For as long as I can remember, I have loved horses.
Neither of my parents had any connection to horses whatsoever. My mother was terrified of them, and my father once wrote, “The horse and I just don’t see eye to eye. In the first place the top of a horse and my bottom don’t fit. My legs are too long and my torso too short — in short, I look ridiculous on top of a horse and I suspect that it feels ridiculous under me. Maybe the situations should be reversed."
To their great credit, however, my mom and dad not only acknowledged my love, but they also facilitated it. Not only did they pay for riding lessons and send me to horse camp every summer, but on every trip, they made a point of finding horses for me to ride or taking me to stables where I could hang out with horses and their people while they went off and did what they loved to do. On our long road trips together, they kept me engaged by pointing out all the pretty horses in fields along the way — each of us taking turns choosing the ones we thought were prettiest.
They even found their own ways to participate in what I loved. My designer mother, whose expertise as a colorist was legendary, learned everything about horse coloring, and, needless to say, she threw herself into putting together my riding outfits. Despite her fear of being around horses, she came to every horse show. She was the perfect “horse mom”.
When I was about eight, my dad was invited to meet Queen Elizabeth. Knowing that Her Royal Highness loved horses, he told her about his horse-crazy daughter. And she, the Queen of England, invited him to tour her stables and then sent my father home with a picture of himself with her horses plus a horse shoe!! It was aluminum, not iron, because apparently that was thought better for the London streets. Although that was cool enough in itself, what really meant the world to me was that my father had talked about me and what I loved to the Queen of England. That she understood my joy in horses was the icing on the cake. The shoe she gave me is long gone, but my joy in that memory will never leave.
My dad’s great love was art, so he often brought home drawings with horses for our home — as his way of connecting our mutual passions. After my mother died, I found the papers from my parents’ divorce, among which was a handwritten list of about 40 pieces of art my father had given to my mother to caretake for me. For as long as I can remember, my mother had told me that not only did she not believe in inheritance, but that she despised being told what to do with her money. Although those pieces my father were long gone by the time my mother passed, I will always treasure that handwritten list on my father’s letterhead. Every single piece of art on that list depicted a horse or dog or both! It is a snapshot of of the 11-year-old me, whom my father saw, honored, and loved for exactly who she was. That means more than any art ever could.
We never owned horses. My parents told me they were too expensive. When I had enough money, the first thing I did was to buy a horse. That’s when I figured out they were right! As the old adage goes, “Never own something that eats while you sleep.” It’s not the buying of a horse that costs money, but the keeping of it.
The first thing I sold when I lost all my money were my horses. It broke my heart, and if I have to be really honest, I don’t think my heart ever quite recovered.
The happiest period of my life was when I had horses. I rode four times a week with a group of friends who loved horses as much as I did. I adored everything about it — grooming and bathing them, braiding their manes, riding them, watching their babies be born, just being in their presence.
One moment in particular stands out in my memory. We traveled to horse shows all over the West, where I got to spend one-on-one time with my horse and dogs and enjoy the camaraderie of fellow horse lovers. On that particular sunny Saturday morning in a tiny town in Western Colorado, I was warming my horse up alone in a canyon surrounded by the Rocky Mountains, when suddenly my heart swelled with this immense gratitude — that the little girl who loved horses had grown up into a horsewoman! Pure joy!
For the past ten years, I have been horseless. At first I told myself that it hurt too much to be around horses, because they reminded me of my loss. Then my excuse became that I neither had the time or the money to make them a regular part of my life.
How’s that been working for me? The net effect on my life is easy to see. It’s not good. It took my trip out to Black Beauty Ranch to make me see: By severing my connection to horses, I have lost part of myself.
I began writing this blog to be accountable about creating and keeping up a daily practice of joy. I know what my next step must be — opening my heart back up to my pure and simple childlike joy of loving horses.
Why is it when we get older, we get hornswaggled into believing that we must HAVE in order to feel joy? There has long been a debate about the difference between joy and happiness. The general consensus seems to be that happiness is connected to having — it requires external gratification to exist. But joy is innate, because what we are actually feeling is our birthright, our truest self. Sai Baba put it most succinctly, “Joy needs no object; it is our own nature."
