A Passion For Horses Supersedes Sanity

May 11, 2011 - 5:36 PM

I still remember the look on the woman’s face. A half-smile somewhere between wistful and trying to look happy. But her eyes, tipped down at the outer corners, belied the attempted smile.

The look was envy, and I’d never seen it directed my way before. I’d worn it plenty though, usually when a fancy, new horse came to the barn or—let’s be honest here—a tall, leggy heiress walked by with no hint of saddlebags in her Tailored Sportsmans that she bought new instead of on eBay.

It happened more than 15 years ago, at a book signing for Horse Of A Different Killer. “You’re lucky,” the woman said, looking at me that way. I should have agreed readily with a chorus of “Amen, sister.” But I was too inexperienced with loss to know how profoundly right she was.

Instead, I said, “Lucky? Me?” That wasn’t how I’d looked at my life. My childhood was tumultuous, my young adulthood only slightly less bumpy. I was short, scrappy and had to work hard for everything I’d gotten. The only natural blessing I thought I had was my red hair. Even that was mixed. I’d been taunted as a child with chants of “Hey girl your hair’s on fire,” or “Better dead than red in the head.“

There was one blessing I hadn’t even considered, the most obvious one to anyone who’s spent more than 30 seconds with me.

“You’re lucky you have a Grand Passion,” she said. “I wish I had one.” She flashed her sad smile again.

She was talking about my untamable love for horses. It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy her life, she explained, it’s that she wanted something that ignited her as horses ignited me. She wanted something that drove her as hard as I was driven to make my life about horses. And it was then that I finally got it. Not everyone has that searing guiding light inside that keeps directing them on a path, regardless of the consequences.

And wouldn’t that be the definition of a Grand Passion?

The Line Between Passion And Addiction

Turns out it might also be the definition of addiction. So where does passion stop and addiction begin? Have I crossed the line? And by “I,” I mean “we”—all my fellow horse-crazed sisters (and brothers) who continue to ride injury after injury. The joke in our house is: get a bunch of horse people together and within minutes we’re playing medical geography. “Broken collarbone? I’ve got one of those.” “Three bruised ribs? That’s nothing, I broke all mine.” “I hit my head and forgot my name for 10 minutes.” “Well, I face planted and forgot my father’s name for a week.” And so the volley goes. I’ve yet to find a rider who can’t join in with an equally impressive medical history.

A few months ago I talked to a trainer in Pennsylvania whose horse flipped with her. She wasn’t wearing a helmet. “I misread the baseball cap on my head,” she told me, thinking it was her helmet. That’s about the last thing she remembers. She woke up in the hospital, and her recovery has been difficult. Her vision was off—she’d grab the doorframe thinking it was the doorknob—as was her balance. Her doctor told her another fall could kill her. Yet she still rides. Sound familiar? I could go on for hours with similar stories from readers who’ve written me about their accidents, all of whom continue to ride.

So are we all nuts? Is our DRD4 gene—the adventure gene—the alpha mare of our body? Has our Grand Passion morphed into a monster?

Yes, according to Bob Hedaya, a friend who teaches psychiatry at Georgetown University and has been shrinking people for more than 30 years. He thinks I crossed the line from passion to addiction many injuries ago. And my injury list is considerably shorter than many others’.

As a scientist, Bob first gathered the facts before he drew his conclusion. How long had I been riding? More than 40 years. And how many injuries? Broken leg (bones severed!). Broken collarbone. Two concussions in the last three years. I left out the inconsequentials: a few broken toes, a bruised rib here and there, some stitches and a dislocated pinky finger.

“You’re Crazy If You Keep Riding”                 

Bob zeroed in on the head injuries. They are, as we used to call it in the newspaper biz, the disease of the week. You can barely pick up a sports section without reading something about concussion. “You’re now looking at weighing the risk of head injury—dementia—versus riding,” he said. “It seems like that would fit the criteria for addiction. If you were my patient or family I’d say you’re crazy if you keep riding.”

This conversation was not going the way I’d wanted it to. “It was only two head injuries,” I said sheepishly, not including ancient history: the 1970 episode requiring 10 stitches to the back of my head after sailing off a bratty Shetland pony; or a few years later when I got thrown from my first horse, Homer T., and couldn’t remember my name for a few minutes. Though I never forgot his.

