ost days I arrive at the barn in my business attire, careful with my patent leather heels as I walk the dirt path to the little red barn. I shed my professional work “skin” and transform into what I often term “my true self”: tall boots, breeches, my blonde hair tucked back into a ponytail. I saddle up my horse and we go out for a cleansing hack, a time when I gradually but thoroughly wash away the stresses of the day. Riding is a necessary part of my mental and physical health. Horses feel as vital to my survival as eating and breathing.
I was born with this beautiful, complicated “horse gene”, untraceable to anyone I can find in my family tree. When I was a child, my parents paid for once-a-week riding lessons on school horses and I rode in a handful of local horse shows. My dad, Herbie, made it clear that my dream of owning a horse while under his roof was completely out of the question. The only way I was ever getting a horse of my own was after college if I landed a lucrative job in a field that afforded me the opportunity to be a horse owner. That goal steered many of my career choices along the way, and eventually, I found myself living a nice life as a pharmaceutical representative, a wife, a mother of two, and a horse owner and rider.
One day, after a particularly great ride, I got a text from my dad revealing that he was diagnosed with cancer. I started to panic. I was a full-fledged adult but still did not have what I would consider a deep, connected relationship with my father. He seemed robust and healthy and raced vintage motorcycles. He recently earned number one racing plates, landing on the cover of magazines – he was important and vibrant. He also tended to be less involved with my life than I would hope. He was distant emotionally and physically. With the diagnosis, I found myself particularly mourning our lack of closeness. I started dealing with my own stages of grief over not feeling like I was important enough to him. I was still childlike in wanting to gain his attention and his approval, and now there was a timeline to fixing our relationship.
Corinne and Celtic Cruise. Photo courtesy MGO Photography.
My dad’s health took a sudden decline about the same time I realized the need to semi-retire my older Thoroughbred-cross. I had purchased him on a shoestring budget and showed him in the low hunter classes at local schooling shows, proud when he would pin. However, he was getting quite long in the tooth, so to speak, and he seemed ready to do a little less. I felt compelled to find him a little girl to adore him and take him trail riding, to live out his days at a slower pace. It took some time, but I found that girl. I was elated for the both of them, but I was quite literally left behind in the agonizing stage of being “in between horses”. I had no seed money for a new horse and my life was full of more pressing and more important adult obligations. I shared some of these concerns with my dad, but the gravity of the loss was not exactly understood. “Why don’t you just find a friend’s horse to ride once a week?”, “Why do you still need riding lessons? You have been riding most of your life!”, and “Can’t you find a free horse?”
I started dealing with my own stages of grief over not feeling like I was important enough to him.
I scoured the internet, pleading for a nice horse on a small budget. My trainer, Sarah Dubost, who had been searching alongside me, found a lead and we headed up to Northern California to look at a gelding. I was going to have to take out a loan to buy my next horse, which felt a tad selfish and irresponsible. My horse shopping experience was turning into a pressure-fueled exercise in anxiety. On our way up to meet the gelding I found myself praying for a sign. The sign I received was not exactly what I expected.
That sign came in the form of a link through a Facebook message. A friend asked if I had seen my picture in Practical Horseman (“Jumping Clinic With George Morris”, Practical Horseman, September 2017, page 14). I flashed back to about a year-and-a-half ago when, on a whim, I had sent in a picture of my grey and I, thinking I would get constructive criticism. I honestly did not believe anyone cared about that picture, and I had gotten distracted, tossing that issue of the magazine into my recycling bin, unopened, still in its plastic.
George Morris’ poignantly disappointing critique about my jumping style was in black and white, and it felt heavy on the criticism, light on the constructive part. He had praise for my old mount (calling him “quite a saint”) but was brutally honest with his less-than-flattering description of my riding, even criticizing me for not grooming him better (I will argue that point if ever given the chance). I felt ashamed, embarrassed, and defeated. My trainer, the new owner of my old saint-like horse, and my horse friends, all had read the column. I was in the midst of driving up to find another horse in order to what... to further embarrass myself?
Photo courtesy MGO Photography.
