Tuesday, April 29, 2014


Awakening is a very personal and honest story for me, as it is about the changes that I faced as a 47 year old woman who was longing to grow but was not sure where or how to wake up enough to do it. I never thought a horse would be able to awaken in me a new voice with fresh stories worthy of telling, maybe I should just change her show name to "My Midlife Crisis"...

by Rhonda Hoskins Arza

I had noticed the same look on faces of women my age all the time, but I just didn’t know how to make that tired look on my own face go away.  I didn’t even really know my age by heart.  By the time I figured out the math and put the number to memory, I was having another birthday.  It seemed as though I began looking at a stranger in the mirror every morning when forced to look as a practical matter, and I found that I was unable to let go of the imprinted image of myself that was one of youth, of livelihood, of fun, of boundless energy.  Holding onto this old familiar image had been my fall back plan up until now, and it was fading away with the days and years that I was leaving behind me. 

My life seemed full, and I felt grateful for all of the countless blessings that were coming my way, but there was still a missing piece, and I knew that I was the only one who could fulfill it.  I had drilled and drilled myself with the knowledge that I was the one who was in charge of my life, of my happiness, and I was willing to take responsibility for it.  I had successfully learned that to look outside of myself would never help me find the answer to these mirror image questions: “Who is this woman? Have we ever met?”  

            The most surprising thing about the continual shift was that I didn’t even realize I was changing, as time had so gradually slipped through these once gorgeous fingers. Perhaps I had unconsciously decided to sleep through it all, and while I slept, life was still happening.  I had become an expert at watching omnisciently, with a sort of looking glass, seeming to live outside of myself, and losing the ability to see the sweetness within a moment.  I never really found the ability to be fast enough to leave the past in the past, to be slow enough to leave the future in the future, and I was seeking the wisdom to find the now, but had no idea where now even was.  A seemingly thick haze had formed over my life, and was steadily muddying up my days and keeping me tired. 

            The soul within me helped me begin to recognize that I needed to awaken.  I felt increasingly drawn to water and nature and I had an intense desire to find those elusive moments that were now.  I sought to be surrounded near all that brought me peace, but I wanted to be surrounded in things, not surrounded by things anymore.  “I need a vacation.” I kept thinking, and I had a burning desire to run away, to escape, to be somewhere else, somewhere warm. Anywhere, except with the woman that I no longer even recognized.  

It had happened so gradually, but it seemed to have happened so quickly. As time began to come and go with a new kind of swiftness that had only been explained to me by my parents, by my elders, and it even seemed like whimsy when I could not relate, but suddenly the “time flies” metaphor made perfect sense to me because time was in fact flying, and I was quietly sitting back and watching.  It felt like I was standing alone at a busy intersection as traffic flew past me.  I was close enough to get my hair blown back, or get splashed by a nearby puddle, but not close enough to get in on the chase to the next great thing, the chase to what everyone seemed to be looking for or running to.  I just couldn’t find the meaning in it.  It used to look exciting to me.  I used to want to jump right into that traffic and play in it, revel in it, even try to beat it at its own crazy game.  Everyone looked so happy on the outside, but were they feeling the emptiness of forgetting how to be in the moment?  Were they as caught up in the speed of life, as unsure of how to be present anymore? 

 Many days I found myself content staying at home, uncertain of why I felt so tired.  I felt a disconnect with my soul; I felt that I had lost my voice, a gift that had once flowed so freely. I understood and was resolved that it was a temporary state and it was safely hibernating somewhere, sitting quietly waiting for something significant to happen, but I wasted time procrastinating the deep digging I knew I needed to do to awaken my inspiration again.  I thought that perhaps I had run out of things to write about, things to teach people, so I asked for some answers, asked again for guidance, and I sat and I waited until it came.

I began to find glimmers of inspiration when I gave myself permission to notice small, sweet details in the landscape that surrounded me, and I felt comforted by small examples of life captured in the moment.  I began to work on noticing the awe in the world and to look at it all with wonder again.  I practiced using my eyes with the vision of a child.  There is a tree near my house that is shaped like a peace sign that could catch my attention as I drove by it, and it never failed to make me smile.  I learned to allow the tree to stop my mind from racing restlessly, and I began to search for the meaning of the symbol that it represented. 

I worked on alleviating my anxiety, which had been forcing me to have constant and exhausting thoughts that seemed to have no end like, “Get there fast, because you still haven’t …” or “Don’t forget to…”, as I stopped to take in the individual shapes and sizes of the leaves in our yard.  I looked very closely at the parts inside of flowers when I felt hurried or stuck in a negative emotion.  I stopped often by Lake Michigan and stood there looking out into the vastness of it taking in the size and breadth of its enormous body.  I spent time swimming in a small local lake gazing away from its shore for as long as I could do it, as if the answers to my whole purpose could be found there. I found incredible and new beauty in these things as I practiced my new found inspiration, and I started to take in the moments of my life in an effort to wake up, and it was working.  It was as though I was preparing for a great shift in consciousness, and I was slowly waking up to the possibilities of wonder in the beautiful life that I alone had designed.  I was opening my vision to seeing great things that had always been there with a slow but steady shift in my thoughts that were trying so hard to stay present. 

