I turned 50 in January, and when I look back on the first five decades of my life, there is a distinctive joy that is present in every single one: Horses.
My addiction started when I was little more than a toddler and my parents hoisted me onto the back of a friend's horse. I smelled that sweet smell that's a combination of fur and leather and felt the thrill of being suspended in the air, while at the same time cradled by a generous spirit...and I was hooked.
By the age of eight I had read every single horse book in our public library system, and had started saving up for one of my own in a blue box I kept hidden under my bed.
I bought my first pony at age 12, then came home and announced my purchase to my dismayed parents. I rode all the way through high school, and life at the barn with its simple happiness buffered the bumps, rejections and pain of growing up.
When college, a career and then marriage and a family sidelined horses out of my life, I volunteered to teach riding lessons at a kid's summer camp to get my fix. Once our boys were old enough to make their own sandwiches I found myself agreeing to adopt a rescue filly...and so it began again.
I can think of no finer obsession. The quest of becoming a better horseman or horsewoman is actually about trying to become a better human being, because to be successful with a horse they have to trust you. That in turn teaches you to be trustworthy.
When I was young, horsemanship was all about the physical. Blessed with the Tigger-like buoyancy of youth, my horse friends and I could grab a mane with our left hand and swing ourselves up and over our horse's back with ease. We focused on how to coax our horses to jump higher, or how to win a rescue race.
We had conversations such as, "Hey, let's teach my mare how to ride double today." "O.K!"
And we did. We piled onto my friend's horse, she bucked us off and we sprang up, laughing, and hopped back on until the mare realized we were indeed crazy and not going to tire of that game. Within minutes she was walking quietly with both us on her back.
Now that I'm 50, I'm more cautious with my bones. A bad shoulder from falling on ice means I can't swing onto a horse anymore, but I still run and lift weights so that I'm fit enough to handle a demanding ride. I do yoga. I watch what I eat and it has far less to do with looks than my wanting to stay healthy as long as I can...as well as fit into my riding jeans.
Now that I'm 50, my focus is not on how to push my horse outwardly, but how to refine myself inwardly. How to have better timing so that I drop the lead line or rein and offer a release to my horse just at the right moment, or take a breath and exhale when I want my gelding to stop, rather than using my hands.
A few days ago I spent a long time working with my 7-year-old mare Neela, who has been a lovely broodmare but never started under saddle. I led her up to a fence and rubbed my hands down her neck and across her broad back. Then I rubbed her with my foot, all the while leaning over her so she could see me out of either eye.
Finally I held onto the fence and eased myself onto her back, all the while rubbing her all over and praising her profusely. I stayed there long enough for my friend Julie to get a picture, below.
It was one of the best moments of my life, and one that I know took every moment of my 50 years to reach. I never would have had the patience to accomplish this when I was younger.
Horses taught me that.