Maybe it was time to move on. I had spent endless amounts of money on horses through the years. I had many ribbons, but quite honestly, what had I accomplished? In my heart, I knew I had found a sense of belonging and solace in the saddle. When I was on my horse, no one could complain to me about my sales numbers, ask me for homework help, whine to me about laundry piling up. While all those duties don’t dissolve, they are put on hold while I am riding. Gloriously my horse is my safe place. He never judges me for my lack of lipstick, my social awkwardness, a bad picture I put up on Facebook. Conversely, I realize I am not a child anymore, my obligations have changed. Should I quit? I was at a precipice: admit defeat and hang up my irons, or dig my heels in.
When I was on my horse, no one could complain to me about my sales numbers, ask me for homework help, whine to me about laundry piling up.
Needless to say, I passed on the horse I tried that day. He was at the top of my budget and I was at the bottom of my confidence. I was torn between trying harder and giving up. I started hitting the gym instead of the barn. I said “yes” to Friday happy hours with my girlfriends, time which I would frequently miss due to helmet hair and sweaty breeches. I made big breakfasts on Saturday mornings for my kids instead of waking up early for an early morning jumping lesson. I imagined my life without horses. I could afford a Coach purse, I could start getting manicures and pedicures, perhaps I would be a better mother, a better wife, a better friend?
But I was not okay. I felt a huge loss. I felt empty, like I couldn’t get enough air in my lungs. And while I was selfishly wallowing in my self-imposed, horselessness despair, my father’s health was on a deep decline. Concerned this could possibly be his last Christmas, I organized a family reunion trip to the mountains, divorced parents together and all, the critique tucked in the glove compartment.
We had a nice Christmas. I made a makeshift tree out of fallen branches I found outside of our cabin. We ate, drank, and reminisced. Then, my dad came out with an envelope addressed to me. Inside was a check for a new horse. What that check represented was far beyond the cash value. That check was a relationship-changing, life-altering gesture. It felt a lot like an olive branch. My dad chose to focus on me. It was a gift of his love, support, approval, and most importantly, his attention. Perhaps he saw a parallel: my passion for horses, his passion for motorcycles. Suddenly this became the Christmas, as an adult child, my dad gave me an amazing gift: a horse! Perhaps after all that praying for a sign – my dad bought me a horse that would ultimately heal our relationship.
Photo courtesy MGO Photography.
At that moment, I remembered a horse nicknamed Herbie that my trainer had said wonderful things about. Celtic Cruise, an Irish Sport Horse, had been up for sale but the owner seemed to be waiting for a perfect situation for him. He was a seasoned, grey eventer and jumper. I knew he was only 16.1 hands; and as a 5’10” rider, this seemed a bit small. The whole idea seemed far-fetched, looking at a horse that shared my dad’s name. However, how could I ignore this sign? I contacted Sarah and soon enough we were on our way to Los Angeles.
What that check represented was far beyond the cash value.
When I got on Herbie’s back, I felt at home. Everything started making sense. We rode with confidence around the arena, got a lead change, jumped some verticals, even jumped the tiny ditch in the cross-country arena. He made me feel safe. He was motivated, he was cute, and his name was Herbie. I tend to be timid, but Herbie was brave. I tend to doubt myself, but Herbie gives me confidence. I get anxious, but Herbie remains cool and seasoned. It was a bit of a miracle. Herbie came home early January, the same time my dad started another new treatment for his cancer.
The new treatment left my dad weak. After a few months, he made the trip down to visit. We went out to the barn to meet Herbie. Uncharacteristically, he asked me tons of questions: “How often do you ride?”, “How much does a saddle cost?”, “How often do you have a jumping lesson?”, “When is your next competition?” Herbie fed Herbie a carrot, he watched me tack up, jump the little log that always makes me nervous, and he announced, “You made a good choice. And I finally get it.”
The Herbies share a moment. Photo courtesy Corinne Friedling.
Herbie and I showed in our first rated show together this past spring and we did well. My dad is thrilled. He enjoys being connected and involved, he likes bragging to his friends and sharing our pictures. He told me that buying this horse has given him tremendous joy. He said it has been more fun for him than buying himself another motorcycle and that he wished he had done it sooner. On Father’s Day, I sent him the meme that was going around; the one that says “Here’s to the dads… who bought their daughters a horse instead of a goldfish.” It took 42 years, but it happened! I hope he gets back down to the central coast of California to watch us compete this fall. The two Herbies met and proved that, in fact, horses can heal.
Feature photo courtesy Corinne Friedling.