My life’s work, by design, had been to alleviate for others the very thing that I suddenly had been struggling with.  As a riding instructor and horse trainer my only and most important job was to teach people how to use riding horses to help them stay in the moment.  Horses have no understanding of time, they only understand now.  This unique perspective creates the perfect storm for people who live lives that are fast paced, caught up, never getting a moment to breathe or relax.   People come to me seeking relaxation time with horses.  The barn is a safe haven, to remind them that life is to be lived simply and one moment at a time.  Many years ago I realized that I was not just a riding instructor, I was also a teacher of life lessons, but somewhere on my road to inspire others through these fantastic animals, I had forgotten to do the very thing that I had become so proficient at teaching.  I had forgotten the simple and pure lesson of the horse, until the night she was sent to teach me the lesson again.   
"Sara"      Photo by Dory Touhey Photography
            On the night of our rescue horse Sara’s arrival, my 14 year old son Ryan and I left his dad asleep at home, and alone together we set out to the barn where I worked to meet her.  She was not to get home until midnight or later but we arrived at the stable a little before 11pm.  The air was warm and windy on that July  evening, and there was a storm beginning to blow in.  Storms in Wisconsin are beautiful and uncertain, they are edgy and foreboding, they move like fury right through you, and somehow this seemed fitting for our night full of uncertainties. We were feeling the storm rumble through so strongly, and the anxiety of awaiting the first meeting of the slaughter bound horse we had saved on a mere feeling I had from the look I noticed in her eye seen only in a photograph on facebook, was palpable. Her journey had been a difficult and sad one, but I knew that she would now be coming home to a life of unconditional love that she had only known from the 18 others in her herd that she had been torn away from, and that she would finally feel peace if she could accept a new and better life with us.   

            Ryan and I scurried through the barn with nervous energy, though we both were enjoying the familiar sound of horses rustling in their stalls, blowing air through their active noses, sniffing around for the last nibbles of hay from their evening feeding.  Night time at a barn can little be explained to those who have not experienced it, as it is sacred time for horses, time for them to be alone without people, to have their talks with one another and share their hallowed experiences between stall walls and bars.  It was a rare night indeed that we got to be a part of night time rituals with our family of horses, and I was enjoying the freshness of the smell of sweet summer rain, coupled with the aroma of fresh hay and shavings; a familiar scent that had a lifetime of history behind it for me.  I had become complacent with the smell, I had forgotten how much it meant to me, but on that night I took notice of it, and I fell in love with it again, as I was reminded to smell with the nose of a young girl who loved horses and loved being at the barn.  I smelled within it opportunity for a new life to be welcomed into our sanctuary, and I took notice that it was in fact a sacred place.  The barn was a place that I had found so much peace throughout my life, and although I had chosen to work within it, it could always be a place of peace and joy for me, and I felt overcome with gratitude for the life I had chosen, and in that moment, as I took a deep breath of fresh barn air, I realized that I was being rewarded for creating the perfect path for myself. 
            Sara’s stall was pristinely clean, and Ryan placed four flakes of fresh hay neatly down for her.  We attached her Himalayan salt lick to a rope, and added some candy to her licking treat that we hung carefully on the wall.  Ryan looked for a ladder to stand on so that he could hang her treats properly.  We installed a new red feed tub for her and gave her clean new green buckets to drink from.  And lastly, we hung her new leather halter that had her name engraved in brass on it, a gift from a friend, and hung her stall plate meticulously straight to the front of her stall.  We were ready for her arrival.  I had thoughtfully cut up some carrots and apples for her with the hope that she would know that I understood that love and food are closely intertwined for a horse. 

The shipper called saying they were still a couple of hours away and that they would be there a little after 2 am.  It seemed I had waited a lifetime for Sara so why should I be at all alarmed by the fact that it was only 11:30 pm?  So we sat, appreciating the storm, and I thought about how soon she would be here and how the waiting would be over.  Ryan and I sat pensively watching the rain beat down on the ground through the opening of the large barn door, and we talked at length about her story, and how we were so proud to be a part of rescuing her.  We told all of the other horses that she was coming, and we talked about how lucky we were to be able to take her in.  We talked about the nick names that she would have, and the walks we would take with her.  Ryan’s excitement to finally meet her was only matched by mine.  We decided to clean the bars of her stall and dust the front of her stall just to keep busy.  I arranged horse supplements in plastic baggies that I had marked with a sharpie with her show name “Saphira”.   

