Barrel Racing, Family Style

The grandpa has a chestnut gelding named Cody with whom he competes on the rodeo circuit. Today he has fitted Cody’s saddle with a set of mini-stirrups so his preschool-aged grandson can climb aboard. They are headed to the arena to do some barrel racing. The preschool kind, anyway.

Grandpa has the reins, on the ground, and jogs across to the first barrel. Cody breaks into a smart trot and the little boy is positively gleeful.Mom and the other grandparents are watching, and so are the ranch staff. We cheer as they round the last barrel in record time.

Now grandpa gives the boy the reins, and jogs away for another race. Cody doesn’t need to be led; his nose is right at grandpa’s shoulder, and the mini-racer is reining him around those barrels like a pro.

Meanwhile, dad is giving little sister a ride on a pinto pony named Roo. The toddler catches wind of what’s happening and wants to join the fun. Mom takes the lead rope and sets out to the first barrel. Roo is not a barrel racer – his short legs and round stature work against him in this way. But it is his sheer strength of will against the idea that is both impressive and comical. As he is dragged around the course, he resists trotting as if such silliness it is far beneath him. “Are you kidding me?” his body language says. Mom arrives at the gate and announces that her daughter would like a faster steed. No one can blame her for that. The toddler looks significantly less gleeful than her big brother. Her time will come I’m sure, but it’s hard to be patient when you’re only two.

Now dad has taken over with Cody and the boy. I smile and turn away to attend to something, feeling somewhat like I am intruding on something rather intimate and special. This feeling is intensified when a few minutes later I catch glimpse of mom and dad leading daughter and son on their mounts, side by side, away from me, around the arena. They seem to be riding off into the sunset, even though it’s pretty much solar noon.

My heart kind of aches a little. With grandparents looking on, there are three generations of ranchers doing what they do best, and doing it together. Do they know how lucky they are? They work so hard, but do they know that people like me would give their right eye to have been able to live this life – a life free from the enemies of allergy and inflammation freaking out the immune system and shutting down a girl’s wildest dreams of a life with horses?

But then my heart aches again, this time swelling with joy. These people, this family, have given me a gift. They have allowed me into their space to reconnect with a life I thought I had lost forever. Because of them, I see now that maybe all is not lost. There may be enough space in my life, and enough air in my lungs, for horses. I take a breath, and wonder if this family will ever know what they have done for me. It feels silly, sentimental, even melodramatic, to try to express it to them. But imagine losing your arm and then thirty years later having it miraculously begin to regrow. It’s too much to ask, too good to be true.

So I’ll just work as hard as I can, and be grateful for all I have been given, today. I don’t need to know how it will all turn out. It’s enough that today happened, and that those mini-barrel racers showed me what joy really looks like and reminded me that I too, can find joy in my own way.

Horse Tails

It’s lunchtime at the ranch and I am taking a break. In the barn. The rest of the staff are elsewhere, but not I. I just can’t stay away from these animals. I am starved for their company. This is therapy.

Two rows of standing stalls are occupied by twenty horses having lunch. The barn is not quiet, but it is very peaceful. After a busy morning of trail riding, everyone is happy for a breather. My ears  – and soul – are massaged by the rhythmic sounds of munching, swishing, a little bit of stomping. The smell of fresh hay mixes with horse and manure and I love it. This is therapy.

I have developed a habit of keeping a mane and tail comb in my pocket, and with twenty bums to choose from, it’s little wonder why. I pick a tail and lean against the powerful rear quarters of an appaloosa. If I had an appaloosa, I think to myself, I might call him Captain Underpants. Just for fun. But this one is Pongo, and he munches while I lean against him just enough to let him know I’m there and go to work on the knots and clumps of mud that have built up in his tail. This is dirty work. Hair in handfuls, dirt falling to the ground if it makes it past my hands and arms and jeans. When I am finished, he swishes his tail and it flows freely, rather than flailing around a bunch of knobs on a string like a cat o’ nine tails. I am satisfied. This is therapy.

I move to another: a deep chestnut mare named Dixie. I repeat the ritual: lean in, comb out, feel the power that allows me to approach it, and enjoy. I marvel at how much I don’t hate this. Perhaps it is because I am a volunteer, and I am here only because I want to be. This is not a chore. This is therapy.

All too soon, the staff are back from lunch and everyone is run out to the corral to wind up for the afternoon. But I am refreshed. And ready. I almost feel naughty for stealing some time with these equine companions. Naughty, but not sorry. This is therapy.