From Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul II

Bending the Rules

Pain nourishes courage. You can’t be brave if you’ve only had wonderful things happen to you.

Mary Tyler Moore

Not quite six years ago, I flew from New Mexico to Kansas to try a horse with my horse trainer, a woman I’d met just two months prior. My previous riding experience consisted of riding school horses on occasional trail rides and briefly owning an un-broke Arab who tossed me in the dirt more times than I ever want to remember. I was, in very polite horse lingo, green. Not only did I know nothing about trying a horse, I hadn’t a clue about eventing, the competitive horse sport I had viscerally chosen to pursue.

The horse’s owner met us at the airport and drove us out to his barn. He and my trainer talked old times and business while I changed my clothes, got the horse and walked to an indoor arena. The owner left us to ourselves as soon as I mounted. My trainer turned head-on to the horse and me, silently focused her attention and eagle eyes, and then told me to walk, trot and canter in circles.

“Good,” I remember her saying, “The owner’s getting his four-wheeler. We’ll drive out to the cross-country area. You just follow us at the walk.”

I just nodded, too intimidated by the whole experience to respond out loud. Once there, she told me to go over some jumps. We did.

“Good,” she said again, “The two of us are going back to the barn. You go for a hack.”

The broad-blazed, burnt-orange, chestnut Quarter Horse and I headed out. The sparkling, filtered light intensified, almost animated, the meadows of full-leafed trees and still running creeks. A chorus comprising assorted birdsongs, the horse’s four-beat footfall and my seat’s back and forth rubbing against the saddle leathers filled the pungent, fall air. I remember thinking at the time, I’m doing, right now, this very instant, something I’ve dreamed of doing my entire life! I must have gotten lost in time and fantasy because my trainer and the owner came back on the four-wheeler looking for us. “Where have you been?” she asked. “Are you all right?”

“Never better,” I beamed.

On the flight back to New Mexico that same day, my trainer said she thought the horse and I were a good match and that she’d like my okay to get the horse vetted. “Fine,” I said. I didn’t know what getting a horse vetted meant either.

That same week, my husband and I, with our two dogs, drove up to Colorado. Friday, I had a bilateral mastectomy. Eight days later, my trainer called. I was still semiconscious from being unable to take pain medication but I wanted to hear about the horse. She must have talked details about vet results but all I remember her saying was that she thought we ought to get him. All I recall my saying was that I wanted the horse to be at her barn in two weeks.

“Why two weeks?” she wanted to know.

“Because I’ll be back in two weeks. I need him to be there when I am.”

Two weeks later, the horse and I met again in New Mexico. Three weeks after that—and no, I did not tell my doctor—I got on my new horse, Red. It was obvious, even to green me, that Red knew more about most things than most riders and most horses will ever know about anything. But mostly, Red knew that I couldn’t fall off him. Any fall, for any reason would have ripped apart the not-yet-healed stitches that were holding my chest together.

Three weeks after that, I realized that everyone riding at my barn was going to a show in Arizona. I told my trainer I wanted to go. Our conversation went something like . . .

“Great, it would be great for you to come with us and watch.”

“No,” I said, “I don’t want to watch. I want to ride.”

“What?” She laughed out loud. “Are you crazy?”

I didn’t say anything.

“You’re serious, aren’t you?” She seemed stunned. “You don’t know anything about riding! You don’t know the first thing about eventing!” she continued. “You just had this surgery! You are crazy!”

I didn’t say anything again.

Finally, looking down at the ground, my trainer whispered, “Is everything okay with you?”

“No. It isn’t.”

Neither of us said a word for a very long time.

Slowly, very slowly, she said, “I’ll think about it. What you’re asking me here goes against everything I know. Everything I’ve learned in thirty-five years.”

“How long are you going to think?” I asked.

“I’ll tell you my decision tomorrow.”

Three weeks later, my husband and I, Red and our two dogs caravanned with everyone else from the barn to the horse trial in Arizona. Even after daily lessons to get me ready, I still wasn’t sure about the geometry of a twenty meter circle. I was even less sure that I’d be able to remember the dressage test I was supposed to ride. It turned out that I didn’t. To top off the day I got lost in stadium jumping, didn’t hear or even know anything about a disqualifying whistle and didn’t leave that arena until Red and I had jumped every jump of our course. I heard two years later that my trainer had buried her head in her hands during our round.

The next day, Red and I entered the start box for crosscountry. My trainer, unknown to me, had begged the event organizer to let me ride the course despite rendering myself ineligible in stadium jumping. I remember thinking at the time that cantering over logs and rocks and into water on a horse was the most exciting thing I had ever set out to do. It turned out that it was. When we got to fence fifteen, an open arrowhead the likes of which I hadn’t seen during my three weeks of training leading up to the competition, I said to Red, out loud, “I don’t know what to do here. But you do. Just remember, I can’t fall off.”

I’d swear to this day that Red said, “Fine.”

I gave him the reins and we went. Three more fences after that and we completed the course. Clean and clear.

My family was just beyond the finish line, yelling and barking. I slid off Red, burst into tears and wrapped myself in my husband’s arms and the dogs’ slathering tongues.

“I’m alive,” I sobbed.

Now, not quite six years later, I’m still learning dressage geometry, still occasionally getting lost in a stadium round and still absolutely ecstatic jumping cross-country courses. My trainer and I are still together, now as good friends as well as crazy student and eagle-eyed trainer.

Red died a few months ago. A benign cyst turned malignant. When we were both cancer free, he “pre” and me “post,” that broad-blazed, burnt-orange, chestnut Quarter Horse found me in the air time after time after time. And time after time after time, Red taught me to find the verb “to live” inside the phrase “being alive.”

Janet Steinberg

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