As the gooseneck trailer finally pulled in the driveway, I took some pictures of it on my phone.  Ryan teased me about the ridiculousness of those photos, so I stopped to notice that the storms had passed now and there was stillness and striking quiet as the trailer made its way.  I looked up and spotted a very bright star in the sky that was cloud filled just moments before, and we both knew that it was a sign from our pony MacIntosh. He had died two years earlier, and he was known to send us great and perfect stars from time to time to remind us of his continual guidance, and it struck me just then that perhaps he may have had a part in helping to send Sara to us.  I felt encompassing warmth, and a lump formed encircling my entire throat.  “Look” I said to Ryan pointing towards the star, “Mac is here.” Ryan nodded noting his own lumpy throat, as he looked at me with a sweet watery gaze full of faith and hope.

“Here she comes.” I said, feeling the anxious sensation of a person arriving at the peak of a roller coaster hill just before it takes the big first drop.  We both stood watchfully silent in the moment as the trailer made its way up the long driveway.  The storms had passed us now, we could hear the sound of tires crackling over wet stone, and from the halo of the red and white running lights we could see the silhouette of horses’ faces inside the slanted trailer stalls through the side windows.  The trailer stopped smoothly and the driver emerged from her truck with her driving partner, both looking exhausted.  I gave her a lengthy hug acknowledging that her journey had been long, and I knew that brave and heroic sacrifices had been made on behalf of my horse, and of all of the other horses in Sara’s herd that she had been instrumental in saving.

 As she opened the rear trailer door I heard Sara’s voice for the first time. It was a high pitched mare sounding tone, and she was calling frantically to her friend that she had spent years, perhaps her entire lifetime with. I felt the immensity of the pain of her broken heart for the first time.  Her eye rolled back looking for her friend, and slowly I reached in through her trailer window and felt the side of her strong cheek as she shifted her gaze toward me.  She seemed to know that I was the one she was waiting for; she seemed to know that she was safe, and I felt that we comforted each other at that moment, as she waited quietly to be unloaded while I stood on the edge of the trailer so she would not lose sight of me.  I somehow knew that she needed to know that leaving her friend behind did not mean it was the end of love for her, that leaving her last and only family behind was okay, as it was a new beginning, and if she would just give me this moment, this chance, I could promise her that I would not leave her, that she would never face a day like this day again.

It seemed like we had known each other before, it seemed like we had known each other forever.  Even through the bars in the window, I felt instantly and completely connected to her, and I felt her relax into my hand as I stroked her cheek.  I had imagined for so long what she was like. The hours I had spent looking at her facebook picture could not have prepared me for the realization that she was even kinder, stronger, and more beautiful than I had even ever imagined her to be.  

As the driver unloaded her, Sara paused and looked around.  She held her head high and took in a strong deep breath of the air that she would soon come to know as the air which surrounded her new home.

 “I have been waiting to see the look on your face when I dropped her off and you got to see her in person.” The driver said. But I couldn’t even focus on her words, as I was mesmerized by the enormity of the moment, and I was taken so completely with her and by her.

The driver handed me the lead rope and I felt Sara’s energy come through it and into my hand as I pulled it taut, encouraging her to follow me.  I pulled only for an instant though when I realized that she needed me to stop, to wait for her, as she took in the moment and the significance of it. She took another long deep breath, as she stood in the realization of how much her life had just suddenly changed.  I felt her strength both inside and out, and I thought about the vastness of her journey, and how she had been with the others for so long and how one by one they had all gone.  Her family, the only family she knew, had been torn apart as if by a war, but still she stood strong and eventually, in her time, she followed my lead with a broken heart.

As we walked into the barn she snorted as she stepped onto the cement, and she cautiously tip toed onto it as if it was polished ice.  She moved slowly and fearfully, trying to understand the sound and the vibration of cement beneath her feet, and she looked around at the walls and the ceiling as she tried to find herself in time and space.  I patiently helped her across the barn aisle, though her fear took my breath away, and for the first time I realized that this horse may have never even been inside a building before.  She may have never lived in a barn, or walked on a cement aisle.  She had slept outside under those same stars sent by our pony for her whole life, and she most probably had never slept under a roof with four walls, and she was afraid.  The moment, the shock of this overcame me, as I stopped with her for several moments to allow her to look around, and I patiently gave her time to try to understand walls and doors, and a ceiling, and other horses that lived behind barred stalls. 

When we arrived at her stall, she went willingly and trustingly inside.  I closed her door and she rolled right away in the clean dry mountain of shavings we had carefully fluffed for her.  She shook herself off and looked around seeming composed, so I left her there while I went to pay the driver, and I could hear her calling frantically for me, for someone, anyone who she could bond with.  She was afraid to be alone, she had never been alone conceivably, and perhaps she felt the fear of solitude for the first time.

