In December, I lost my big friend, my horse Alamo. He was 22. For 12 years, he was my sanctuary in a sometimes tumultuous world, my bridge to breathtaking nature, my glimpse into the magic of the animal world. He was a gift bigger than words. I miss him. I wrote this article a couple of years ago for my friend Beth Anderson’s website, ChicGalleria.com.
I love it when I can look back in my life and trace a series of events that taken alone are seemingly innocuous, but when I follow the thread, it leads to the miraculous.
A little more than ten years ago, I accidentally began horseback riding.
The guy I was seeing purchased some ranch property in southeastern Oklahoma, and I fell in love with the land. I couldn’t wait for Fridays to load up the car and head north toward the Red River. Eventually horses became part of the mix at River Bend Ranch. Neither of us had any background in ranching and zero horse sense. Fortunately, the horses that came to call the ranch home were good-natured, given that they weren’t ridden more than a couple of times a month – and that their riders were totally green. So while I enjoyed it, I was never totally comfortable on horseback. Until Alamo came along, that is. Alamo was given to me as a gift (not from the boyfriend, who by now had a new girlfriend) as an eleven-year-old retired racehorse, complete with tattoo on the inside of his upper lip.
No longer welcomed at the ranch, I began searching for new digs for Alamo. Anywhere within proximity to me that had turnout, capability—meaning he wouldn’t simply be in a stall round the clock, but would have access to pasture and grazing—was a small fortune monthly. I asked a friend, whose ranch house about ninety minutes southwest I had recently helped decorate, to keep an eye out for a boarding facility somewhere near his ranch. He immediately invited me to keep Alamo at their ranch. I tried to explain to him how much I love to ride, how often I ride, and that I felt sure he would not want to see me on his property that often. Ever generous, he repeated his offer, so I accepted.
To say that their hospitality and their friendship in the ensuing years has been a gift does not begin to do them justice. I treasure them for reasons much deeper than any pasture, or any horse, for that matter. Not only is my horse treated like one of theirs, I have the privilege of coming and going to ride, and even to stay at the “Rock House,” which was the main house on the property when they purchased it. The ranch and Alamo have been my sanctuary and my sanity over the past few years.
Owning my business sometimes involves much too much time, or at least it feels like it, focusing on things like cash flow & balance statements. I’d rather be able to just do the creative part – the fun part! But to be able to get out of the city and appreciate the world that God created for our pleasure brings an element of balance and clarity to my life for which I’m so grateful.
I think about those things a lot when Alamo and I are out on the trails. For me, it’s important to be intentional about appreciating the good things in my life – often the smallest, so sometimes hardest to factor in – lest I lose sight of them in the daily crazy, and the opportunity in Bosque County ranks pretty high on my list.
In that vein, I’ve realized some lessons I’ve learned out on the trails that translate pretty well to the city streets.
1. Horses are “fight or flight” animals. In the animal kingdom, each species is equipped with its own defense mechanism. Horses don’t have any ability to defend themselves except to flee. When a horse is frightened or threatened, his only thought is to save himself. A rider on his back is not part of the equation because he is only focused on escaping to safety.
The human species is much the same. We all act in a way that makes sense to us. Often we’re so busy judging things as right or wrong, crazy or sane, that we don’t often view things from another’s perspective.
2. Plan your ride, but be prepared for anything. Horses are herd animals, and smart ones at that. Within the herd, they establish a pecking order, and one horse emerges as the dominant one. When Alamo first came to the ranch, every time I rode him I would find bite marks or scuffs on his hide where he had been kicked. As I watched, he developed a strategy: keep a distance, make friends with others, but put on some pounds to hold his own against aggressors.
We humans need to employ some strategy, too. Although we like to think that if we do all the right things we’ll live a good life, life doesn’t always get on board. People are irregular, jobs aren’t ideal, money is lost, marriages are difficult, illnesses aren’t curable. If we keep sight of the idea that curve balls often turn out to be hits, too, we can develop the skills to deal with the pecking order.
3. Put in the time on the basics. No matter how well trained a horse is, he still has to be reminded that you, the rider, are the one giving him direction. Otherwise, he assumes he’s in charge. So before a ride, it is essential to spend some time working in the arena or pen, reminding him of the cues you use to communicate, and how he is to use his manners and defer to your direction.
Alamo is a thoroughbred/quarter horse mix, and so he is a little bit “hot,” as they say in the horse world. He’s got some natural energy, or fire. In the winter, it is harder for him to keep weight on as a thoroughbred than it is for quarter horses. A couple of winters ago, the ranch foreman separated him from the other horses in order to give him some high protein supplements and extra alfalfa. After a month or so of living the life of Riley, we headed to the barn to get ready for a ride.
He hates arena work, and truth be told, I find it quite boring as well. So we did it for about three minutes, and headed out. He was frisky, and since that’s normal horse behavior on a sunny & chilly day, I didn’t think too much about it. We headed down a path to cross a ravine, and as we started up the other side, Alamo took off up the hill in a full gallop. I know that to get control of a horse who is not responding you to pull a rein to one side to turn him, because he can’t run in a circle, so that slows him down. But the path was too narrow for that, so I didn’t have that option. At the top of the hill, Alamo started bucking like a rodeo bronc, and before I knew what was happening, I was laid out on Bosque County dirt. It knocked the breath out of me, so it took a few seconds to turn over. As I checked myself for injuries, I caught sight of Alamo standing a few yards away, looking at me as if to say, “What are you doing there on the ground?”
There is always a price for cutting corners, often a painful one. When we rush through our days without acknowledging how much we care about those around us, or focus on our agendas without making connections with others a priority, sometimes we can’t be grounded. Life gets out of control.
4. We never know what other critters we might encounter out there. The ranch is full of all kinds of animals. Regularly we see deer, turkey, hawks, owls, longhorns, as well as the less appealing hogs, rattlesnakes, armadillos, vultures, and more. For the deer, there are feeders to draw them. They have such an ethereal presence, and it’s almost magical to watch them, if you have the opportunity before they flee. For the armadillos, there are shotguns waiting to eliminate them. They dig holes in the pastures that lay in wait to break the leg of a cow or horse.
Mixed in among the people we love are the irregular people, too. As much as we would like to get away from them, often they are in our lives for the long term. So we have to figure out how to interact without being poisoned or bitten or gored— i.e., permanently disfigured—or at the very least, how not to take on their irregular attributes ourselves & become an irregular person in someone else’s life.
5. Alamo is a tender foot. At some point before I knew him his hooves were filed back too much. Although he has a great farrier now, he still hates rocky roads. With every opportunity he heads off the side of the road to softer ground. And usually I let him. Because I’ve discovered that he eventually figures out the high grass hides unpredictable terrain that is hard to negotiate, and he’d rather just suffer the road.
I find that when the heat is turned up in my life, I look for escape routes; I want the easiest path. But often that choice just leaves me in the weeds, and if I just gut it out, the rocky road soon gives way to smooth pavement.
If I had the stomach for gambling, I would bet that Alamo and the ranch haven’t finished with my schooling. But I’ll happily go along, because the learning is a treasure.