It was late fall, and my cousin Holly and I were galloping down an old dirt logging road near the Adirondack farm I'd just bought. I was on my new Morgan mare, Georgia, and Holly was on a bay quarter-horse mare named Nikka, who boarded in my barn. The air was sweet with the smell of white pine and horse sweat, and I was laughing even though I was so depressed about a disastrous marriage and a drinking problem that I didn't care if I fell off my horse and died. I always laughed when I galloped a horse. Even when I was so hung over that my hands shook or when the night before was a blur of violent confrontations with my husband.
I'd had Georgia less than a week. That morning she'd kicked our stable help, Alan, out of her stall, slamming him so hard against the wall it had knocked the wind out of him. I'd grabbed her halter and dragged her outside. No, wait. She had dragged me outside, but once there, I'd finally asserted control and punched her on the rear flank, yelling No! She had turned to look at me standing next to her rear leg, thinking maybe I was getting ready to slug her again. Are you crazy? I shouted into her placid eyes.
How fast a horse blinks can tell you a lot.
At first she didn't blink at all, but when she did, it was so slow I could have recited a short poem by the time the thick-lashed lids ho-hummed their way back open.
Either she didn't feel the punch or she didn't care. Her ears were straight up and perked forward, perhaps listening for the sound of fresh hay being scattered on the ground or just enjoying the full attention of the human at her side, even though the human seemed temporarily demented. We looked at each other for a long time. I glared at her and she? She bah-linked.
I was looking for guilt, for some indication that she understood kicking was very, very bad. It would have been OK if she had looked scared, if she had danced away from me, scooting her flank out of reach of the terrible hitting hand. But she hadn't. It wasn't that we didn't understand each other, that we had somehow failed to communicate our point of view. We had. I was sorry that she had kicked Alan, and she wasn't. Bah-link.
Later we galloped through the woods on that crisp fall morning, the incident forgotten, while laughter ripped its way through my despair. My worst fear has come true, I'd written in my journal earlier that day. I'm an alcoholic. My life, my marriage_=_it's all a sham.
My worst fear had actually come true years before, but it was only that morning that I'd named it for what it was, that I had written it down. Alcoholic. It seemed as bad as cancer, maybe worse because this felt like an elective, like one of those classes you took at college just for the fun of it. Something you decided sounded better than the dozens of other classes you could have taken. Alcoholism, you might have written on your registration form after reading the course description: Students will learn to drink large amounts of alcohol, often surreptitiously, while pretending to suffer no ill effects. Prerequisites include the ability to lie and a strong belief that the laws of physics and biochemistry and irrefutable evidence of any kind that attempts to undermine a lifestyle of complete dissipation applies only to others.
I'd been waking up hung over since 1970. Nine years. It seemed like a long time not to see something as obvious as a drinking problem. But denial was part of the course description, the part where you lied a lot, which included lying to yourself. I was good at that. I was good at all of it. Except suddenly I was almost thirty, and I knew what I hadn't known the day before or the week before or the year before. Why now?
It had something to do with Georgia. It had something to do with making a commitment as enormous as caring for a horse who might live as my companion for the next forty years. It had something to do with love. My search for a horse had lasted almost a year and taken me all over the Northeast_=_from the best Morgan-breeding farms in Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York to the backyard paddocks in the suburbs of Boston where young girls had gone off to college, leaving their passion for horses behind.
I had known I wanted a Morgan since I was seven years old and had outgrown Bunty, the impossible but beloved Shetland pony my grandmother had given me when I was six. After two years of being bitten, kicked, and thrown, I saw my riding instructor appear at my lesson one day leading a Morgan gelding school-horse for me to ride. I fell in love with Alert's stocky, muscular beauty as he effortlessly carried me around pony-club show rings and later on cross-country hunts and bareback swims in nearby Langley Pond. The breed is known for its endurance and versatility, and there seemed to be nothing Alert wasn't willing to do. His steady good nature and love of being ridden endeared me to the breed forever, and I longed for the day when I could have my own Morgan.
That day came on a late fall afternoon in upstate New York when, to get away from a husband I'd grown to hate, I'd hopped in the car and driven four hours to a well-known Morgan breeder near Syracuse who had lots of stock for sale. I don't know why I thought bringing a horse into the chaos in my life was a good idea. I just knew that for the past year, looking for what I had come to refer to as my Morgan had given me the only peace and sanity I had.
It was as clear and crisp as a fall day can get when I turned off the main road and onto the long dirt drive that led past dozens of Morgans pastured on both sides of the road that cut the farm in half. I drove slowly, letting my eyes wander over the beautiful faces and graceful arched necks for which Morgans are so prized. I was looking for signs of poor health or poor breeding, either of which would have ended my search on the spot, before I'd even met the owner. But I was also looking for something else, not in the herds grazing almost to the horizon on either side of my car, but for something inside myself, a sense of recognition or connection that would let me know when I'd found my horse. In all the horses I'd seen in my year of looking, I'd never once felt this. I'd never felt That's my horse, and I knew I wouldn't buy one until I did.
What I didn't realize was that in my search for a horse, I was conducting another search, a much older one connected to my first memories of a horse as a traumatized six-year-old dealing with the death of her mother and the disappearance of her father. Into that gaping void had stepped Bunty, a gift from Grandmother Richards, who must have known she was throwing me a lifeline, the only one she had in her limited ability to nurture but, as it turned out, the best anyone could have offered. My reaction had been immediate and visceral, a heart-pounding recognition that I was in the presence of something wonderful beyond belief, the most spontaneous outpouring of love I had ever felt. In that moment I became someone else, someone who was more than just a girl who'd lost her home and parents. I became a girl who loved that pony. I became a girl who loved horses.
Twenty-four years later, traumatized by a battering husband and a growing sense of shame about my drinking, I was in need of another lifeline. And of all the ways in which I might have searched for help, turning toward horses had been instinctive. I wasn't just looking for any love; I was looking for that love, that first involuntary spasm that jolted my five-year-old heart back to life at the sight of a Shetland pony named Bunty.
I hadn't expected to find my horse that fall day. As I headed down the dirt drive looking from pasture to pasture, I saw many healthy, well-bred equines, but not one of them “spoke” to me. The drive ended at several large red barns, all in...