As a herd member, there was never solitude, but now she had to experience what lonesomeness really meant, another first for Sara.  It must have felt so foreign, so isolating to her.  As she looked around, she was surrounded by others but she could not touch them, and she could not be with them in a way that was in any way familiar to her.  She could not introduce herself to them in a way that she was accustomed to meeting new herd members, as show horses are kept separated for their own safety, but she could not have understood this peculiar practice which at the moment must have felt so barbaric to her.   

Fear and loneliness seemed to live within her now and I felt called to help her through it all, but I had no idea where to even start.  It was an experience I had not anticipated, as I was so stuck in the fact that she was coming to a better life that I had not considered the loss she would experience from leaving the comfort and familiarity of the life she had known before. After all, she did not know that she was a slaughter bound mare, to her she was a member of a very strong herd that understood the meaning of strength in numbers, but the number one was not even in her repertoire, individuality was not a part of her twelve year life experience.  

Ryan and I went into her stall to be with her.  She was quickly quieted by our presence, and her sweetness, the warmth of her spirit showed through her expression so strongly that tears just rolled down my face when I realized just what she was facing.  Her forward pricked ears, and a sweet willing eagerness to know us was overwhelming, and I felt that we were immediately accepted and looked upon as her new herd, perhaps because there really was no one else.  

The feeling of unconditional love overcame us as we struggled to help her understand her new surroundings.  I remember thinking that I easily could sleep with her in her stall and that I could stay there and never ever leave her.  I remember feeling the immense pain of her loss with such empathy, as she quietly smelled my hand with trust and reassurance that she was most certainly the horse that I had imagined her to be, and in fact she was the horse that I had asked for while I was asleep, and that the manifestation had exceeded my expectations of who she was by such margin that I was literally weighed down by a parallel moment of overwhelming happiness for her arrival, and unfathomable sadness for the loss that she was experiencing. 

We hadn’t spoken in a few minutes when Ryan in his sensitive way quietly asked, “Can we try a carrot mom?” As he crouched down in front of her showing her where her hay was and trying to show her the treats, she gently bent down toward him and sniffed the carrot in his hand.  She sniffed side to side along his hand and looked at him sweetly, wondering what he was asking her to do.  She did not take it from him though, as it looked nothing like a rolling green pasture with a group sized feeder for everyone to collectively share. 
Her new leather halter was loose fitting and comfortable against her skin, but it did not cover the scars that her old nylon one had left on her face where her hair had worn down to the skin. I imagined that halter must have been left on her perhaps for years as she was probably difficult to catch.  She looked like one who could have spun quickly around lush pastures away from people whom she had no interest in knowing. 

She seemed to be searching to understand the language we were speaking to her, but she was not able to immediately recall it from memory.  I had wondered if any of her former owners had ever spent any time with just her, if she had ever even known human love before.  The driver had handed me her Paint Horse papers that had a tiny picture of her as a foal. The photo showed a wanted and loved baby, and I wondered how she ended up within such loss.  I noticed a yellow sticky note with the name “Sadie” tucked carefully within the plastic sleeve that held the paperwork with her extensive lineage on it.  I thought about the person who must have held her in their heart too, I wondered if she too had loved her like I did, but had to let her go.  I couldn’t imagine letting her go.  
I was certain that she had never seen a treat or a carrot, as she continued to politely sniff them and look curiously into Ryan’s hand.  Ryan bit the top of the carrot and chewed it up for her, spitting it into his hand to try to coerce her into trying it.  He crouched low to see if she felt more comfortable trying it closer to the ground thinking that if he showed her near the ground she may decide that it was food worth trying.  She sniffed it harder this time and then looked at him again with puzzlement. “She doesn’t understand us mom.” He said sounding concerned. 

“She will honey,” I reassured him, “She just needs time.”

We sat with her for a while longer and I let her sniff into my ear for as long as she needed to, and I allowed myself to trust her.  I felt like she was taking in my entire soul with each breath and trying to distinguish and initiate me into her new herd. She was so curious and so innocent, I felt like she wanted to identify and understand every inch of who I was.  It seemed as if she wanted to trust me, and she was so accepting of us, that I felt invited by her to stay there.  We each hugged her dozens of times, and felt called to do so.  I felt her long neck stretch around me as if she understood how to communicate with love even if she did not understand our words or our offering of treats yet. 

It was 4 am when I finally noticed my watch, and the sun was beginning to rise through the windows in the barn, and although I was reluctant to leave her, I knew it was time to let her work out her fears inside the barn alone for a few hours.  My heart ached as I listened to the quickness of her hooves circling the stall frantically, and she called anxiously for us as we turned and walked out.  I could still hear her as we drove down the driveway, and I could even hear her in my restless sleep which I struggled to get through so that I could get back and be with her again the next day.  I remembered my mom telling me so often that life always looks better in the light of day and I had hoped that it would be true for Sara, as my heart was full of love and so stricken with empathy at the same time.

