Is there any greater love than a sixteen-year-old girl for her horse? I know that when I was that age, Rocky, my old Arabian gelding was the centre of my universe, my main squeeze and the love of my life. I could recount a thousand stories of the adventures that we had together; running up freeways, riding through drive-thus and getting chased out of the bush by bears. We had a full and exciting life together. But mostly, what I remember are the simple days, the mundane tasks of caring for him, riding the same old trails or just spending time hanging out at the barn. I loved the way that he would look down his nose at me as he rested his head on my shoulder or how he would try to steal treats from my pocket. I remember all the rides we would take in the woods alone, just him and I. The way that it would feel, for a fleeting moment, that we were one animal, and truly wild and free. I loved a million things about Rocky, from the faint nicker he would give at the sight of a banana to the way he would nip me at feeding time! I remember one morning in particular; it is forever imprinted in my soul. It was in March of 1998….
6:30am was too early for my sixteen-year-old sleep hungry body but at the sound of my alarm, I crawled, half dead, out of my snug warm bed, slipped on a pair of jeans and headed out in to the dark and cold morning to feed my horse.
Dawn had barely broke when I left the house in my favorite Cowichan sweater, its cream and chocolate wool, knit tightly in an Indian print pattern, my only protection against the cold. A soft yellow glow fell from the street light outside my home, creating a false impression of warmth in the cool blue and gray fog. A blanket of silver frost lay over the lawns, cars and rooftops of the houses around me. I pulled my toque a little lower and slung my backpack across my shoulders and I mounted my bike and slowly peddled out of the cul-de-sac. As I picked up the pace, I braced my forehead against the frigid air. Goosebumps flashed up my arms and back as the harsh bite of a Canadian winter morning sliced through the heavy knit of my jacket and jeans, numbing my skin in seconds and stealing my last ounce of warmth.
I turned left at the end of my street and rode half a block before entering a park that divided the ever-encroaching suburbs from the dairy farms and berry field of this once rural town. I pumped hard in an attempt to warm my body as I crossed the soccer fields, and rode down off the hillside and into the farm filled valley below. Then minutes later I turned on to the narrow street that lead to the barn of an old estate. I could barely see the road.
As I moved forward into a sea of clouds, I could see nothing but a sheet of white! There was no road before me and I could barely see the faintest outline of my bike. I felt as though the fog had swallowed me whole and in my panic, feared that I had become lost. But I knew the path by heart, so continued onward blindly. The air was so thick that I could smell the brimstone and ozone scent of rain and could feel the touch of it on my skin. Everything was quiet and still. I knew that I was alone and yet could feel that something was watching me. A shiver, unrelated to the cold, ran up my back as I glanced in each direction at once. Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of two black eyes in the mist. I gasped and jerked to the side, nearly falling on the slick pavement as my heart leapt into my throat. I came to a stop. Barely breathing, I mustered up the courage to look behind me. I smelled wet wool and breathed a huge sigh of relief. Turning, I could just make out the vague shape of an ewe, nearly undistinguishable from the fog but for the black shine of her eyes. She bleated at me, impatiently. A soft nicker followed her call. A little unsteadily, I rode on until I found the driveway of the barn. I stepped of my bike and let the heavy weight of my backpack fall to the ground. I was struggling with numb fingers to undo the clasp and chain of the frostbitten steel gate when I heard hoot beats hitting frozen earth.
From the deep recesses of fog, the form of horse emerged. The rich sorrel of his coat appeared nearly black in contrast with the white of his broad blaze and four socks. His long flaxen mane rose in the air and caught the wave of the wind as he leapt off the grass and onto the gravel path in front of me. “Good morning, my love,” I whispered as I reached up to run my hand along his neck. He nimbly skirted my touch and pivoted to stand behind me, churning the ground with his impatience. He nipped my shoulder as I walked towards the barn. “Oh, its like that, is it?” I said with affection. Rocky has always been rude in the mornings, hungry for his breakfast.
By the time I reached the barn, the sheep were congregated in front of the door. Eight faces stared at me with blank and beady eyes. Rocky waited patiently at the door for his feed but the sheep piled up infront of him in an attempt to dash in to the barn. I heard a ruckus and turned to see that three of the sheep had tried to barge through the narrow doorway at once, becoming lodged and apparently, panic stricken. I was standing in front of them when they broke loose and was bowled over as they scattered in haste. “I’ll have you for mutton one day, you little beasts!” I muttered while picking myself up off the dirty barn floor. My hand brushed something wet along the back of my jeans. I swore under my breath as I attempted to look at my own, sheep shit smeared butt. I reached for something to chuck at the offending sheep, but failed to find anything handy. “Me, you and some mint jelly, one day soon!” I swore at the closest ewe. She started back at me with an empty expression. Rocky was standing in his stall, head and neck stuck out the door, watching me in apparent amusement. Reclaiming my dignity, I straightened my clothes and went on with my morning.
By the time I had fed, cleaned the stall and dumped the manure, Rocky had polished off his grain and was standing quietly, contently munching his hay. Unable to resist the pull, I walked to him and slipped my cold hands under his mane and into the soft and silky depths of his coat. My fingers tingled painfully as the heat of his body thawed them. I laid my cheek against his shoulder and breathed in his scent. Reluctantly I let go of him and walked to door, calling behind me, “I’ll see you after school!”
As I pulled out of the yard, I glanced back at the barn and was stopped in my tracks. The sun had just peaked over the hill behind me, its long rays of light streamed across the valley, cutting through the heavy fog and turning the blue of dawn into the soft pink of morning. At the first touch of sun, the silver frost had melted and turned into a million droplets of light. Each blade of grass, the fences and the barn itself seemed to have been coated in diamonds and set out to sparkle in the sun. I stared in awe at the beauty before me. I grasped the moment and tucked it away, deep into my memory. As I rode to school that day I felt inside myself a rare sense of contentment and a connection to something greater than myself. I smelled of manure, horse and sweat. I was tired, bitterly cold and had been assaulted by sheep. And yet I was blissfully happy. Instinctually I knew that moment was special for some reason. And it was. When I am really stressed and feel at odds with the world, or when I am overwhelmed with anxiety, I can assure myself that there was definitive moment in time where all was not right, but I was still happy and spiritually fulfilled. I can conjure that memory at will and feel myself standing there once again, watching the early morning light touch my horse, the sheep and the dew.
My picture for this post is of Rocky and I at 16 (we were both the same age).
My headline picture for this blog is of Rocky and I, taken on that same day, deep in the woods.