I've said before that I owe my mom everything when it comes to my love of horses. She was a horse lover as a child and nurtured it in her children. And the other day I learned something about the depth - and importance - of that connection.
Mom grew up in northern New York state in the 1930s. Her dad supported his family of 8 kids as a dairy farmer, so hay was for working animals only. No ponies. No show horses. If he had an animal, it had to earn its keep.
That didn't stop Mom from riding, of course. After chores were done for the day, Mom would grab old Barney - a huge, homely, gentle working draft horse - and drag him out into the barnyard. Not that Barney minded. Little farm girls don't weigh much and an occasional short ride was a small price to pay for some barnyard grazing.
Of course, there was no saddle. No stirrups to use to mount up. So Mom created a mounting block out of milk cans. Uncle Don loved to tell the story about how Mom would fall from those stacked milk cans time and time again before she'd manage to pull herself up onto old Barney. In later years, he even gave her a painting he did of her, Barney and the milk cans.
As a child, I remember asking her why her fingers were crooked. And this beautiful woman - pretty enough to have been mistaken on her honeymoon for Grace Kelly - would smile and say, "I broke every one of my fingers riding Barney. We couldn't afford a doctor to fix them, so they're a little crooked." And she couldn't have been more proud.
When my parents married, Mom spent many years as an Arabian breeder. She was dedicated. And pretty good, too. There's a shadowbox in our tack room with a photo of Mom, taken in 1957, with her stallion Gurur (aka "Pappy"). Next to it is his first blue ribbon from the New York State Fair - a faded ribbon that holds a lifetime of memories.
Mom's effort to be near horses today is challenging for her and for us. She's battling a terrible disease - one that is destroying her physically and mentally. It removes her ability to move and to think. Depression is huge. And when Uncle Don passed away last month, her condition went from bad to horrendous.
It takes an hour to get Mom from her house to the car, but my sister brings her to the barn anyway. We set a chair in the aisle and Mom sits and watches and listens. Her disintegrating body makes her look like a crumpled-up ball. One might wonder if she's even aware. But she is.
She's very soft spoken, too. Making matters worse, her words sometimes make little sense, almost as if she's living in an alternate universe. But she tries. She still tries.
Just last week, as I rode past her, lost in my own training, I distinctly heard her say, "That Paz sure has a nice long stride," referring to my sister's Saddlebred dressage horse. I was stunned.
I stopped and looked at her. Her blue eyes were sparkling with delight, head lifted only so slightly but enough to watch my sister work her mare around the arena, taking in every movement that graceful horse made. It seemed to breathe new life into her - if only for a few moments.
And right then I realized that when horses are truly part of your soul - your reason for living - you'll find a way to be with them. No matter how difficult it is to get your milk cans set up.