 When I woke up the next morning I went straight to the barn to meet her.  She was standing in the center of her paddock looking stoic and sure of herself, though I knew she had suffered through the early morning hours after we left.  Many of the early days were spent letting her meet the children of the barn, and letting her observe what daily life in a training barn was like. Every day I watched her try to be a part of our world with great success and begin to immerse herself in the joy of the love and pampering that we provided her.  She works at finding her way among us all, and fitting in, but she is a mare with conviction, and with a full heart that is slowly healing.

I found interesting parallels when both Sara and I took a step back and looked around at the walls and the bars that seemed to confine us.   As the days and weeks passed I realized that acceptance had been a large part of her healing, as it was in my own.  As I awaited her arrival, when I spent all of those hours staring at her photograph, I had not considered that I would be aiding her transition into a life of acceptance.  Within my own struggles, and my personal evolution, I recognized this very longing, and knew that she too would help me to accept my daily life as I was awakening and learning to accept what is now, and release old dreams and promises made to myself so long ago that those promises no longer needed fulfilling.

I was surrounded by beautiful horses every day, and had built a life around loving and training them and the people who ride them, but I was missing the whole point of the meaning of horses within my own life.  I have always had the gift of being able to compare the content within teaching riding lessons with life lessons, but somewhere along the path I had forgotten that the most important student was me.  I laugh inside when I think about how I rescued this horse, as it was me that was the real rescue.

The woman in the mirror looks much more recognizable now.  I see the lines and the not so perfect body, but I know that I have grown into this image, and that sleeping through my life would not lead me to the beauty of the days that lie ahead for me.  Watching the strength of the character of this horse has brought me back to this moment of gratitude so quickly.  I have lost the need to seek happiness outside of myself, as she reminds me by example that healing and happiness is within me and within reach.  And although the heart of this horse was wounded, she would repair it in her own time, accept life at her own pace, and she has begun the process of owning her role as a human healer among horses. 

As I watch Sara mend herself and become so sure of her place in our world, in her new life, I feel incredibly proud to follow her example of great strength and acceptance in my own life.  I have long believed that a person’s horse is a clear reflection of the best of who they are, and I aspire to be more like her each day; for she is a fear facer, a heart healer, and a strong individual who can be anything for anyone.  I am awakened by the flow and strength that Sara renewed for me, and the lessons that she gave to me. Gratefully today I live contentedly, and I am experiencing life from the voice of my soul perhaps for the first time.  I can find “now” so easily these days, and I watch Sara with great pride, as she eats carrots from her red feed bucket, and enjoys a daily smorgasbord of apples and sweet potatoes along with them.     


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

All In

Many of us have experienced exiting from the world of horses for 'the real world' only to find that for true horse people, it isn't the real world at all.  "All In" is a story about that experience and the realization that the lessons and emotions horses can teach us are even sweeter than we could have imagined.

by Rhonda Hoskins Arza

A couple of nights ago I was private messaging with a friend on Facebook, and she mentioned that it was time for her to step away from riding for a while.  She said that she just couldn’t afford it right now, and that she was struggling with walking away completely, but she couldn’t see riding once a week on a school horse after she had had this entire junior career as a rider.  She couldn’t find a way to feel fulfilled enough just by dabbling here and there. I really understood her plight as I know how riding becomes as all encompassing as breathing for many of us, and I fully understood what it was to walk away from such a large part of her identity.  As riders, horses define us, and we are either ‘all in’, or why bother.  

I too had experienced that exact feeling.  I started to ride as a twelve year old girl, late in life for showing standards.  I was fortunate enough to have been blessed with parents who recognized a spark within me that they had not seen before, so they encouraged and supported every moment of my junior riding career.  I had literally immersed myself so deeply into the passion of riding and showing that when I emerged and was sent off to college horseless, I felt that I had to walk away from the sport I loved seemingly for good.  I had no plans to ever sit on a horse again unless it was at the level that I had left it.  I knew that I had to start on top or not do it at all.  As a junior rider under pressure to succeed, I learned that showing horses was serious business; ‘all in’ or not at all.

In 1983, after much success as an equitation rider, I walked away from all of it.  I had worked hard, accomplished my goals, and I felt ready to begin the rest of my life.  My horse was sold, I sold much of my equipment, but I kept my boots, and I kept my saddle.  I just couldn’t bring myself to sell that saddle.  I remember the day that it was given to me, and how much care I had spent oiling it, taking it from a straw yellow hue to just the right shade of warm brown.   The saddle had told the whole story of the hours of work, of play, of struggle, of growing up. It had stories of winning, of losing, of falling off, of getting back on; Brilliant, frightening, glorious, and defining moments, each woven deeply within its’ beaten up leather skirts, and it’s now worn out seat.  Even the deep marks within the billets told their own account of the horses who had come and gone as if from a dream. 