Whatever the semantics of the joy-happiness debate may be, the way it plays out in our lives is pretty cut and dried: If we let the having or not having of something — a person, place, period of time, health, youth, money, companionship — be responsible for our joy, we’re, well, we’re screwed.
Visiting Black Beauty Ranch showed me that the “not having” of horses gave me the perfect excuse to let grief replace joy. Once again, I’ve been hoodwinked by some funny math. While I may no longer own horses or even have the time to have them as a regular part of my life, how did I let myself believe that anyone could take my joy in them away from me?
As a kid, I wanted a horse so badly. What kid doesn’t? But that never stopped me from loving reading about horses; playing with my herd of plastic horses; creating a bond with each horse I got to ride; adoring the herds horses we drove past in country pastures. When our dear family friends, the Maitlands, who owned a huge ranch in Colorado that we visited once a year, saw how much I loved Sunny, their old palomino paint, they pronounced that he was “mine”. That didn’t mean that Sunny got to come home and live in our driveway. Sunny remained in Colorado, but came home with me in my heart!
Turns out, it's easy to talk ourselves out of joy. At Black Beauty Ranch, I saw how the desire to “have” — be it hoarding animals, shooting them for trophies, or even taking on an expense that proved too much — had created so much suffering for these supposed beloved creatures. I found such joy in being out on those golden fields with horses who have finally found their forever home with humans who are there simply to care for their well being. They are not being rehabilated to be adopted or ridden. They are there to live out their lives in peace. And peace is what I felt. That changed everything. Because without the trap of “wanting”, without the “story” of my own loss, I got to reconnect with the joy I’d felt my whole life about horses.
Over the course of the following weeks, little fissures in the armour I had placed around my heart developed as I let that joy back in. I realized that, if we deprive ourselves of joy, our lives begin to desiccate, our hearts to atrophy.
In the years of selling off everything I owned to survive, there is one thing I refused to sell — my saddle. A dear friend keeps it in her tack room. . .it has been the talisman of my promise to myself that one day I will have a life with horses. But my visit to Black Beauty made me realize that one day can start right now.
I’ve always loved the quote from the Sioux medicine man, Lame Deer: "Horses make a landscape look more beautiful."
When I was a kid, that was enough. I knew that joy didn't need to be materialized to exist. I understood that joy doesn’t derive from the doing of something. But then in came that stinking thinking of adulthood — the shoulds, the must haves, the don’t deserves. First we tell ourselves that joy depends out outside circumstances, and when that doesn’t work — and it never will — we talk ourselves into believing we have outgrown the expectation of joy. That, in turn, becomes just another excuse for apathy and depression and disconnection from the world. It’s not doing us, the animals we love, or the planet we share any good.
Oprah Winfrey avers, "What I know for sure is that you feel real joy in direct proportion to how connected you are to living your truth.” The fact is, I’ve never needed to ride or breathe into a horse’s nostrils, lean up against their solid warmth, see them grazing contently in a pasture to connect with how much I love them. That love is always in my heart.
The daily practice of joy is about replacing the perception of lack with the awareness of all the love that exists in each of us right now. Joy does not reside not in our bank accounts, our material possessions, our zip codes. As the composer Richard Wagner knew, “Joy is not in things; it is in us."
At Black Beauty Ranch, I realized that I had never lost my joy in horses. I had just talked myself right out of it. It has always been there, waiting for me to come back to it — to make me feel alive and connected, ready say yes to life, to expand instead of contract.
Simply bringing horses to my mind brings joy to my heart.
That’s not better than nothing. It’s everything.
Horses make my landscape more beautiful.
I truly believe that if we all spent less time wanting the having or grieving the not having and instead began tending the landscapes of our hearts, our joy would blossom out across our world. The landscapes of our planet mirror the landscapes of our hearts. By rediscovering, nurturing, cherishing, and practicing joy — however it manifests in each us — we can change the world through love.
PS Honestly, you could have skipped this whole blog, because these two poems say it all far better than I ever could!!!