The topic of Love came up last week, which produced a sobering dose of self-reflection. It probably came up because it's the one thing that unites us all to the selfless and expensive concept of owning horses, an endeavor that leaves most of us asking "why do I do this?" far more often than answers that question.
It all started in the barn aisle when my student began philosophizing about the particular type of longing that afflicts her. It's the type that drags her to the barn even when she can't determine if she's having fun or not, the type that makes her feel like an addict struggling along for several weeks with frustrations and financial setbacks waiting for that next high. She stood wringing her hands and shaking her head.
"It's like chronically being in love with the bad boy in high school," she finally announced. Skeptical, I pondered her analogy, hoping of course to settle on a definition of desire that was lots more high-minded. Wasn't horsemanship, after all, a classical tradition with its roots in nobility and aristocracy? Surely, we were more sophisticated in our pursuit of it than sappy high school girls chasing after the unavailable football quarterback, no?
For my student, though, it felt like an affliction rather than affection and horses were that bad boy with low slung shoulders and a swagger, trapping her in a cycle of swooning-heartbreak-pursuit-swooning again.
Myself, I pondered a more idealistic and self-serving definition over the next days. If we were going to talk about Love, I hoped to believe that I had found the ultimately satisfying lifelong romance. Where some folks like my student might be chasing after the bad boy, I on the other hand had a passionate one-of-a-kind affair.
This begged for a description of the starting point. One cannot discuss Love without admitting where, when, and for whom the feelings first arose that made trumpets blare in one's chest and inspire lines of poetry and cause one to admit that he or she would never again be the same. Do me a favor and think about this yourself for a moment. My own pondering led me to a starkly juvenile confession: my version of Love was no more sophisticated than my student's. In fact, she now seemed like a Hollywood romance starlet while I belonged in a trashy tabloid, at best.
My first Love was a black mare named Sheba. I was six years old. I'm pretty sure my parents bought Sheba with the hopes that she might kill me or at the very least gallop into the next county and get me out of their hair.
In one word, Sheba was dreadful. She was mean, high-strung, prone to biting, and bucked off anyone who tried to ride her. I adored her. I couldn't get enough of the nasty little horse. I drew pictures for her, wrote my school reports about her, molded clay figurines of her. And of course I tried to show her off to all the neighbor kids.
I brushed and polished her smooth black coat until it shined like river silt. And then I mounted up and took off through Mr. Eddy's field which ran the length of West Street for a couple miles, allowing me to showcase my fine steed, and love of my life, at a full gallop to passers-by for as long as I could stay on. Of course, staying on Sheba was the tricky part. I generally only made it half-way down the field before Sheba dumped me right in front of my neighbor Jackie who was a fellow six-year old equestrian and rival of mine. In my many years of trying, I'm pretty sure I never succeeded in impressing Jackie with my riding nor my ruffian mount.
On one particular snowy December day, I set about my usual routine to impress Jackie with Sheba on my 300th attempt. A couple feet of snow covered Mr. Eddy's field, adding some beauty and drama to the scene, I thought, with a trill in my chest! Wait until Jackie saw us streaking through the snow at top speeds. If only I can stay on, if only I can stay on, I chanted. And then, in the demure way a high school prom queen begs her bad boy to stop ditching her and flirting with other girls, I buried my nose in Sheba's mane and asked her gently to please not throw me off. Just this once. Just today, okay? Feeling like we struck an agreement, I swung my leg over the saddle and we hit hypersonic speed within seconds. Snow flew around us and Sheba ran with every ounce of might in her body. What a feeling!, I marveled.
Jackie noticed us, too, and stopped in her driveway for a moment looking straight out at Mr. Eddy's field. Here is my chance at last, I shrieked into the storm. On this 300th attempt, Sheba then bucked and twisted so violently that I flew off the right side and caught my boot in the stirrup. She proceeded to gallop with me dangling upside down, my head and shoulders bumping along the ground, trying my best to turn away from her hooves. I tried repeatedly to break my foot loose from the stirrup but it wedged below the heel. I realized that I would either perish soon or eventually Sheba might stop running. But in either case, I would be dragged for a good long time. And I was.
Finally, Jackie- who for the record WAS very impressed by the spectacle, though not in the way I intended-- came to my rescue. She charged through the snow, jumped off a stone wall, and grabbed Sheba's reins to pull her to a stop. She said nothing, just made sure I was okay, which I more or less was except for a broken ego. I took Sheba's reins and limped alongside her up the road back to our barn reflecting on how closely I just came to breaking my neck. I expected to feel anger towards my demonic horse or feel sworn into being more cautious or maybe quitting horses altogether and finding a different interest.
But you know how it is when you're a sucker for the bad boy.
Later that night, I pulled out my quilted pink Holly Hobbie diary and wrote down the day's events. My mother still has this pathetic diary entry. It goes like this:
"Today, I rode Sheba in Mr. Eddy's field. It was snowing. She bucked me off. I was dragged. I love her."
Had I been a bit more foreseeing, I should have added "I am officially doomed for life with an incurable affliction, God save my soul."