Relentlessly Forward

This hit me hard this week. I came across this picture of Legend and I from 7 years ago.

This photo was taken at the end of a wild ride I went on with an equally wild 3-day eventer who I was friends with at the barn I boarded at in California. At the time, Legend and I most often rode alone through the Arastradero Preserve in Portola Valley, which was accessible directly from the barn. But on this February day, we trailered out with my gutsy friend and her magnificent 6-year-old $80,000 imported Irish Sport horse to ride the hills in Woodside, rain be damned.

We galloped maniacally through the downpour, leaping over logs and crashing through a rushing river whose churning and muddy waters ran up to Legend’s belly. I can still remember saliently the steam rising off his body, the rhythm of our movement, the sound of his hooves and his breath, the smell of the wet pine, the whip of his tangled mane in my face, the pounding of my heart, and the way he felt beneath me as I gave him the rein and let him extend his stride to it’s full length and speed. I think we were both cackling like loons in existential rebellion against our tininess in the universe, revelling in our shared discovery that life does in fact have purpose, and that that purpose is to gallop gleefully through the forest in a rainstorm at top speed. Our bodies, minds, and hearts were fully synchronized as we tore our way through the hills. There was no resistance, there was no fear. There was no questioning. There was only going forward. At the end of the 3-hour ride, we stood at the park gate, saturated with sweat and rain, exhausted but invigorated, utterly expunged of the monotony of daily living, exorcised of the ordinary, delighted by the fact of our survival, savoring the last few moments of the rapidly dissipating adrenalin, as my friend snapped this photograph of us. Back at the trailer, I peeled the muddy tack off his body and gave him a well-earned net of hay for the ride home.

Later that same night, I took a pregnancy test and found out I was pregnant with Levi. My husband and I had tried to get pregnant exactly one time. I was impatient to take the test that my sister had sent me as a Christmas gift. I wasn’t expecting a positive result, I wasn’t even “late” yet. Maybe it was the residue of excitement from the day’s ride, but for whatever reason, I impulsively took the test while my husband was rummaging through some boxes trying to recover some hopelessly lost item in our tiny cabin surrounded by redwoods. And low and behold.

I didn't know it at the time that this picture of me and Legend was taken, but this image captures the last moment that I ever felt truly fearless on my horse. This was the last time I sat on a horse without giving a second thought to my death. There is something about the weight of a human life growing inside your body. I was totally unprepared for how that would affect me as a rider, and it has taken me years to really get my head around what I lost when I saw that little blue "+" on the stick.

There are surely countless equestrians  who have become mothers without experiencing such a blow to their confidence as riders. I’ve known many of them in my life, which is perhaps why it never occurred to me that the conception of a child would so fundamentally alter my relationship to my life’s greatest passion. Before I decided to get pregnant, I checked a lot of boxes. The ducks were all lined up in as neat a row as possible. I believed I had thoroughly considered every aspect of the decision to have a child, including how it might affect my life with my horse. I knew I’d probably take some time off from riding during the pregnancy, I was prepared (somewhat) for the changes my body would go through, and I expected that my riding would be affected. I assumed that after the baby was born, I would be more tired and less fit. I knew it would be a struggle to muster the energy and carve out time to get to the barn. I anticipated that it might take months (months!) to get back to where I was with Legend. I’d arranged for a brave young rider to keep him in shape during that time so that at least he wouldn’t be deprived of the feeling of flying over the trails.

What I was not at all prepared for with the appearance of the blue “+” was the screaming voice of my own mortality and its incessant condemnation of my insistence upon riding, or the bloody conflict that would rage between this new voice and the parts of my psyche that would continue to compel me to ride, the parts that are so deeply lodged in my identity that I actually could not imagine who I would be without riding. Levi, who was a fetus of 6 weeks when this picture was taken, is now a boy of 6 years, and still that battle continues.

Legend always took very good care of me when I had Levi on board.

It simmered annoyingly during my first few years as a mother, and it escalated poignantly when Legend died, almost two years ago. Again I was confronted with a reality so blatant and immutable that the fact that I’d never considered how much my confidence depended on my relationship with this specific horse seemed like a staggering oversight. Suddenly, I no longer had a horse whose mind and body were so seamlessly merged with my own. Every horse I sat on felt like a bazar abstraction of what I thought horses were like. None of them were like Legend, and that is a truth that I still find devastating. My memory of him is embedded in the muscles that I used when I rode him. My body climbs on a horse and thinks for a moment that it is home; it begins to move and expects that the horse it is sitting on will understand the meaning of the movement. But the horse doesn’t understand, because the movement it is feeling is really an intricate language that this new horse who is not Legend does not speak, a language that Legend and I learned together and spoke fluently after thousands of hours in conversation. The picture above depicts two beings who knew each other very very well, and in that knowledge, we found both freedom and intimacy - two forces that are often at odds.

Since his death, that freedom and intimacy have been replaced with fear and grief. Fear and grief were strangers to me before this picture was taken, but in the time since, they have ravaged me. Fear first, as motherhood took me in its grip and told me that my children would die if anything happens to me so don’t be stupid, and then grief, when Legend left me, sitting alone on the cold earth at dawn one terrible April morning and leaving the door wide open for fear to declare a complete victory and stop me from riding altogether.

But I’m not ready to write about that.

My children are now 3 and 6, and tragic as it would be for them if something happened to me, they would not die. I point that out not to be callous, but because it’s true and because I find it useful to remind myself that I am the only person who inhabits my body these days, and my decision to put my body on top of a horse does not make me a bad mother. Even if that horse ends up killing me, which is a possibility that I never would have considered before I had the experience of growing two tiny people inside of me.

Maven, that spectacular configuration of flesh and fur, is my horse. We are slowly discovering our own language, and unlike the language I shared with Legend, my conversations with Maven include words for “fear” and “safety”. That’s a good thing. Maven is not a fearless old battle axe like Legend was, and I am not the same young thrill seeker I was when I rode Legend. I grieve that loss, but I am comforted by the brilliant potential I see in Maven and the love that bursts open inside of me when I put my hand on his soft muzzle.  

Relentlessly forward is the only option any of us have, and so we must go forward as bravely as we can.

Legend taught me that on a rainy February ride, and I am so grateful to have been reminded of that this week when I came across this picture of the two of us, exhausted from being brave, rather than exhausted from being afraid.