I felt ridiculous for crying. As I sat in the corner of my daughter’s room, slowly packing up her essentials, I fought to convince myself that we wouldn’t be gone forever. I refused to feel guilty for abandoning her scraped-up, beloved Breyer horses who seemed to peer at me with suspicion from atop their shelf. I suppressed my sadness as her closet crumbled into my suitcase, leaving behind loosely dangling coat hangers and disordered gaps in her drawers. Clinging to her little pair of riding breeches, I debated if they were worth the space in our limited luggage.
“This trip is only temporary. This trip is only temporary.” Have you ever repeated something so many times that its words lost meaning? My own words started to feel like a lie. My denial faded as I recalled the over-crowded hospitals, the ever-shifting timeline for the vaccine, and the silent streets that screamed of poverty. No matter how hard we reasoned, this chaos was far out of our control. We would be indefinitely displaced by the coronavirus. I packed Ali’s breeches and forgave myself for crying.
“We’re doing what’s best for our family. We’re doing what’s best for our family.” Those words remained true and built a sturdy raft of hope in my sea of uncertainty. Our island home, the Dominican Republic, was no longer safe for us. We’d venture north from the Caribbean to find security in America-- my original home-- leaving behind what felt like everything, including my dream horse, Berlin.
Three years prior to our unforeseen departure, this 17.2-hand warmblood became mine. Meeting him felt like reuniting with my childhood dreams. Once upon a childhood memory, surrounded by a field of tall grass above my head, I escaped into pastures against my father’s permission. Seeking horses was a thrill. I craved their forbidden freedom and overwhelming magnificence.
As I grew up, however, their intimidating unattainability caused me to give up my pursuit of them. I let them go but never quite felt whole. When the stars eventually aligned, I felt a tropical breeze blow through a barn aisle, sweeping me up to a big friendly face. Berlin greeted me from his stall door, introducing his sweet, impressive (and underpriced) self. I rocketed back up to my familiar horse girl heaven.
Only this time, I brought my five-year-old daughter up with me. She stood on her tip-toes in an adorable attempt to impossibly reach his muzzle for a kiss. I picked her up to hold her close to his face. Worlds collided watching them near each other. With an innocent investigation of one another, they accepted each other quickly, and she landed her first kiss on that big friendly face. And so it began.
The three of us bonded underneath rays of nourishing sunshine and shade of waving palm trees. My first and only child, Aliette, blossomed alongside my first and only horse, Berlin. Ali appeared tiny compared to our big bay boy, but her courage and competence were clearly mighty.
Berlin gave Ali the patient space to clumsily brush and pick his feet, to lead him, and to eventually take the reins. He extended a similar patience to me for my rusty amateur skills (why is sitting the canter so hard?). Because of his generous soul, my daughter and I learned together, and grew closer in our shared passion. I never shielded her from the labor and mess involved in the riding process. Her character grew in both compassion and toughness for it. Thanks to Berlin, I grew not only as a rider, but as a mother.
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Alongside the bright blue sea, my family flourished. I shared our experiences through Cultured Me, my equestrian-lifestyle Instagram, welcoming horsewomen into glimpses of our island horsey-life. It’s not often you can say that real life is as wonderful as displayed on social media. In our case, it wasn’t Instagram that was too good to be true, it was reality. My dream life was just that-- a dream. COVID shook me awake from it.
Where do you go once you’re exiled from paradise? In our case, we landed in Scottsdale, Arizona, where my parents had recently moved. The desert felt foreign. Even the heat was different-- dry and empty. Cacti replaced palm trees and we had plenty of sand, but without the water. Our direction in this new territory was unclear. Job prospects were bleak in the pandemic economy. Community was hard to find (social distancing didn’t help this effort). We arrived with little, with much left behind in the Dominican Republic.
With so many questions to answer, and an overwhelming amount of logistical issues to solve, I made the most important decision of all. I chose to surrender all control. The only way to move forward was to let go of our old life. At one point, I contemplated importing Berlin to the states, to desperately and selfishly cling to him through an expensive and stressful transportation. I came to my senses and I chose to let him go, along with any bitter resentment of our relocation. Berlin was sold to people I trust, and I prepared myself to accept imperfection.
Now liberated from my own expectations, I was fully immersed in an adventure. I explored surrounding stables for a chance to work, or to simply sit on a horse. I hopped on a saddleseat horse, tried riding western (it’s Arizona afterall), and helped with chores at an eventing barn. Ali was by my side for the entire tumultuous journey, quick to pick up a pitchfork and handle her circumstances admirably. Like me, she just wanted to be near horses, and wouldn’t complain if she had the opportunity to work for them.
Horses have a way of making any place feel like home. After months of trial and error of barns around town, we found a barn home better than any place I could have imagined. Janet Hischer of Twisted Tree Farm opened her stable gates for me, and inside I was greeted by energetically happy children learning to ride. They radiated nostalgia of my horsegirl days. I was hired to help train them, which was a job I never forecast, but now seems like the obvious fit all along.
It wasn’t long before the final piece fell into place in the shape of a big 15-year-old mare named Bella. Our new girl embodies adventure. Riding her requires a forfeit of freedom. While she’s safe and well-broke, she has a wild spirit, bold canter, and unbound energy. She’ll take you for a thrilling ride. You can either fight a losing battle for total control, or accept her will and allow her to carry you forward. Turns out the most fun is had when you let go and enjoy the ride.
All photos by Alex Tonos.
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