Tonight I tacked up Liam, but not for the same reason I usually do. I wanted to ride, yes, but I also needed to get out of the barn. I know it sounds weird, tacking up a horse in order to get out of the barn, but tonight a very special horse was not feeling well. He is an older thoroughbred, a very well loved lesson horse. He was on loan to the barn, enjoying a semi-retirement while introducing novices young and old to the wonder of horses. Tonight his owners were on the way to pick him up and take him home – where the vet was waiting and a very hard decision would have to be made. A somber stillness hung over the barn, even the horses seemed to understand what was going on.
Liam and I headed for the arena. Usually my riding time helps me clear my mind, and that’s what I was hoping for tonight as I remembered the time when Sonny and I introduced my friend’s three year old daughter to horses.
I got on Liam, and as we walked we heard the trailer pull up outside. Liam kept trying to look out the open door to see what was going on. I moved him into a trot and began our figure 8 exercise, trying to settle both of us into the routine of the familiar pattern. A horse called from in the barn and Liam’s head went straight up as he attempted to turn towards the door. I put him on a 20 meter circle and he relaxed a little, but still felt distracted as I worked to keep my own concentration. Did they get him up and in the trailer? My mind wandered, feeling a little guilty for not being there helping. There were plenty of people there, and they knew where I was if they needed me. But trotting circles was not settling either of us tonight.
As we came towards the next corner, I stood up in my stirrups, taking my weight lightly out of the saddle and resting my hands gently on either side of his neck. I kissed softly to him, a cue I use to get him to canter on the lunge line. I didn’t have to ask again, he easily stepped into a canter, and feeling my weight forward and off his back, in a stride or two he was in a rolling hand gallop. He bounded down the long side of the arena, his stride quickly eating up the distance to the next corner. The soft, rhythmic drumming of hoof beats was like a metronome, soon accented by a soft, snorty puff with each stride as he began to breathe heavier in rhythm with his gait. Now we were focused, fully in the moment. His ears were pricked as he gathered himself up a little in preparation for the corner. He cut wide across it, but I didn’t care, tonight I wasn’t riding so much as along for the ride. The hoof beats drummed on as we circled the arena again and again, his ears ahead and at attention, his breath as steady as his stride. He was loving every minute of it, as if enchanted by the rhythm he created. I hovered over his back and felt the power beneath me, the breeze hitting my face, the joy bursting from him each time he came out of a corner and saw the entire length of the arena before him again, lengthening his stride, covering the distance so effortlessly, before preparing for the next corner. I found myself smiling as he coasted along, then laughing, it was as if his joy was enveloping me, sucking me into the pure pleasure he felt in running. This is what a thoroughbred lives for. This gallop is in honor of Sonny, in hopes that he will feel this joy again, whether or not he is with us still at the end of the night.
I settled back into the saddle and pulled Liam up, refreshed. He sighed as he came down to a walk and stretched his head low to the ground. I patted his neck and appreciated the velvety feel of his recently shampooed hair, the way his silky mane bounced on his neck with each step he took. As we circled the arena, we slowly came back to the here and now, to the events of the evening, to the reality that would greet us when we returned to the barn. As if on cue, Sarah entered the arena, enquiring about our ride, bearing the news that Sonny was on the trailer and headed home. We were back.