Seeing the saddle in the basement sitting on its metal rack growing green with mold
made me feel melancholy and nostalgic. Over the years I would occasionally find the small flat back bucket that once hung by my horses’ stall, and take the sponge that had dried to the bottom which still had remnants of an old glycerin bar within its pores, and I would thoughtfully clean it, and be reminded of the days when all I could think about were horses and riding.  I would notice small particles of horse hair within the sponge, and wonder which one of my horses and ponies it had come from.  I had left behind so much of myself, but I knew that I had things to do and that horses were not meant to be a part of this time in my life, and it was acceptable.  It had to be acceptable.  “Someday”, I thought, “The horses will make their way back into my life.”  I had no idea how, but I knew that they would. 

1988 was a transitional year, with horses far back in my rear view mirror. I was a recent college graduate, eager, and full of ideas about how a person should live their young adult life.  Life in Ann Arbor had been nothing but exciting.  There were so many fascinating and new things going on every day, and I was the type of person who wanted to embrace all of them.  The horses had taught me to be committed to doing whatever it was that I was to do.  I had learned this lesson with much vigor, and my college years were no exception.  I was into the 80’s club scene, the social settings, the fashion, and the lifestyle. 

So much so, that when I graduated in 1988, I was in no way ready to leave a life that I had become so certain of.  The trouble was that you can’t really make a living hanging out with your friends, dressing in the clothes your roommate dressed the manikin in your apartment in, or just by having long nights of philosophical discussions about nothing with meaning that were seemingly about meaning, or being famous just for looking super cool at local clubs.  Though somehow, it felt like everything was going along perfectly from my vantage point.  It was a quirky time, an egocentric time, a whimsical time.  In school I had studied English, Psychology, Art History, and Philosophy.  I was prepared for nothing and everything, and I set out to do it all, that is until I actually graduated. 

         The reality was that I really had to find a job.  I remember being on vacation with my parents during my last semester at Michigan, and my father asking me what my plan was after graduation in front of my grandparents.  I remember barking a few incredibly disrespectful words in his direction, and marching up to my hotel room in tears knowing that he and I both knew I had not an inclination about what I was going to be when I grew up.  I knew that I loved teaching, but I did not want to spend any more time in academia, so it seemed that teaching school was not really a great choice for me. 

I was as lost as most college grads are, and unfortunately I simply didn’t have the grades to go on to grad school like many of my friends were doing.  I was torn between being proud to be graduating from such a prestigious school, and wishing I had a whole lot more time there.  There was no way to put off the real world even a semester longer.  Somehow though, I figured out a way to hold back my life a little.  I figured out how to postpone my destiny, and I found a way to stay in Ann Arbor for a little while longer. 

         My gift for all things social had served me well in the interviewing process, and I was one of seven people chosen out of hundreds of applicants to be a department manager at a Hudson’s store at the Briarwood Mall in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  I thought it was just the thing for me.  I could continue my life in Ann Arbor acting like a college kid, but I was working a real job, making real adult money!  “Brilliant”, I thought.  I had bucked the system completely.  But what I hadn’t realized was that I had put myself smack in the middle of someone else’s perfect life.  I hadn’t taken into account that when you go against your fate nothing could feel further from ideal; Although, I was perplexed when I noticed that the people that I was working with and for, all looked happy, content, and even inspired by this job.  I really tried to make the best of it, but what I hadn’t considered was that by holding myself back from my true life’s work, I had actually made a miserable daily reality for myself.   So when my best friend called from Chicago exclaiming that the river had been dyed green just for me, I literally packed my bags, the money I had left after spending most of the money I had earned on Anne Klein II suits, and I moved to beautiful  Chicago with no job, and an uncertain future.  I knew though, with complete certainty that I could remove retail management off of my list of passions.   So I began the search for the next right thing.  I moved to the city with the green river, which represented all of the hope of a girl from Ann Arbor who was brave, scared, and ready for the next big opportunity to present itself to her. 

