Daisy came from an old farmer friend’s stubbly hay field. We bartered her for a stone retaining wall my husband built. She was the second-to-last filly to come from a quiet mare named Cricket, one who had been over-bred by any stallion that jumped the barbed wire. Daisy was, what fancy-horse-people call: “backyard bred.”
I had ridden plenty of horses in my life, preferring a challenge to a lazy plug any day, but I stood now wondering exactly who had control over whom. I had no idea how to train a horse from the ground up. “Give her friendly lessons,” my husband said. I began simply by brushing the burdocks out of her matted mane. Over seven years, Daisy blossomed into a fine-boned, brave beauty of an event horse. A dapple brown bay with long, delicate legs, she jumped anything we put in front of her, loved a good flat-out gallop across the neighbor’s cornfield, and judging by her misbehavior in the ring, she agreed with me that it’s like running on a treadmill. We both prefer boundless fields and blazing our own trail.
Last March, I learned I had been accepted into the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore; I knew Daisy would be replaced by something I loved even more than horses — words.
The thought of spending July at Skidmore to work on my nonfiction book, The Guild of the Infant Savior, both excited and terrified me; the same feeling I got at the apex of a full on gallop through a verdant field, when all four of Daisy’s hooves left the ground and we hung poised, together, above something unknown.
But at 45, I planned to get as much as I could out of this experience. Even though I lived close by, I did not want to pierce the blissful membrane of this rarified air by commuting.
It didn’t seem fair for Daisy to weather the summer with me barely riding her. She was too smart and talented to be wilting slowly in the field forgetting the hard work we’d done together. Plus, I had to come up with the money for tuition, room and board. I would sell her, but only to the right person.
Riders spend a lifetime perfecting what’s called a “balanced seat,” the ability to relax down and sit into the saddle. When top-level riders achieve this, it looks as though they’re doing nothing; like somehow rider and horse are effortlessly gliding, disappearing into each other, becoming one — a Centaur. In jazz, they call this feeling the “blue note.” In human relations, they call it “love.”
That’s how Daisy and I learned to moved forward together. Falling off and getting back on; making mistakes and dusting ourselves off; challenging each other continuously to simply move ahead. That little mare helped me find my balance. In preparation for my month at Skidmore, I sold everything; jumps, a trailer, riding clothes, saddles, horse blankets — trading one dream for another in the hopes that the same hard work could, possibly, net me a positive result as a writer instead of a rider.
And then there were the horses. One Sunday in late May, Shorty (my placid, doe-eyed buckskin gelding) walked quietly on to a friend’s trailer, bound for a blissful life on a mountain ironically named Misery. Daisy, on the other hand, would not budge.
Like me, she doesn’t like to be told what to do so she pawed at the ramp and snorted at the dark, scary cave of a trailer, getting half in before backing out again for the umpteenth time. All the while Denise, the women to which she had been sold, patiently rewarded her for the forward motion and made her move her feet when she backed up or balked. Daisy’s hooves carved a dirt semi-circle out of the grass at the base of the trailer ramp. She kept one eye on me constantly as if questioning, “Really?” Yet finally and firmly, she loaded herself and stood quietly. I trailered her to her new barn a few miles away, choking down a lump in my throat.
The events of the past two years of my life had threatened to swallow me had I allowed them to: I was laid off, my eldest son was suspended from high school, I lost a beloved brother-in-law to AIDS, I accepted a regrettable job that I soon after got laid off from. But throughout it all, my plucky little Daisy – the one who let me be the first to put a bit in her mouth and climb up on her innocent back — always demanded the best from me, even when the best I could muster was a pat on her muzzle.
Later that day, I stood in our horseless field looking at the barn, now overtaken by my sons’ cows and chickens. I was unemployed in the midst of an economy doing a steep downward-facing-dog, I was again ready to find my balance; ready to decide for myself whether to move forward with confidence into a scary place or retreat.
I know Daisy will teach her new owner Molly, Denise’s eight-year-old daughter, everything she taught me, which includes letting go instead of holding on too tightly to something that feels safe.