Tuesday, April 26, 2011

To live life backwards

“When written in Chinese the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters – one represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” - John F. Kennedy

It was an ordinary day, apart from the fact that I was in a hurry; I was leaving for a trip the next morning and still had a lot of packing to do. When I arrived at the barn in the late afternoon, I did my usual chores. The horses had been outside all day enjoying the sunshine, but as I was finishing up with the evening feed, they showed up. I looked at my watch; it was only 5 pm. I had done the chores faster than usual. Should I take the horses out for a quick ride or should I go home and pack? I chose to ride.

I tacked up my friends gelding. His owner was gone on a business trip and as usual had asked me to ride. Since I was leaving for a few days myself, this was my last chance of doing this. I slipped a halter on my mare and climbed on the gelding while my mare waited patiently next to him; she knew the drill already.

We crossed the busy road without incident and headed through the field to take our normal “short loop”. When we made it to the other side I hesitated for a moment, but then took a left instead of the usual right. Going to the left meant a longer ride, but less cars, less commotion and a safer ride – or so I thought.

When we entered the forest, I took a sharp right up the hill, planning to cut through the trees to the other side, pass the single farm on the left, descend the hill and return home through the field. Perhaps there would be a chance to get some trot in on the long rise through the forest.

We passed a lonely car parked on the side of the road. I peered into the old Fiat and saw a young man leaned back in his seat resting his bare feet on the dashboard while smoking a cigarette. I’d never seen a car on this particular road and neither had the horses, but they didn’t seem to care.

I directed the gelding onto the soft part of the otherwise paved road and my mare followed in hand. We started trotting up hill. I could smell the pine trees as the sun rays beamed through the branches. Both horses made relaxed snorts and I could feel the geldings relaxed muscles working under the saddle.

I don’t know where the cow came from, but it seemed to materialize from thin air. It stood on top of the hill and looked like it had been waiting for us to come out of the forest. It was white and stood majestically on the side of the road in a solid frame.

The gelding stopped in his tracks. My mare followed suit. Neither horse was in particular afraid of cows as the gelding had lived most of his life on a dairy farm and my mare in the close vicinity of one. But despite this history with the bovine, I could feel the gelding’s heart pounding in his chest and between my legs. I glanced at my mare on my left. She was alert, but not fearful.

Previously, when I had taken the two horses out together, I had encountered much scarier things than this white cow. The gelding was a relatively brave soul, but when in doubt, he froze in place, refusing to move until he felt the coast was clear. I respected his choice and never tried to force him forward as that merely resulted in vigorous resistance.

When the situation calls for it, I always dismount and walk the frightened horse past the scary object. My mare, who is not the bravest soul under saddle, seems to have unquestionable trust in me when I’m on the ground. This, when we are out all together, in turn helps the gelding, who snaps out of his frozen position and follows my mare.

So, short of any other ideas, I dismounted.

The very second my feet touched the ground, something happened. Perhaps the cow moved or made a noise. I don’t know, because I was busy coming off the horse. Whatever it was, it made the gelding do something very unusual to him, but not unusual to horses; he turned around and ran.

He rammed into me, toppling me over. My mare was only a fraction of a second behind his movement. I held on to the reins only long enough to realize that holding on was not going to help. I could only watch, helplessly, as the two horses gained speed on the downhill slope.

What went through my mind? I saw my mare slip and fall; she went almost completely down, skidding across the pavement while she was scrambling back to her feet. How she managed to get up within just fractions of a second I could not fathom. I watched in disbelief as the two horses disappeared around the bend. Instinctively I ran after them, thinking about the busy road between that moment and the barn. I have never felt so powerless, so utterly incapable of controlling the future as I did then.

Next thing, I saw the young man we had passed earlier racing up the hill towards me in his beat up red Fiat. He stopped on my side, his windows rolled down.

“Hey,” he shouted over the noise of the engine, “are you alright? I saw the horses.”

“Yes, I’m fine,” I said quickly. “Can you help me?”

He nodded and pushed the door open. I was barely in the seat when he was already peeling down the road, following the horses.

We all know the brilliant wisdom of hindsight; knowing exactly what we should have done, but didn’t. Should have could have would have. I can’t tell you how many times I have gone through the events of that particular day in my head. Why did I ride the gelding that day? Why did I take my mare with us? Would it have made a difference had I been alone with the gelding? Did I come off because I genuinely thought I could get the two horses past the cow or did I come down because my instinct told me this was the safe thing to do? If I had stayed in the saddle, could I have stopped the panic fed frenzy of this large animal? Or, would I have gotten seriously hurt in the process?

