My first love was a horse. Melody was big, nearly sixteen hands tall, with a powerful build and endless stamina. She was fiery but not easily frightened, high-strung but not silly. She saw me coming and nickered from across the 100-acre pasture; she leapt obediently into a run as soon as I got astride and squeezed my uncoordinated legs together.
Although we owned a small cattle ranch, my folks didn’t have much use for horses. I cobbled together horsemanship knowledge with well-thumbed books, a subscription to Horse & Rider Magazine, and some meandering conversations with a local toothless, overweight, overall-wearing horse trader who lived up to the huckster stereotype of his vocation. At fourteen, I got a job working cows at a nearby ranch. After a day's work, the rancher said, “Well, you know your way around a horse,” an understated compliment that I’ve held close for more than twenty years.
Melody and I rode together for years, trotting miles of long-abandoned logging roads through the public lands adjacent to my family's ranch. I confided in her. We shared snacks under the deep shade of ancient junipers in summer and found puddles of sunshine on bracing winter days.
The spring after I turned eighteen, Melody came across the pasture slower than usual. She’d foundered, a condition in which high sugar content from rich grass causes hoof inflammation. Founder can cause irreparable damage, and it could kill her if she didn’t leave our ranch. We had no dry lot to keep her in, no budget for year-round hay. Plus, I’d decided I was moving on, looking for wisdom elsewhere: I was leaving for university. It was time to say goodbye to my friend.
I sold her to a family with a young, horse-obsessed daughter. I led Melody into the horse trailer and tied the lead rope, patting her on the neck. I closed the door behind her; she looked back at me, wondering why I was standing stiffly on the gravel and not getting in the truck. The diesel engine rumbled to life; the trailer tires rolled a few inches. I scuffed my boots together and heard the creak of Melody’s weight moving in the trailer. She gave a low, trilling hurr-hurr of a nicker, then a desperate, high-pitched whinny. She looked at me with wide eyes through the metal slats of the trailer. She stamped a back foot, and unforgiving gravel dust puffed grey under the tires. I bowed my head and said nothing. I closed my eyes and felt liquefied loneliness trickling down my cheeks.
For years after, I wished I’d said more to her. While the ranching community around me saw horses as pragmatic assets, as livestock, to me, Melody was my best friend, and I'd let her go without a word.
After Melody, while in college, I worked as a summer wrangler, cowgirl, and horseback riding instructor. I broke horses, gave trail rides, chased cows. I rode horses I was fond of and some I couldn’t stand. After I graduated college, I followed the widely-prescribed advice to get a “real job”, working as a half-hearted communicator, writing the sorts of sales-heavy, chirpy copy I’d always sworn I never would. I felt stationed in a remote, fluorescent-lit outpost, so far from the world of beef auctions and open spaces, from the scent of coming rain and the comforting weariness of muscled labor. I thought this was what my degree had earned for me, that I should be grateful for this digital life and leave the past behind.
I got married. My dear husband and I wanted a family and a home: we wanted to build a life together. But years passed without children or a home of our own, and my desk began to feel oppressive. I wanted something beyond this life. Ranchers and farmers are often criticized for using too many resources, for the greenhouse gasses emitted by cow farts, for the sprawling acreages required for their lifestyle. I can't speak to that, I'm no ecologist. What I can say is that I know, deep in my soul, that connection to our food and our earth is necessary, primal—beyond science or logic. I felt completely disembodied when away from horses and ranching: I tore the plastic wrap off of organic, free-range beef and pulled clean, white, cage-free eggs out of cardboard cartons, feeling myself lacking the gratitude I should have had, feeling nothing about the food I was about to prepare, serve, and eat. I didn’t caress the edge of the fatty edge of a steak with salt and sigh over its beauty, or set aside potato peels and carrot tops for the flock of chickens. I simply cooked and ate, like an astronaut heating up a foil pouch.
My food should have felt like something to offer a prayer of gratitude for, like survival of the most beautiful kind. I didn't want to trade an electronic transfer of digits in my bank account for a plastic-wrapped chunk of protein (only 43 percent fat!). I wanted something beyond that. I wanted to connect with my food, my body, my heritage.