Perfume and Carriages  
         During my first month in Chicago I sent my resume out to advertising agencies, human resource firms, and other corporate entities I thought would be suitable.  I loved the idea of working in the loop, and maybe even becoming a corporate super star.  I had lofty goals, and great ideas about what my life should look like.  I began to go on a few interviews, and I was doing quite well, but I hadn’t found the right fit.  I had to make money, so I started taking jobs that would pay the bills.  One of my first jobs was as a fragrance model for Ralph Lauren.  You know the one; the girls who spray you with perfume at the department store as you walk past them.  That was me; college graduate turned fragrance model.  I smelled like Ralph Lauren’s “Lauren” even after I had taken a few showers.  It was awful. 
Photo by Andrew Ryback Photography
One day during my lunch hour I stepped out on Michigan Avenue for some non perfume filled air, and I noticed the carriage horses standing at their stand.  The drivers looked professional with their top hats, and the horses were all decked out, some even wore large plumes sticking up from the crown pieces on their bridles.  A friend had mentioned that I should look into doing something like that while I was job hunting, “For fun”, he had said. “You like horses.”  He had no idea really what that statement actually meant.

I approached the carriage driver in my off white linen slacks and an off white silk shirt, complete with a brown saddle leather belt, and brown saddle colored loafers, all part of the whole Ralph Lauren uniform, and I asked him how he felt about his job.  I stood straight in front of the horse while he spoke so that I could see the horse’s large kind eyes from within the blinkers.  The sweet horse blew great chunks of black city snot all over my white outfit as I petted his nose.  He was a huge dapple grey Percheron gelding that must have stood 17 hands high.  He was in beautiful condition, he had a larger than life personality which matched his crested neck wonderfully, and his coat glistened from the shade and light peeking from within the movement of the breeze from the swaying trees on the street.    His feet were tremendous, like large upside down pottery bowls that had been freshly glazed, and he had a perfect shoeing job.

 “Do you like those shoes?” the driver asked me. “They are made of rubber so the horses won’t slip on the pavement.”  The driver seemed to really love this horse, and he took tremendous pride in his appearance.  He told me that the horse was getting ready to go on vacation at the farm the owner had west of the city.  Apparently, the horses vacationed at the farm on six week rotations so that they could have a break from city life.  He told me about how he spends hours grooming him every day before they go out, and how he gets a bath when they return to the barn.  ‘The barn’, I thought, it sounded like such a special place. 

“Oh the barn,” I asked, “Where is the barn?” 

“It’s on Schiller and Orleans.” he answered, “Not a great neighborhood, so that’s why we carry these.” He said pointing to the large dressage whip he carried in a whip stand made specifically for such weaponry aboard his carriage. “You should go and meet with my bosses.  They are always looking for new drivers.” He said, “But you might not want to wear that outfit.” He said laughing, “Sorry, it looks like he sneezed all over you.” The truth was I hadn’t even noticed. I even had green slobber on the sleeve of my white silk shirt.

“Would you mind if I give him a hug?”I asked approaching the horse more closely. 

“Sure, no problem.” said the driver, “Be my guest.” He was still chuckling at the horse dirt that was accumulating on me.  I hugged the horse and buried my nose into the coat on his neck. I took a deep breath smelling the show sheen within it.  It was a smell that I had not experienced in so many years, and perhaps I had briefly forgotten the meaning behind it.

 “You must be a horse person.” He said with a smile, “Not too many girls in white come around and ask to hug our horses.” As l looked down at the dozens of black flecks on my clothing I thought about how great it felt to have that grey film on my hands from petting this horse.  How nice it was to have a little perfume from someone I could relate to on my clothing again. 

A Barn in the City
I let not a full day go by before heading down to the barn on Schiller and Orleans.  The Noble Horse Equestrian Center was surrounded by city sounds and completely fenced in to keep others out.  It was dangerously close to the then Cabrini Green housing projects, a harsh reminder that ‘the haves and the have not’s’ lived within inches of each other. As I walked into the building the air immediately shifted from city air to the familiar air of the barn from my childhood.  I felt immediately at home within those walls, and I knew that the horses lived peacefully within them. I was surely safe from all and any bad neighborhood antics that may or may not be happening right beyond those gates. 

The owner asked me to fill out a list of my experience.  I gave them a laundry list of riding accomplishments, though I had never driven any sort of horse drawn carriages.  The owner’s wife was dressed in full seat dressage breeches, and she took a look at my resume at the urging of her husband. 

“Well, it looks like you can ride.” She said with a heavy accent that seemed to be from a Scandinavian country.  She was tall, thin, beautiful, and had straight blonde hair that went all the way down her back. “Can you teach?”She asked, sounding a bit hurried, so I followed her as she walked. 

“I don’t know if I can teach.”I said sounding surprised at the question, “I’ve never done it before.”

“Well”, she said sounding less patient, “Come by tomorrow, you can ride a horse and teach a lesson.  Our hunter jumper instructor just quit so we need a new one.  You might be it.” 

“But wait,” I asked trying to keep up with her, “I still want to drive carriages.”

She stopped and looked at me with puzzlement. “Well, maybe you can do both then.”

