Coming back to what you love

It’s true what they say – the things you loved in childhood are clues in the treasure hunt of self-discovery.

As Mary Oliver says, “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

When I was young, I was passionate about horses. I couldn’t get enough of them. In church on Sunday morning, I would draw them endlessly on the backs of the weekly bulletin. In my high school yearbook, it says something about how I planned to grow up and own a ranch some day.

Luckily for me, my dad always said “I’d rather buy you a horse than a TV.” I wasn’t all that happy about the “no TV” part of that equation, but I was certainly happy about the horses.

Together with by brother Dwight and my best friend Julie, I spent my summers on the back of a horse. We rode every chance we could. We never used saddles. We couldn’t afford them, and bareback was more fun and challenging anyway. The soft animals of our bodies became one with the horses and we loved every minute of it.

One summer day, Dwight and I set out for our daily ride – he on Prince (our favourite, fastest and oldest horse) and I on Lady (a rather finicky horse who didn’t like to leave the driveway, but loved to gallop all the way home). We had just rounded the corner from our driveway onto the gravel road and started picking up speed when something went seriously wrong.

Prince, who was part race horse and loved nothing better than running at break-neck speeds along the straightaway, did something completely out of character. He veered into the ditch and started to stumble. Dwight tried to bring him back on course, but it didn’t work. Prince’s head went down on the ground, he tripped and somersaulted, throwing Dwight head first onto the ground about 5 feet ahead of him.

I yanked on my reins and turned to look at what had happened. Prince was lying there, feet up in the air and head pinned underneath him. Dead. Probably from a heart attack while he was running.

Dwight was shrieking, partly from the pain and partly from the grief of losing our favourite horse. I raced back to the yard and got mom. She did what a practical farm wife does when she has a dead horse on the side of the road that needs to be cleaned up – she called the local mink farmer to see if he wanted some horse meat. By the end of the day, Prince was just a stain of blood on the grass.

We mourned the loss of Prince for months, hardly wanting to ride again. Lady mourned too. She got even more finicky about leaving the yard and the few more times I rode her that summer the only way I could get her down the driveway was to tug on the reins and get her to walk backward.

After Prince was gone, I really wanted another horse. I begged my dad for another one, and he did something that, in retrospect, seems like a rather brilliant parenting move. “I don’t have enough money,” he said, “but I have lots of hay. If you can find a farmer who will trade you a horse for some of these hay bales, then you can get a horse.”

I started scouring the Western Producer, looking for a horse. I finally found an ad that actually said a horse could be traded for hay. I phoned the farmer. He had a young Arabian filly available and was willing to deliver it to our farm and pick up the hay. I was ecstatic. I wouldn’t be able to ride it for at least a year, but at least I’d have another horse. (Come to think of it, it’s rather telling that my first business transaction was for a horse.)

Dusty was a beautiful little horse. I was thrilled to call her my own. Sadly though, being a blossoming teen girl with other interests, I gradually stopped spending as much time with her (partly because I couldn’t ride her yet) and Dusty began to run wild in the pasture. The next summer came and she was uncatchable and unrideable because I hadn’t invested the time in building a relationship with her.

I was determined to change that, and that’s when I learned one of my greatest life lessons. The movies may show rough-and-ready cowboys “breaking” wild horses by dominating them and whipping them into shape, but I knew instinctively that wasn’t the way to tame Dusty.

Instead, I spent much of that summer simply sitting in the pasture near where Dusty grazed, talking to her and waiting for her to begin to trust me enough to approach me. For hours I just sat there, waiting. Some days I brought a bucket of grain to try to entice her. On many days, especially at the beginning, she simply ignored me. Gradually, though, she began to notice me and one tiny step at a time, she came closer and closer to me. At first, I left the grain about 5 feet away from me, to see if she could trust me at a distance. Then I moved it 4 feet away, and then 3 feet, and eventually I held it in my hand.

The first time she ate from the grain bucket in my hand, I didn’t attempt to touch her. I knew that if I spooked her, I might have to go back to square one.

It took forever, but eventually, I could reach out and pat her nose. Soon I was able to stroke her neck, and finally she let me slip a halter on her and begin to lead her around the pasture. Eventually – and again in slow increments – I climbed on her back and began to ride.

When I was eighteen, I took my passion for horses to the next level – I began to teach. I became a camp counsellor and signed up as one of the assistant wranglers. I spent that summer helping reluctant city kids get used to horses. On the weekends, I and the other wranglers would take our horses deep into the woods until we were almost completely lost and then enjoy the challenge of finding our way back again.

One of the most memorable moments of the summer was the final campfire of one of the week-long camp sessions, the night before the kids were leaving for home. A mentally challenged girl, who’d spent the week trying in vain to fit in and make friends, and who’d taken a special liking to me, stood up, and in her boldest voice said “I thank God for Heather, because she taught me how to ride a horse.”

You could say that “everything I learned in life I learned from horses”. I learned about death and grieving, trust, passion, patience, teaching, exhilaration, and sharing.

And then, after that summer at camp, I moved into the city, sold Dusty to a young girl who longed for her first horse, and didn’t go near another horse for far too many years.

Always, though, there was a little part of me that knew that something was missing. I’d watch movies with horses in them, and I’d get an ache in my gut. I’d hear other people talk about riding, and I’d say “I’m going to ride again some day too.” Once my siblings and I started having kids, dad got a docile little pony named Paco or Brownie (depending on which grandchild you asked), and we started taking our kids out to the pasture for little rides. But then Dad was killed in a farming accident, and Brownie and the farm were sold.

I longed for another horse, but having one while living in the city just seemed to complicated and expensive. So I never did anything about it.

But, as you know, these things have a way of resurfacing. First, when I was about to launch my business and this blog, I met a horse named Sophia. It was a powerful moment that I can’t fully explain, but I knew that Sophia had a message for me.

Then I met Sherri Garrity in an unusual way (though we live 40 minutes apart, and have actually worked in the same places doing the same jobs more than once in the past, we were introduced by an online friend), loved her instantly, and found out that she has a horse named Spirit and lives very close to the place where I met Sophia.

Sherri started talking to me about her ideas around holding horse workshops for personal development, and I was hooked. From the very first time we met, we knew that we needed to do something with this shared passion.

And that brings us to today. A few weeks ago, I finally met Spirit, and I fell in love. I’m ready to have horses back in my life again.

In just a few weeks, Sherri and I are co-hosting our first Horses and Mandalas workshop. 

We posted the registration yesterday, and within 24 hours, we were 2 spots away from being sold out. (They’re still available, but there’s quite a bit of interest, so if you want them, sign up soon.) Clearly we’ve hit on something that people want and need.

In honour of Dusty, Prince, Lady, Sophia, Spirit, and all the other horses along the way who have taught me many life lessons, I’m opening myself up to this new adventure.

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