My First Love

I can still remember feeling her struggle for breath, her dark brown eyes wide with fear and pain, head heavy in my lap. Hot tears were streaming down my face as i rocked back and forth in the pouring rain, cross-legged in our muddy pasture behind the barn. We were hours into the struggle. That morning started with irritable stomach pain, but by afternoon the vet had been called out twice in the middle of a storm, pumped her stomach and administered Banamine, to no avail. We walked in circles until she gave up and collapsed. Impaction colic only leaves an owner with two options. Blinded by my tears, I knew I had to make one of the hardest decisions of my life. I looked up at the vet and my mother and barely choked out “It’s time to let her go..”

I was fourteen years old and had just lost the love of my life…

When we brought Ebony home we had no idea what we were getting into. My family had owned horses as long as I can remember, but she was MY first horse. I had begged after our first mare Penny passed away and promised everything under the moon to get another horse. I think my dad was the one who caved, and one morning when I was ten years old, a trailer pulled into our driveway. A beautiful blanket Appaloosa mare leapt off the trailer, eyes wild and trembling. It took us a long time to calm her down and get her settled, but that was just a glimpse as what was to come. The next few days revealed a nervous, untrusting horse, ill suited for a child. But I was stubborn and convinced I could change her heart. I had no idea how much she would change mine.

I started by just being around her while she grazed in the pasture. She kept her distance at first, but as I sat day by day in the grass, she slowly stepped  closer and closer. Eventually tolerated me stroking her neck and velvety muzzle. After a few weeks she would follow me around the field. I’d put a saddle on her back with my dad’s help and lead her around our property, down the trails in the woods and along the creek. When I finally got on her back she stood and looked back at me, almost as if she was saying “It took you long enough, girl.”

Bareback and carefree, age 13

Bareback and carefree, age 13

From that moment, we had freedom. I was on her back every day, exploring the countryside around our farm. We galloped the empty cornfields, hair flying behind us. Summer days changed to winter afternoons in the woods, Ebony’s hooves crunching in the snow, stalking my brothers in their forts and being chased through the trees by their paintballs. She was my war mare, never flinching. The first boy that broke my heart had his name sobbed into her mane along with hot, angry tears.  In the dark I remember sitting backwards on her as she stood half asleep in her stall, laying my head down on her speckled rump with my arms slack along her ribs, feeling her long, slow breaths. I got taller and older, as did she, but that is always where i found myself in a time of crisis. Lying reversed on her back, cheek on her warm fur, feeling the rise and fall of her ribs with each breath and hearing her heart beat.

When she died, I skipped school for two days, unable to climb out of my hole of grief. She was my first love and I was heartbroken. It would be years before I found another horse that made my heart skip a beat again. She came in the form of a gangly, untrained two year old my neighbors had for sale. In a twist of fate, I had met the filly as a foal, just weaned from her mother’s side. We had visited the farm to look at another horse the year before and I was so distracted by the cute foal running around, I never really looked at her mother, who was for sale. I begged my parents for the foal, but they didn’t think I was old enough at sixteen for such a big training project. When I recognized her unique paint markings a year later, I couldn’t believe it. It felt like a sign.

I took that filly home for $600 and named her Belle. Just like with Ebony, I spent months training her on the ground, going slowly and carefully. We bonded quickly and she would trot behind me like a puppy. We walked with her saddled and explored the farm, following faded hoofprints from years prior. We grew together. Two years later, I felt confident that Belle was ready to carry me. Wearing a helmet, safety vest, and holding my breath, I gingerly swung onto her back and waited. Instead of the rodeo show I expected, my little mare let out a soft sigh and turned her head to look back at me, almost as if she was saying “It took you long enough girl.” My heart swelled, thinking back to the mare I had lost, and we walked off for our first ride. I never looked back.

I’m now thirty and Belle is fourteen. She has followed me through college, the birth of my daughter, the heartbreak from a man I thought I would marry, to my first professional job in North Carolina, and finally here to Tennessee. She is my rock, my constant in life, and the best therapist money can buy. Sometimes it’s months between our rides now, as I ride professionally and don’t have the time like I used to. But I know if I walked out to the pasture right now and lay across her back, she would listen and breathe with me. I have owned, ridden, and loved many horses, but they say you only get one true heart horse, that horse of a lifetime. I feel lucky I had two. Perhaps Ebony came back to me in the form of a painted mare and we are enjoying the days we never got together growing older. Horses have taught me many lessons over the years, about life, loss, and most importantly, love. They will be a part of my life till I leave this earth. Put simply

There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man...
— Winston Churchill