Ethel

I’ve been going to equine therapy with Gina for about six weeks now. I can’t say enough good about it. Although I have met numerous horses and become personally acquainted with three, my favorite is Ethel. A paint mare about 15 hands high and of indeterminate age (though Gina thinks she’s around sixteen), Ethel has deep brown eyes that gaze dolefully into mine. A show horse for years, last owned by an impatient and ambitious teenage girl who quickly outgrew her stolid, placid nature, Ethel is quick to do as she’s told, but reticent, and according to Gina, restrained in her affections. Which is why Gina finds it oddly compelling that Ethel looks for me, comes to me, and leans in to my touch, my kiss even, a lingering smooch across her broad expanse of muzzle. Gina thinks Ethel somehow understands that I need her, and sees it as her new job to care for me. I know horses are sensitive animals. I know they can be used as service animals the way dogs can. So I find Gina’s theory believable, even though it isn’t quite my own. My theory is that Ethel and I have similar personalities, we are what some people would call kindred spirits. We recognize in one another a shy and uncertain being, restless in our lostness, expecting little, but willing to hope. We’re not fighters, but we may be able to see the value in holding on.

I’ve ridden Ethel twice, and another horse called Sienna twice. The first time I rode Sienna, who is much larger than Ethel and more of a vital presence, I closed my eyes at the end of the ride, which was just around the arena again and again, for a full minute or so. I concentrated on breathing in and out and feeling my hips moving back and forth in the saddle in rhythm with Sienna’s strides. As her pace slackened, so did my breath. The second time I rode her we trotted. I kept my eyes open as I practiced lifting myself out of the saddle and leaning forward, gripping her mane tightly with my right hand and using my thigh muscles to remain upright, rigid, taut. Sienna bristles with energy and I get the feeling she is a taskmaster, but a gentle one, holding her riders responsible for the outcome of their time on her back, but doing her best to make it enjoyable.

Riding Ethel feels different. She’s smaller, so that’s some of it. I ride her once with a saddle, and once with only a blanket, but both times in the sandy pen in the middle of the field where she grazes with her friend Lily. Riding her with just the blanket brings to mind the memory of the time Jackson and I were visiting a friend with a horse in the town of Grand Junction, Colorado where we lived for a year. This friend asked if we wanted to ride his horse and we agreed. I don’t remember why he didn’t put her saddle on, perhaps because we were in his small backyard, and she was an old horse. I climbed on first, then my friend helped Jackson, who was five years old, to swing up behind me. Then, before I had even a moment to digest the feeling of sitting bareback on this horse, never mind gathered her mane in my hands for traction and signaled to her, with a click of my tongue or a squeeze of my legs, to walk, my friend slapped her with the flat of his hand on her rump just hard enough for her to jump forward. I never learned if he’d meant it as a practical joke, if he was testing me, or if he was as surprised as we were. But without stirrups to anchor my feet and nothing to hold on to, I slipped right off that horse and dropped flat on the ground. While Jackson looked down at me with scared wide eyes from his solo perch I lay sprawled on my back beside the now still horse struggling unsuccessfully to draw breath for what seemed like hours but was probably no more than thirty seconds. 

Ethel walks on a lead, Gina in the center of the ring facing her. Without a saddle, I feel momentarily vulnerable, but recognize the feeling as akin to the one I get the first time I swing my leg over a motorcycle driven by someone new. Before I know his style, before I am used to the bike, before I trust him. I remind myself that control is an illusion we cling to, the way we kid ourselves into believing if we practice safe behavior, we will be safe. The fact is we are all, always, vulnerable, whether or not we recognize or acknowledge it. Life is a crap shoot, and you’ve got to trust someone or something, otherwise it’s a miserable, fearful experience from start to finish. Ethel, like every other animal, like every human, like me, is unpredictable and entirely herself. I close my eyes, gradually feeling my lower back loosen up, my legs slacken around her middle. I want to trust Ethel, I want to trust Gina. And I want to trust myself again.

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