“Two’s enough,” Bob said. “Find something else.”

His comments surprised me because he’s a holistic psychiatrist, and I’d assumed he’d understand how horses nourish my mind, body and soul. Well, maybe not my body so much. But they do keep me happy. And isn’t that what a psychiatrist wants for his patients?

Another mental health professional friend told me that truncating my tally of injuries to Bob is classic addictive behavior called “minimizing.” So I’m guessing what I’m about to say is classic addictive behavior called “rationalizing.” How could Bob understand my deep love for an animal that connects me to nature and keeps me grounded? He’s a self-proclaimed city boy who gave up his passion—mountain biking—because he doesn’t want to go in the woods where ticks live. “I’ve treated too many people for Lyme,” he said. “I’ve seen what it can do.”

Yes, Lyme disease is awful. I, too, have seen what it can do, both in people and horses. Yet I continue to pick ticks off myself, refusing to allow the specter of a disease to rule my life. For Bob, minimizing the exposure was easy: He lives in a high-rise in Bethesda, Md. I’d have to sell our farm and get a new life.

So I went to my doctor, Cathryn Harbor, a country doctor who treats farmers and riders and hunters; people whose lives are interwoven with nature where danger can be a short step away. Though it could be argued that Bob faces more danger on the D.C. beltway than he ever did in the woods.

Horses Nourish Your Soul

Three years ago when I hit my head from a fall, Cathryn was adamant that I should keep riding. Just with a saddle. I’d stupidly been riding bareback. Horses and riding nourish your soul, she told me in so many words. And as one who specializes in functional medicine, she understands the trinity of mind, body, soul. To a point.

“You fell again?” Cathryn said. “You lost a day?” She scrunched her face. This was not the beatific, encouraging, follow-your-bliss look she’d given me three years ago. For her, body was starting to trump mind and soul. Despite her encompassing approach to medicine, Cathryn is still a doctor who takes seriously her prime responsibility: to keep her patients alive.

She asked the cogent questions of a non-rider so she could assess my level of danger: Why have I fallen off twice in three years? Do I not have the skills to stay on? Have my reflexes slowed enough—either by aging or previous injury—to make riding dangerous for me?

“Are you that 90-year-old driver who shouldn’t be driving anymore?” she asked pointedly. I was too rattled to tell her about Melvin Poe or Joe Fargis or George Morris. All of them years older and not only still riding, but doing it brilliantly.

I was not expecting this. I’d gone into this column looking for ammunition to present to my family (and myself) that would support my decision to ride after last summer’s fall. Since this is a column and not a news story, I disregarded the basic tenet of journalism that I’ve been practicing and teaching for years: be fair and balanced. I purposefully stacked the deck by turning to sources I thought would be sympathetic to my view: a holistic shrink, a functional medicine doctor.

And now they were both telling me it was time to stop riding. Cathryn wasn’t as absolute as Bob. But she, too, was concerned about the ramifications of another head injury. “John’s the one you should ask,” she said, referring to my husband. “Because he’s the one who will have to take care of you.”

So I did. His answer: “If you gave it up you’d be miserable. Therefore I’d be miserable. Don’t give it up, but be a lot more careful. No more bareback. No more 3-year-olds off the track. And start thinking about different passions you can get involved with. Gardening, reading great books, anything that doesn’t give you head injuries.”

I also checked with my trainer and asked him bluntly if I was that 90-year-old driver who should be off the road. No, he laughed, you’re still in your 50s. But did I have the skills to keep myself safe, or as safe as you can be on a horse? He laughed again, thought about it for a moment, then said of course I do. I’ve been riding for more than 40 years; I’ve shown ammy-owner; I’ve ridden difficult horses.

“But………,” he started. But? But? Was he going to join the dark side and tell me to hang up my helmet too?

“You are short,” he continued, “and that makes it harder. Like a clothespin on an orange. That’s why we work on lengthening and strengthening your leg.” Whew. He was talking in the present tense, implying a future with riding.

So I’m short. That hasn’t stopped Margie Engle. And it won’t stop me.

Because at the end of the day, here’s the thing that only someone who shares my Grand Passion can understand: When I’m with my horses I feel like I’m home. Not only where I should be, but where I need to be.

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.


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