When I went home I dug through the closet in my apartment and found my boot bags with my old Vogel’s in them.  Oddly, I had moved my boots and my old Harry Hall breeches everywhere with me.   I carefully removed the boot trees, and I found the boot pulls, the
bottle of baby powder, and the nylon knee highs inside of the boots exactly where I had last left them all of those years ago.  The boots remained clean and perfectly polished within the soft black faux fur inside the bags.   I painted my now more shapely body into the old breeches.  I pulled up the socks putting a hole through the toe naturally, and then I powdered and laboriously pulled on the very tight boots.  Later, my roommate learned the fun lesson of how to remove custom boots made for a much smaller calf, as I instructed her to turn around and let me place my opposite foot on her butt as she pulled off my boot from between her legs.  It was a familiar and strange moment for me, as I knew that it marked the beginning of something new that was coming up from the wonder that was my past. 

I showed up at the barn the next day after an awkward walk through my north side neighborhood in boots and breeches, an el ride, and another walk through old town.  I was instructed to ride a dressage horse that had done some jumping.  He was a tall light colored palomino horse with blue eyes named “Sinatra”.  He was quite pretty, and proportionately nice.  I remember little of the ride but that he was nice, smooth, and easy going.  I walk, trotted, and cantered, and jumped a half a dozen low jumps with him, and I was amazed at how easy it felt for me, like I had never even stopped riding.  It felt like I had just ridden and jumped a course the day before.  It was so easy and exhilarating though I had no idea if she even liked my riding.  When I dismounted she just told me that my lesson was waiting for me in the arena.

 As I stepped into the soft freshly dragged footing in the indoor arena to teach, I was struck by how familiar it felt under my feet.  There was a woman on a large paint warm blood walking alone on the rail.  She was kind, and she said that she heard I was trying out teaching today and that she had been made the guinea pig for my trial.  I nervously smiled, and stood up perfectly straight, walking through the sand as if I was going somewhere as I realized that I needed to channel my inner riding instructor. I had to draw from memory the exact image of a correct rider, and now somehow I had to figure out how to sculpt this person with my words into that exact image. 

As I spoke, I found the words came from my mouth with the kind of ease that I had rarely experienced.  I watched each of her movements, and how they created a response from her horse. I placed myself figuratively riding the horse along with her, and I empathically instructed her how to redirect her movements back into their proper place again in order to achieve a more synched and positive response from him.  I felt immediately like the artist who could mold, and then reform, and then remold again.  It was the most exhilarating feeling, and I could feel the joy spilling over between myself, the woman I was teaching, and even the horse looked elated as he outwardly carried himself as though he was fully understood by both of us.  It was as if the three of us were in fact having the dance of our lives, and the joy I was experiencing as we all worked together as one was awe-inspiring.  As I left the arena still walking on air, the student stood beaming, and asked when she could have another lesson with me. 

“You can have the job.” The owner said frankly.  And the job was mine. 

After that day I never looked into another corporate job.  The clarity that occurred there was a gift that’s value is insurmountable to me.  In fact, I really wish such a day for every person.  I think though, had I not experienced those years away while I searched for my purpose I would have never come back to horses in the exact same way.  I think about how right the great teachers of life are when they always say that where ever you are in your life is exactly where you should be in this exact moment.   The riding, letting it go, the college experience, the wrong jobs, the bold moves, none of them mistakes, all a journey leading me to right now as I sit here reflecting on the astounding flawlessness of it all.

 Horses Mimic Real Life
I think about the great and brilliant teachers that I have had, and how much time they spent teaching me not only about riding, but about how through our experiences within our sport we are able to conquer other parts of our lives in so many enormous and powerful ways, making much of it feel so effortless, because riding keeps us all so hopeful.  And I think about what a gift it is for me to be able to share the art of riding horses with so many children and adults throughout my life as a teacher of the greatest life mimicking sport I have ever known.  The lessons of the horse are so infinite, that one lifetime can only graze the surface.  What a gift in my life, horses have been. What a way to spend so many of my days, and how fortunate I was to have come back to them in such great and purposeful way.
I did get to drive carriages during the time that I taught there, and it was marvelous.  I even saw a familiar Ann Arbor face  of a girl I went to school with on her way home from a late night working at her corporate job as I drove past on one of my night drive lakeside tours.  She yelled my name from the street side with a question mark in her voice, “Is that really YOU?” she called. 
Photo by Andrew Ryback Photography
“YES!” I called back laughing, “All that money my parents spent for me to go to U of M and I am driving carriages! Can you believe it?” I have found myself chuckling about that peculiar encounter several times throughout the years since. I remember smiling to myself, feeling full of life as I felt the warm Lake Michigan night air blowing through my hair. I embraced that moment, listening contentedly to the sweetest sound of rubber shoes walking surely on pavement, looking down from my seat high above this marvelous animal noticing the beauty of his neck and mane, and somehow I knew that I was once again ‘All in’, and it just felt right.