My horse and I had a breakthrough this morning.
I was expecting a breakthrough, given the much-heightened promise from my trainer that today would be The Day that we’d begin practicing jumping.
Mind you, I’ve jumped a horse, many times in fact, and even in a show ring—but that was years and years ago, when I still hung riding ribbons from my bedroom beams and wore nightgowns adorned with galloping stallions. These days, my mare and I mostly keep to the comfort of the rail and spend our hours together working circles and changing leads and building a better, more fluid conversation between us.
So you can imagine my excitement—my fear—when at the end of last week’s lesson, my trainer announced that I was ready. “More than ready for jumping!” she stated firmly, swatting a crop against her calf for emphasis. Nothing too high and nothing too big, of course; the mare I ride, Jill, is a 17-year-old former cart horse whose hindquarters sometimes feel as wide and heavy as a wagon full of bricks. She’s spry most mornings, but she’s aging, and with her breeding and bone structure, she isn’t meant to jump anything more than a couple pairs of cross rails.
And that is quite fine by me.
After all, I’m back in the saddle less than a year—and thanks to our record-breaking, snow-ladened winter, I missed nearly all of my lessons in February and March. It’s taken many agonizing weeks of enduring a soreness akin to pre-season water polo training in college for me to finally feel like I have my riding strength about me again.
As my trainer tells me, now that I have it, I best use it.
This morning broke drizzling and cold, and when I arrived at the barn, mine was the only car in the puddled parking area. Dark rainclouds swelled like bruises across the sky. Despite my waterproof jacket and my awkward attempt at running through the sheets of rain while carrying my saddle, helmet, and tack box, I stumbled into the barn soaked and chilled and regretting that I even had a lesson on a day so miserable, so fit for staying safely indoors.
The barn smelled warm and damp. Birds, having abandoned their soggy tree top posts, stood in rows in the rafters. Muttering in irritation as I dropped my wet gear, I called softly to Jill.
And that’s when it happened.
From down the aisle, I saw Jill’s head shoot up from her pile of hay. She stuck her nose through the bars of her stall, and, as softly as I’d said her name, she nickered. A moment later, she neighed again, this time louder. When I reached her stall, she stood right by the door, head high, ears forward, eyes bright, her front hooves stamping. When I stepped inside, she stepped into me, rubbing her muzzle against my shirt, sighing, pushing into my pockets in search of carrots or apple slices.
It might seem a small thing, to be greeted familiarly, in recognition, by a horse.
But, I must tell you—it felt like the first time one of my nieces or nephews smiled at me, or clutched my finger, or cuddled into my neck, knowing I was a loved one, a trusted one. It felt like a first “I love you,” all sweetness and shyness and relief.
It felt soulful, honest, an unspoken, “I am glad you are here.”
As I rubbed her forehand and neck, I marveled—Jill knew my voice, knew my step, was eagerly awaiting my arrival, for the first time in the long string of dark, freezing mornings I’ve trudged into that barn, hopeful, eager, only to find her reluctant, slow, moving grudgingly, and sometimes acting downright pissy. (I’ve ducked more bite attempts than I can count while tightening her girth and called her a “SASS-afrass!” on more than one occasion.)
But, this morning—moving my palms over her coat and pulling the tangles out of her mane, I felt her body settle beneath my hands, my words. This morning, she knew me; she responded to me.
When we reached the ring, I found out that my trainer’s mother had died unexpectedly the day before and that they hadn’t had a chance to call all of her riders with the news and so I’d be on my own and should consider the next hour just a practice ride. I’ve only ridden without my trainer once before, and it went fine enough. But something different was alight in Jill and in me now. We travelled like a pair of busy-bodies, the dialogue between us never ceasing, as we wove in and out of circles and figure 8’s, as we cantered and trotted and even did some pole work. She listened to my touch, my clucks, responding quickly, attentively, and I listened to her breath, her footfalls. We rode together, a time-tested pair of horse and rider.
As we were doing a few cool down laps, a rider I admire came alongside us and complimented me, saying I handled Jill well, and she was a tough, old horse to handle. I smiled, said thanks, and then he trotted on.
Jill shuffled along underneath me, her ears flicking backward, her head raising slightly when I sighed contentedly and leaned forward, running my hand up the crest of her mane. “Not so tough,” I thought, as she sighed, too.
A few days ago, during a particularly difficult yoga class, as my teacher was walking the room, she paused beside my mat and placed her hand lightly atop my back.
It was a simple touch, not a correction or an adjustment, and lasting no more than a few seconds. But, it changed the course of my practice that evening. Because in that one touch, she grounded me. She acknowledged my work, my struggle, my presence. She reminded me I was not alone.
She recognized me.
Today, my horse recognized me.
I think life is in these simple gestures, these priceless moments of truly being seen, heard, felt, appreciated, for the unique facets of who we are, at our core.
These moments come in random forms—they arrive unexpectedly, and it is up to us to pay close attention, to listen, to stand still long enough, so that we can push past the noise and the wreckage of the world and all its perceived barriers, and, finally, meaningfully, let our true selves break through.