I started horseback riding when I was 5, after a vicious divorce ripped my family in two different and distinctly dangerous pieces. My father’s debilitating, disabling back injury awarded him a settlement that went through our lives like water and, in a classic distraction technique straight out of a children’s book about rich brats, I briefly had my own pony. I was naming everything either Lisa or Sarah at the time, regardless of gender, and so my pony became Sarah. She was, in horseman’s terms, fleabitten gray — which meant she was white with little reddish-gold flecks and a muzzle the color of deep fog — but to me, in love with her wide liquid eyes and the gentle way she would nudge my shoulders for treats, she was a unicorn.
She was very gentle with tiny me, and patient with the process of my learning, in a way that nothing else in my life ever was. She was the first introduction I had to an idea that would protect me through the rest of my life: that gentleness didn’t have to come from people. That, frequently, it would not.
Sarah is the only horse I have ever personally owned, and we didn’t have her for very long; horses are expensive, and neither piece of my family had much extra money. I still don’t quite know the details, having received conflicting reports over the years, but she was gone by the time I was 6 and for a time, the gentleness in my life vanished with her. I love my parents, and I loved them then, but that love has never been tame or domesticated; it has always had teeth. And so for a while it was me and my dog and my books, playing alone in my bedroom with a door between me and the thicket of thorns my family had evolved into.
Families unequipped to be families are nothing new; they’re not even anyone’s fault. Parents are humans with all their own messy humanity, and if I can understand and empathize with that as an adult, even if our relationships are now strong and getting stronger and more good than bad, as a child I only knew that my family was deeply unequipped to be a family.
I had a very acute idea of what “home” was meant to do for me when I was young. In the oil painting in my head, a static and beautiful image I’d invented based on everything my books and movies and shows had taught me about families, there was at least one completely functional parent. There were rules, perhaps, and expectations, but there were also rewards: Here is the action, here is the consequence for good or ill. Here is what we expect of you. Here is how we will nourish you. Here is how you will grow. Consistency.
I had none of this. I had absolutely nothing in common with most of the kids I knew, whose families, I assumed, met this standard of functionality. I didn’t know how to talk about mine; I didn’t have the context or the language or the ability to point at any specific thing and say, This. This is the wrong thing. This is a thing I do not deserve.
But I had a childhood, such as it was; I had divorced parents and no siblings and a reading level some five years above my age bracket and a vivid imagination. Naturally, I also had a horse phase. It started with Sarah, but it didn’t end with her.
So many girls have horse phases that it’s become kind of a joke; the horse girl is a trope, a whinnying oddball with a ponytail cantering around the playground with her knees high, jumping over logs, insisting people call her Sprinkles. (Or, if you were like me, and had grown up teething on the taste of your parents’ anger, something edgier.) For me, being a horse girl was never a joke. It was the only way I had to connect with something I loved so much, and was still so distant from.
When I was 8 or 9 I started taking riding lessons again. My mother was convinced I was depressed (it turns out she was right) and thought that being around horses would help. She was also convinced I was overweight, and she worried about me — about my health, about whether I would be bullied, about whether I would be loved. She thought that doing squats on a moving animal, which is a large part of what horseback riding is, would help. So she got me lessons at a nearby riding school.
You can take lessons without owning a horse, because most schools own a half dozen or more horses that their students can learn with. The best schools will require you to learn everything there is about the work of a barn. You show up early to groom your horse and put their tack on before your ride, and you stay late to make sure they’ve cooled down and to take their tack off and groom them again and make sure they have water. You treat these horses as if they are your own.
What I learned was this: A horse is a living animal that weighs anywhere from five to twenty times what humans do, depending on their respective sizes. She is much stronger than you are. She will rarely use that strength against you, unless she’s afraid or really feeling herself. She has feelings. She responds poorly to cruelty and requires infinite patience. In addition to this, she requires you to set the tone, and to set the boundaries, and to comfort her when she’s frightened and bolster her when she’s skeptical and praise her when she’s done well. You have to earn her trust; you have to learn how to talk to one another, and a callous or thoughtless thing — pulling too hard on her mouth, taking out your own frustration on her during your ride — can set you both back to square one. Horses are, in many ways, exactly like people.
Everything in a barn tells a story of work. It’s not romantic work. It’s refilling bucket after bucket after bucket of water. It’s dissolving a bridle into all of its tiny nonsensical pieces with your own two hands, rubbing the pieces with oil and wax until your hands ache, then figuring out how to create the bridle again from practically nothing. It’s scrubbing hooves free of dirt every single day. It’s hauling hay bales up ladders and down ladders and across pastures. It’s feeling like your shoulders are going to fall directly out of their sockets. It’s shoveling one billion tons of shit. It’s waking up at five in the morning to feed a thousand-pound animal that depends on you, who is happy to see you, who looks at you with kindness.
I did not have a lot of kindness in my childhood. I had love in pieces and spurts. I had love with teeth and claws, a living, spitting thing that sometimes let me curl up with it and sometimes cut me. I had anger, I had resentment, I had alcoholism and bullying and the aggressive indifference of many of my teachers. I had my first panic attack in late middle school and didn’t recognize it for what it was until I had another in high school. I had chronic depression and an anxiety disorder that I was frequently told made me too sensitive. I had disdain, and exhaustion, and standards set by my parents that were not really standards but instead a constantly revolving list of their frustrations that I was meant to fix about myself and also apparently the world. I had a capacity for self-loathing that still sometimes crops up when it is least welcome. I had, essentially, every ingredient to become a bitter, fearful, heartbroken teenager, and a bitter, fearful, heartless adult.
But, for my entire life, I have also had horses.
I stopped riding briefly in high school — I fled into a relationship and got what I needed from that — and started again in college, when I realized there was a small hole in my heart where the horses used to be. I owe them a lot. I rode for so long (about 13 years) and I loved it so much (with my entire soul) that it has become a core part of my identity; even now, although I only ride once a year at most, all of my friends know me as their horse girl.
If there is any place more soothing than a horse’s stall in the late afternoon, I have yet to find it. Now, when I feel a panic attack rearing up in the back of my throat, or I can’t turn the noise in my brain down enough to focus, I think about my home.
My home is a horse stall lined with straw, sunlight filtering through the window, turning the wood the color of honey, dappling the coat of the horse I’m standing with, smelling of warm leather and clean fur and fresh grain. When it is happening in real time, when it happens in my life, I am simply doing a job: I am grooming, running a soft brush over the coat of this horse, feeling his breath heave his sides out as he sighs into his dinner, rubbing his ears gently when he presses his face into my side.
That memory has become, as I return to it over and over, ageless. I don’t remember how old I am. This horse is one in a host of horses I have known and loved and learned from. This is a space in my head — the only space — that is just mine, and just calm, during the wildest firing of my faulty neurons; the only space that was just mine, just calm, in the wild, ragged cacophony of my childhood.
My horses didn’t save me from heartbreak. They didn’t fix a family that couldn’t be fixed and they didn’t provide me with a magical portal away from my life. My life is my life; it will always be the weight I carry and the thing that bolsters me.
What they did give me was the ability to dissolve something huge and complicated with my own hands, and to assemble something huge and complicated from practically nothing. To scrub my own life free of dirt; to know there will always be more dirt to scrub; to be at peace with that. To carry a heavy weight very far, and to know when it is time to put it down. To shovel one billion tons of shit. To wake up early for kindness.