straight in the eye.  His head titled again as if to say, “yes, you got it.”

I quickly calculated my options.  Either I don’t ride…or I take Charlie.  Nevermind that he hasn’t been ridden in over twelve years and I would be taking him out on a cold, dark night…bareback…but is he really coordinated enough for that?  Can he hold my weight?  What if I hurt him?  Am I pushing him?  I looked outside as the snow continued to fall.

I decided that if we fell, we’d just be falling into the snow, so we’d be fine.

But did I even have a bridle for Charlie?  I took a mental tally of all my tack and where it was.  Charlie’s petite Indian pony head was not going to fit in the huge warmblood bridles….BUT I did have an old hackamore (a basic and bitless bridle) that was too small for everyone. I’d only kept it because it was $5 and it would’ve cost double just to send it back.

So basically, I was planning to get on Charlie bareback and without a bit.  I’d never ever advise anyone to do something like this.  It wasn’t smart.  Or safe.

I literally feel like I need to say: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME OR WITH AN EPM HORSE.

But I could feel the Christmas spirit, so I felt this was an exception.

I excitedly grabbed the hackamore and it fit him with just a few slight adjustments.  It was impossible to ignore his ever-brightening eyes, and it just sent me into a bigger hurry.

I put on my helmet (always wear a helmet), and out the barn doors we went.  I brought him up to the mounting block and heard my mother’s voice telling me I was crazy for getting on a horse bareback that hasn’t been ridden in twelve years, but I wasn’t scared, I was just trying to figure out how I’d get on him and compensate for the fact that he’d probably bolt from excitement but potentially be very unsteady, and therefore, unable to keep his balance.

I decided I’d just go for it.  I swung on his back, and like the olden days, I could not have been any more awkward because Charlie did not bolt, but instead, just stood there, as patient as if I was eleven, and waited for me to sit on him like a normal person.  I had severely overcompensated my swing.

And then…oh my goodness….I was sitting on him.  Like a normal person.

I hesitantly allowed him to walk forward, still completely unsure as to whether or not he could bear my weight and still feel his legs.

But he navigated through the deep snow just fine.  His footsteps were as sure and steady as could be.


He felt exactly as I remembered…and before I knew it….we were trotting.  Charlie was TROTTING.  Gliding, really.   He felt perfect.  So smooth.  My body just wrapped around him instinctively.  Muscle memory, even after twelve years, is extraordinary.

Those moments on his back, riding through the snow, soaked into my soul, and I thought my heart might burst.  Gabriel trotted faithfully behind us, just happy to see me happy, and I couldn’t be sure if I’d ever been happier.

Then, Gabriel decided the snow was a little too exciting and he started hopping and jumping all around.  He was being completely naughty, darting in and out of the woods, and I was afraid to wake the neighbors calling for him like a banshee because at that point, it was almost 2am.  With a zebra virtually in their backyards, we tend to cause enough commotion as it is.

Charlie would have had every right to bolt/spook/rear and this story would have a very different and probably tragic ending….but no.  He just kept right along, as steady and careful and right as rain.  I could feel his heart beating, and I could feel that this meant as much to him as it did to me.  I could tell he’d been waiting on this for twelve years.  Just patiently waiting.  Never once feeling sorry for himself.  And knowing that one day, I’d come back to him.

Because Charlie is the $***.

After a few times around the track, I decided that we’d better head back in.  He was starting to get a bit wobbly, and I knew it was because he was getting tired.

I’ve had a lot of amazing rides in my life.  Fast and furious jumping courses, long gallops in the field, cattle drives, deep river crossings, and quiet trails through the mountains and the woods, but this ride on Charlie was one of the most glorious moments of my life.  And all we did was trot in the backyard.

Looking back, it’s interesting that I never questioned the vet, but I guess I was better behaved back then.  Or, perhaps, I figured retirement was a small price to pay for my horse’s life.  Maybe it takes twelve years for spinal cord nerves to restore themselves, but perhaps EPM horses are never given the chance to live that long to find out.  I’m not sure.

But that ride was truly a Christmas Miracle.  And sometimes, dreams come true before you even dream about them.

I just thought more people should know about that.

Christmas Miracles do exist.  And magic is still alive and well.