Life keeps getting in the way of my return to riding. And this column.
This summer, I’d finally reached my goal of showing in the Special Adults with Woody, Diane Wade’s Doctor of Confidence. I’d spent the previous year emotionally recovering from a head injury. I say emotionally because, while the injury was bad enough to obliterate a day from my life, physically I felt fine in a few weeks. But it erased what little confidence I had on a horse.
Woody took care of that. Really, you could put a monkey on his back, and he’d metronome his way around the ring, which he did with me. But at some point, the riding skills I’ve acquired over the past 40 years clicked in, and I actually rode him around a course, confidently. I had big plans for our fall show season: the Randolph Medal Finals and my first-time ride in a hunter classic! I was even starting to shop Ebay for a shadbelly. But you know what they say: If you want to hear God laugh, tell him/her your plans.
A series of three surgeries—oral surgery for an abscessed tooth, facial surgery for squamous-cell skin cancer and arm surgery to plate together a broken ulna—sidelined me from October through December. I’d just returned to riding when Life struck again. This time, horribly.
My husband, John Muncie (aka The Saint) spent 12 days at Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville, Va., fighting three infections acquired during a routine back surgery there. Each day brought a new, seemingly life-threatening crisis, including an emergency midnight surgery, a suspected pulmonary embolism and the possibility of bleeding out. I didn’t leave his side. My Facebook friends followed his descent into Hell through my posts. And they continue to follow the developments in my war to make hospitals accountable for hospital-acquired infections. John’s on IV antibiotics four times a day at a cost to us of $60 a day for at least six weeks. Medicare stopped paying for hospital-acquired infections, so why should we still have to pay?
Doesn’t seem fair. But I stopped hoping for fair years ago. Both in life—and the show ring. Sometimes you get pinned in a flat class even after your horse picks up the wrong lead, and sometimes the judge forsakes your horse’s perfect trip for the rail knocker. However, with horse shows, only a ribbon’s at stake. With hospitals, 100,000 lives are lost each year to these infections, many of which can be prevented.
So as you can see, between John’s battle against bacteria and mine against the hospital establishment, there hasn’t been much time to ride. However, that doesn’t mean horses have been out of my life. They are what kept me sane during our 12 days of Hell. After each new crisis, I went to the barn. In my mind.
Woody was there, calmly munching hay, looking at me with those endless brown eyes. Katie was there too. She’s the mare I bought after my mother died. My hand shook as I wrote the check, using the unexpected money she left me. I know she’d have preferred I bought fancy clothes, but a fancy horse is what I wanted and got in this girl. In my mind, Katie pressed her head against my chest, as she always does when I walk in her stall. And Cassie was there, the luminescent Thoroughbred filly I bought from New Vocations. She was, as she always is, eager and happy and joyful to see me.
That’s where I went when times got really bad, after the crises passed and I could close my eyes. I went to my horses.
Originally, before all the drama, I was going to write the next column about that poor woman who died in Illinois, following a fall in a hunter class. Apparently she got up, walked out of the ring to the EMT and died on the way to the hospital or at the hospital. A head injury was suspected. The thread in the Chronicle hunter/jumper forum was several pages long. Head injuries are always at the back of us riders’ minds. So I was going to interview neurosurgeons about heads and falls and what happens on impact, what we can do to keep ourselves safer beyond the obvious: always wear a helmet. However, the more research I did, the more I realized that at this point I didn’t want to focus on the dangers of horses. I’d done that enough.
I wanted to focus on the glory of horses and why we keep coming back. I wondered if they are the ultimate bad boys. Creatures so beautiful our hearts swell when we look at them and dangerous enough to make us feel more alive. Was that it? Does their beauty blind me? Do I feel more alive when I am around them?
Yes and yes. But I don’t think it has anything to do with danger. I never liked bad boys in humans (both current and previous husbands are good boys). And I am not an adrenaline junkie. Thanks to an overprotective, neurotic mother, I approach each new day as an impending catastrophe. So my goal is usually to go the safe route.
Except when it comes to my four-legged fascination/addiction/passion/whatever-you-want-to-call-it. They are, I realized, the opposite of the bad boy for me. They are my safe haven, where I go physically and emotionally to feel safe, calm and free. They are where I went when I thought my husband was dying. And they are where I went when I thought my son was dying.
And they are where I went as soon we got home from the hospital. But this time not in my mind. John was safely settled in the house, sleeping comfortably in our bed. We’d finished the morning IV infusion. Woody was waiting for me in the pasture. I put a halter on him, leaned my head into his powerful neck, buried my nose in his copper fur and inhaled deeply. If there is a such thing as an olfactory mantra, the briny horse smell is it for me. No man-made or nature-made chemical is more mind or mood altering. And as a former hippie, I have a lot to compare this to.
I’ve been thinking a good deal about how it felt to finally sink down into my saddle and feel Woody’s steadiness after such a horrifying two weeks. This is where words, usually my friends and allies, fail me. To say I felt comfort seems so small. I feel comfort when I eat chocolate or take a hot shower or drink Earl Grey tea.
Not too long ago I’d watched my son almost die and fight for his life, and now I’d just watched my husband do the same thing. My soul was battered. I realized John wasn’t the only one who needs to heal. So do I. And as Woody walked calmly, with me moving slowly to his rhythm, I could feel my soul mending.
And that is why I love horses.
Jody Jaffe is the author of “Horse of a Different Killer,” “Chestnut Mare, Beware,” and “In Colt Blood,” which have been featured in People Magazine and translated into German, Japanese and Czech. She is also the co-author of the novels, “Thief of Words,” and “Shenandoah Summer.” She is a journalist who was on a team at the Charlotte Observer that won the Pulitzer Prize. Her articles have been published in many major newspapers and magazines including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Washingtonian and Practical Horseman. In addition, she teaches journalism at Hollins University. She lives on a farm in Lexington, Va., with her husband, John Muncie, and their eight horses. She attempts to ride hunters with her trainer, the ever-patient, Gordon Reistrup.