Sunday, September 4, 2011

On My Left Side

This morning dawned beautiful and blue, with a breeze to rustle the trees and brighten the sky.  I moved around the house and opened windows to air out the house, which has been sealed against the heat for months. 

This morning is that morning.  Once a year, I stop my busy life for a few minutes to miss a very special horse.  So right now, I'm sitting alone on our back porch listening to cows moo in the distance and Georgie and Annie tussle in the yard.  The wind is blowing my hair, and the sunrise cuts long lines of shadow and brightness. 

Carob was my first horse love, but Maybe was the first horse I could actually call mine.  This is our story, as it was published a few years ago in a book.

I was so filled with a lifetime's wait that I could hardly believe it when he appeared at the top of the ramp, wide-eyed and snorting.  He paused long enough to rip a mouthful of hay form a swinging haybag and then, chewing, followed the driver down the ramp, carefully picking his way onto solid ground.  He was dark and lean, shining coat over sinew and fine bone.

I took the lead and smoothed his neck while I crooned a hello.  My world narrowed to a pinhole encircling only him and me.  He paced, circled me restlessly and then froze to stare at the horizon.  He stretched his topline and flexed his cordoned hip muscles.  He was elegant, breathtaking.  He rocked forward on his toes.  And he peed.  He let forth a frothing stream he must have been holding for hundreds of miles.  He groaned with relief as I giggled and stepped aside.  The spell was broken.  He was here and he was real.

His name was Maybe and he had come to me through a series of kindnesses following an endless wait.  A lifetime of riding other people's horse, years of university study and an eon of filling a seat in the bleachers as a horseless horsewoman.

As a racehorse Maybe was forgettable but as a hunter he showed phenomenal promise.  Our first few rides proved he was green but levelheaded.  The next few months revealed he was also occasionally bullheaded.  There were times when I'd squeeze Maybe to ask for a trot and he'd lock up.

No problem, I would think, I'll just ask again. 

Cluck, cluck, kick.  Still nothing- he wouldn't move except to pin his ears.  More kicks meant nothing except more pinned ears.
Kick, kick!
And so we would stay, motionless in the middle of the arena, arguing and blocking traffic while I decided how best to move 1,100 pounds of stubbornness.  Half the time I didn't know whether to laugh or howl with frustration.

I reveled in the way people gravitated toward him; they would pick him out of a crowd to pet him and say how beautiful he was. 

Maybe relished nakedness and wrinkled his face halfway up his nose when I approached with a sheet or blanket.  He loved treats with wild abandon.  Apples, carrots and especially peppermints all met their fate with a shattering crunch and enthusiastic drooling.

When I walked with Maybe, he would slip behind to my left side and touch my swinging hand with his nose.  Just barely, just enough for me to feel his silk against my palm.  Just enough for me to sense his love and happiness at sharing a quiet moment together.

I guarded my time with Maybe and took great pride in his accomplishments.  At the barn I didn't chat with other boarders, didn't hang out in the aisle; instead, I got to know my horse and became his friend.  I scratched his ears just right, sang to him softly an took him to graze. 

He learned to lunge, to drive, to ride quietly and follow his nose.  We labored over transitions and groundpoles and I learned along with him.  Finally, we began to jump.  He loved it.  His boldness made him trustworthy, his talent made him good and his magnetism drew admirers.

I imagined him at some future show, walking out of the lineup to receive a ribbon.  I envisioned him old and swaybacked in a pasture out my back door, waiting at the fence for treats.

I was wrong.

He died suddenly and violently, in an accident that ripped the life from him so fast it left him without pain.  It left me without breath, without comprehension, without reason.  I was strong, but losing Maybe brought me to my knees.  I moved in a fog for days.  I couldn't fill all the empty hours without him and I felt... unraveled.  Aimless.  Intensely lonely. 

Still, I got out of bed every day and went to work.  I traveled and cleaned the house.  I made donations in Maybe's memory and walked my dog.  It was a long and very dark winter.

Spring found me better.  I couldn't often smile about him or talk of him casually, but I had made my peace with Maybe's going.  I was thinking about riding again and then a call came from my trainer, Leslie.  She had chosen Maybe for me and she had cried along with me when he died.  Now she wanted me to visit and tell her what I thought of a horse.

I went to Idaho feeling distant and unemotional though two airports and a two-hour drive.  But when I got to Leslie's house, I hugged her extra tight- so much had happened since I last saw her.

We walked into the barn and standing there was a horse named Sam.  He was skinny, tall and sweet, not long over a career in racing.  I said hello to him.  I put his blanket on and noticed he did not object to his clothes.

The next two days, I rode Sam and talked about Maybe.  On the third day, I said I would like to have Sam.  It was time and Sam seemed right.

Eight months to the day that Maybe died, I answered an early morning phone call.  It was the shippers.  They were on their way to Sam's new barn.  By the time I got to the barn Sam was already in a stall.  He stood quietly, wearing Maybe's sheet and halter.  Wearing Maybe's shipping wraps.  All of it was now his: He was my second horse.

I said hello to Sam and took off his sheet, took off his halter, took off his wraps.  I made sure he was whole and brushed every inch of him.  He was perfect and warm, with a rumbling belly unhurriedly filling with grass hay.  He politely accepted carrots and ate them in miniscule bites.  He chewed with his mouth closed in what seemed a perfect nod to his British bloodlines. 

This veneer cracked when I forced him to eat electrolyte paste.  I pushed it to the back of his mouth and he did his best to spit it out.  Finally swallowed, the paste left a smear on his lips and a mark on our relationship.  For the next ten minutes, Sam gave me the cold shoulder.  He sniffed a treat in my hand and then turned his head decisively away.  I was no longer trustworthy.  When my boyfriend offered the same treat, Sam promptly ate it with an appreciative nibble and nuzzle.  Eventually, I was able to coax him into taking another treat and he reluctantly found it acceptable.

Today Sam greets me affectionately and makes me chuckle with his dry sense of humor.  He makes me proud with his willingness to work hard and learn quickly.  He does not pin his ears or wrinkle his face as Maybe did.  He chooses different fights and different pleasures.  Sam is a quieter soul, without a hint of Maybe's reckless exuberance.  I love him differently because he is different.

I am certain Maybe would have loved playing with Sam and hated sharing me with him.  Though they were never together in life, sometimes, as I walk with Sam on my right, I swear I can feel Maybe on my left, just barely touching my swinging palm with his silky nose.


  1. No one could share your love or your pain. I watched - and tried to help. Today your life is so full. And I am so very happy for you! Love you, Mom

  2. I love this: "I love him differently because he is different."

    Truer words were never spoken be it horses or children. Each one gets their own special love, and I think that's why there's room for all of them in our hearts. Beautiful story Katie!

  3. Oh Katie, I really love this! Got be choked up a bit at the end!


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