From Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul II

Abandoned Hay

Every trial endured and weathered in the right spirit makes a soul nobler and stronger than it was before.

James Buckham

I started riding horses when I was seven. A decade later, I continued to devote my weekend mornings to cleaning stalls, feeding and turning out between eighteen and twenty-five horses for one important and enduring reason— I was always free to be my chronically awkward, occasionally angst-ridden and always raw, teenage self at the barn. Linna, my riding instructor, though the same age as my mom, taught me how to swear in unique, strangely cathartic and utterly tactless ways, instructed me in the fine art of cigarette smoking (thus eradicating my desire to ever touch another Marlboro again) and taught me how to ride. I found Linna when I was twelve and still couldn’t figure out the correct diagonal or what it meant to “roll your hips forward.”

A few lessons later, I was posting correctly and sticking my butt out while I trotted. Linna explained things so they made sense. She also helped my parents pay for part of my eleven-year-old horse, Rain Devil, and forever lamented that my track coach convinced me that my life’s destiny was not to compete for the U.S. Olympic three-day team, but rather to break my high school’s 800-meter record—neither of which I managed to accomplish.

Linna also kept Rain around for the first three years I was at Colgate University, which of course made the subsequent sale of my horse that much more piercing. By the time I left for college, Rain was suitable for lessons or leasing; she earned her own keep while I studied and ran my heart out for my college’s track team seventy miles away. Rain was an ex-racehorse and retired broodmare when Linna brought her to Green Heron Farm. She was bony and ugly with awkward confirmation and was covered from head to toe with rain rot—skin fungus that I picked off diligently with my fingernails. Her feet were thrush-ridden, and she enjoyed rolling until she was entirely coated with a combination of crusty mud and other horses’ manure. Rain felt like an unbalanced washing machine to ride and was known to destroy fences with her head rather than jump them during competitions. Rain and I had a love/hate relationship—we loved each other instantly, but no one could have guessed that from watching the two of us together.

Rain Devil, ears pinned tightly, bit me religiously when I’d tighten the girth and always kicked out threateningly when I’d nudge her forward with my outside leg. After a workout though, I’d feed her carrots and scratch the one spot under her neck that she’d tolerate me touching and she’d nuzzle my thigh after waiting patiently for me to remove her bridle. In horse language, she seemed to say, “Sorry, I was just kidding when I bit you before.”

Rain, while a mare, reminded me of an immature boyfriend with whom you chronically play the game but who, in your own melodramatic, high-school state, are certain you love.

Then, when I was nineteen, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and with the diagnosis, Rain grew up. She abandoned the game and found horse-type ways to feed me carrots. I could no longer ride like I had before, yet something inside simultaneously demanded that I believe in God. Weird, un-Rain-like things would happen. I’d ride her with weakened legs and faltering balance and she’d slowly stop just when I’d lose my right stirrup. I’d arrive at the barn unable to traipse through the swamp-like, mud-infested paddock and she’d sort of roll her eyes and saunter over to me. She stopped biting my upper thigh when I adjusted the saddle and no longer kicked-out when I asked her to canter. When I left Colgate before the end of my junior year due to a paralyzed right hand, Rain Devil was the only thing I wanted to see.

I drove fifteen minutes from my house in Ithaca, New York, to Linna’s farm in Trumansburg and went directly to the paddock that held Rain, the evening’s hay supply and enough mud to suck my tightly tied boots off of my feet. I unlatched the gate knowing full well that I could go no further; I just stood there and watched her eat. And the whole thing was so beautiful. My dark bay, fifteen-year-old horse just standing there quietly eating her dinner, contemplating which section of mud to roll around in next. Every once in a while she’d glance in my direction and her eyes would say, “Yes? What do you want?”

And there, in the mud, watching her chew, the numbness of my hand transformed into the suffocating of my heart and I started to cry. In between silent, snotty sobs, I started talking to her—just like I talked to her in high school when I was in love with the wrong boys or angry with my mother. Except this time, I said the same thing over and over again, “Rain, I’m so scared right now, so scared.” And then I’d cry some more.

What happened next, though, was really the most divine thing that ever happened to me at Green Heron Farm. Rain Devil abandoned her pile of hay and walked over to me. Before I could even move my desensitized fingers to her mud-encrusted mane, she nuzzled her hay-filled muzzle to my heart and left it there, barely pressing into me. Just telling me that she loved me enough to stop eating and that she knew I was sad. So for a few minutes, the incessant fear and uncertainty about my future ceased and only a few things remained; a muddy horse, a pile of abandoned hay and more softness and beauty than my raw self had ever seen.

Kathleen Hooks

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