There are so many questions to which I will never know the answers. Oh, how I wish I could turn back time.

But unfortunately time does not work backwards. There are many things you can redo in life; a math test, your kitchen paint job or even the nose you inherited from your father. But, no matter how hard you try, you cannot turn around time. So, when mistakes are made, the only option is to deal with the situation and hopefully later learn from it.

So many things went wrong that day. However, on the same token, so many things went right, as well.

The young man drove to the bottom of the hill where I had entered the forest. There was not a sign of the horses and I prayed they had taken the sharp left towards home instead of going straight where the big road loomed in the distance. I held onto the dashboard as we took the turn in the little car, my heart racing in my chest.

We drove down the road on the side of the field and immediately saw the horses in front of us. They had slowed down to a trot, but were still moving at a brisk pace. How could we stop them before they took the last leg through the field towards home and the big road? I didn’t know.

The man slowed his car down, obviously fearful of further upsetting the horses. I told him to hurry, as I knew what would happen next. And I was right. Suddenly the gelding took a sharp right down a tractor path that led directly to the horse pasture on the other side of the busy road. I looked up and saw cars whizzing by at high speeds. No, I thought. No. Anything but the road where drivers coming around the blind turn would not have time to stop. Horses would get hurt. And not just horses, people, too.

The man looked at me frantically. I watched the horses a good 30 yards away trot towards the traffic with their heads high, their step determined; they wanted to go home. I wanted to scream at them, I wanted to beg them to stop. I also wanted to take back the past hour of my life and start all over again, with the right choices.

Short of better ideas, I did the one thing I could think of; I stuck my head out of the car window and called my horse.

“Little Love!”

Even to my own surprise, my voice didn’t sound desperate, nor did it sound panicky. It sounded just as calm and hopeful as it did when I called her in from the field to eat dinner.

“Little Love!”

And that is when it happened. My black mare, who had been trotting beside the gelding, stopped in her tracks and turned to look at me. The gelding stopped, too. And against all odds, time seemed to stop, too. I hung out of the car window and the horses stood still in the middle of the field. For a very long second the three of us merely stared at each other. Then the horses blew air out of their noses and lowered their heads to eat grass, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

And just like that, the situation was over.

The young man stopped his car on the side of the road and I got out, my whole body shaking from both adrenaline rush and relief. I walked down the field to the horses and both touched me with their noses, visibly relieved to see me.

Neither horse was seriously hurt. Little Love had some scrapes down her side from the fall and the gelding was stiff at the shoulder, but both horses healed miraculously within a week. The traffic on the road went on uninterrupted. The man, who helped me, drove off to continue his day and undoubtedly tell his friends about his adventure catching two runaway horses. And I… I was in one piece, unharmed physically. Yes, my rider’s ego was crushed and the embarrassment I felt over the episode was colossal, but I had also lived to tell the tale.

When I look back at the events of that day, my primary feeling is failure. As someone who has been involved with horses for over 30 years, it is hard to accept that with all the knowledge and experience I possess, I still managed to get myself in a dangerous situation involving two horses. What did I learn? That I was starting to be overconfident in my dealings with horses? Perhaps I needed to be reminded that really, there is no such thing as control, when it comes down to it. Perhaps it was time for me to learn to be humble. And more cautious. Is this how people become afraid of horses? Will I ever be able to relax on a trail ride again?

I have been out since, walking my mare in hand and have to say that the first time we passed a herd of cows I was more on edge than usual. And so was she. But maybe she was nervous only because I was nervous. I can already feel the ramifications of history taking hold of the future. I remind myself that horses live in the here and now; if it is not happening now, it’s not happening. But despite my efforts, my human brain keeps returning to the events of that day. Was the ultimate lesson of all this merely to show me how vulnerable I am in the face of these big animals? Or was the lesson something even more profound; that no matter what happens, I must learn to trust, over and over again?

Perhaps with time thinking back can help me see what really is important; the relationship I have with this particular horse, with Little Love. Sometimes bad things happen and illusions of perfect harmony are broken. But, in the meanwhile, if we can see the good from the bad, hope is also restored.

I have a feeling that years and years from now, I will still recall how it felt to watch the two horses canter away at full speed. But, I know for sure that I will never forget the moment when I called the name of my beautiful black mare and - after all that had happened - she stopped in her tracks to look at me.



“Nobody gets to live life backward. Look ahead, that is where your future lies.” - Ann Landers

“Having harvested all the knowledge and wisdom we can from our mistakes and failures, we should put them behind us and go ahead.” - Edith Johnson