I found myself fixated on my thin, clean, uncalloused fingers typing away at a gleaming white keyboard. Hadn't I been capable of holding down the legs of 500-pound steers at branding? Could I still tie off a half-hitch or back up a horse trailer? My soul was frustrated. I desperately needed grounding, something that couldn’t be found in white-collar work. I had to get my mind off myself, get outside and sweat, get some horsehair on my shirt and dust on my face.
In a fit of unrest, I called a local barn hoping to volunteer and unexpectedly landed a job. When I showed up to work, I felt the same strange concoction of determination, hope, and insecurity with which I have always approached horses. “I’m not formally trained or particularly talented; I just love horses,” I told my new coworkers, an admission I’m sure filled them with confidence.
I taught horsemanship and was also assigned Major, a Belgian draft horse, for riding. I fell for him immediately. He was kind and dependable, willing and well-built. He had the same hunger I did—we both needed something to do with our muscles and our minds. We got lathered up on our rides and strode out of the arena afterward with the same satisfied looks on our faces. We shared apples in the sunshine (I got the flesh; he got the core), and I confided in him about my husband’s and my quest for family and home, the ways I was coming back to my roots.
When the time came for Major to retire from the barn, we decided he’d live with us. Our dreams were coming true: we’d bought an old farmhouse, we’d had a baby girl. It was the perfect retirement for him. I foresaw sunset years full of green grass and easy trots, apples offered by pudgy baby hands over rail fences. But when he got home, he began to decline. His once-muscled frame grew thin; he started to choke on his hay and grain.
We had three emergency vet visits in a month. The fall pasture was stubby, drab. I knew the coming snow would not be kind to my grandfatherly horse. He was in pain. His dinner-plate-sized feet plodded over to me, and he sighed, resting his head on my shoulder as the chilling wind blew by us, reminding me that winter was advancing, and so was my difficult choice.
It was a brisk, bright, late-fall afternoon. Major was ready. I did better this time, knowing I would regret not talking to him at the end. I told him about the open meadows, succulent green grass, and eternal springtime awaiting him on the other side. I spoke words of hope, and he rested his nose on my chest with one last contented breath. As he laid down, the vet watched me with compassion as desolation washed over me, as Major’s big heart slowly stopped beating and his thick, warm neck grew cold under my hand. I sat silent shiva with him while the frosty blue twilight rolled in, and the truck came to take his body. I was reminded of Melody’s loyal, brown eyes looking back at me; her gentle, hummed greeting across the pasture; the words I wish I’d said to her.
Two years after Major died, I unloaded an antsy Quarter Horse out of a trailer and into my pasture. Buzz is kind and loyal, vigorous and friendly. We work together. He cocks his ears toward me as I entrust him with conversational details about my kids, my husband, the words I'm trying to write, the questions I wrestle with. He nickers when he sees me coming, he prances with excitement when I pull out my battered saddle. He’s moved me beyond grief and memories, beyond heartache and symbolism. He’s not a stand-in for a life I used to love, and he’s not a lingering token of my former self. He’s a new spirit here, just as we are raising grass-fed beef and canning produce and teaching our children about the circle of life in newfound old ways.
Horses have had my heart since I was a lanky teenager finding my way in a world of tough men and harsh realities. But I realize now that my love goes beyond just horses. It’s a love for what they offer: a connection to myself, to the natural world, to the cultivation of food and family.
This is what I wish I’d said, to Melody, to Major, what I say to Buzz: thank you. As a horse, you are much more than livestock. You are a gateway to wholeness, to wisdom, and to hope.
3 comments have been posted.
Lovely! Written from the heart. Thank you for sharing your writing.
Trudi Heneweer Trygg | March 2022 | Bend OR
We that have loved and known horses are kindred, We have the same or very similar lives with our dogs horses, "Best Friends". Your wonderfull story made me choke up with the great and not so great memories. All memories of my beloved current best friends and the ones that had to go to the other side, Thanks for your story. Mark Bauer.
Mark Bauer | March 2022 | Corcoran, Minnesota.
Beautiful writing. You have a gift Dani!
Christine Bartell | February 2022 | Bend Oregon