From our earliest memories, we’re taught that Christmas is a time for magic, for unexpected surprises and dreams turned into realities. Not just in the “stuff” we give but in the fantastical tales we spin of Santa coming down the chimney, the elf on the shelf hiding around the house, and reindeer that fly, all on a perfect background of fallen snow.
As we grow older, the magic might slip away a bit, but it can, at times, still surprise us.
Two years ago, I was spending the second holiday season without my father, who had died a week before Christmas in 2015. On a Saturday morning, procrastinating the many chores I had to do before driving to meet my sister’s family, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when a message popped up from a friend.
“Is this Leo???” she asked.
I’d stabled Leo, a high-strung gray gelding, with her in the mid-1990s. I sold him in 1998, when he was 13, so of course he couldn’t be in this video, showing a horse cantering around a field in a Santa suit. After all, he would have been 32.
And yet…I clicked, and instantly I knew—the flick of his toes, the way he carried his tail, his small head, chiseled fine even for a Thoroughbred. It’s like time had stopped.
I quickly did some online stalking of the woman who’d posted the video. A scroll through her social media showed me that yes, this horse was the same one—he shared my birthday (an occasion that her posts indicated she’d celebrated each year). She’d renamed him Orion, but the post she’d made in a Thoroughbred group had also tagged his Jockey Club name Brother Leo, which I’d used when showing him. His eye orb protruded now, and he had a slight sag to his back, but he was in excellent health, clearly adored by his owner, and his athleticism, his distinctive movement, his energy and his attitude took me back in time.
He was the horse I’d worked three jobs as a magazine intern to buy, an ex-steeplechaser who liked to leave a good two strides out in front of a fence. He had an irrational fear of ditches and an exasperating tension in dressage, but he enabled me to do my first three-day, my first intermediate horse trials. I tried to impart courage as I taught him to event, and he constantly reminded me that a girl in her 20s should possibly have more caution, that I had a lot to learn, and that there were many ways to humble me. He had endless scope, and I’d fly over four-board fences when out hacking him.
The people who bought him from me clearly turned him around in a month or two, reselling him at a much higher price by misrepresenting his age. I’d tried to be in touch with them, but they refused to tell me where he’d gone, and it had eaten away at me for years.
“You have to go see him!” said my friend the video sender.
Of course, I’d been frantically trying to determine where he lived now. When his owner answered my onslaught of messages, I found that although she’d purchased him in Massachusetts, he’d been living most of the time in Maryland, less than two hours from my home in Virginia.
So the day after Christmas, I left my family in Baltimore and took a detour, my pulse racing and adrenaline flowing as my phone told me only one more mile, one more turn.
I was almost shaking as I approached the aisle of the barn, where he was standing beside his owner. He’s a horse, not a dog, I reminded myself, and it had been two decades. I didn’t expect a Disney ending where he’d see me and nicker. But the way he bent his head and blew out his nose as I reached for him was so exactly like it had been that I couldn’t stop the tears. I’d imagined he’d been dead for years, and yet here I was touching him. The same scar on his leg, the same way he nipped at me, the shape of his legs that I knew every inch of and those damn white hooves that couldn’t hold a good nail.
Somehow, miraculously, he’d ended up in a place where he was cherished, where, at the age of 32 he had more supplements than I could count and an array of special feeds he could chew.
The last time my fingers had stroked his gray mane, I’d had no gray hair of my own. I had no husband or child, who were quietly watching me from outside the barn. He’d seen me through breakups and losses, through some of my happiest times and through a few years of learning how to adult. As I fed him bags of carrots, it was like being pulled back to a younger self. I could remember who I was in those days, what I’d hoped for and how life had or hadn’t unfolded as I’d imagined it would.
Had I been good enough to him, taking him as far as he’d go in eventing and then selling him when he seemed unable to hold up to it? Losing track of him and fearing the worst had affected how I’d managed every horse I’d had since, and learning that he’d landed in a perfect place was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever gotten.
For all the people and animals we lose in life, we might think sometimes of what we’d say if we were to see them again, but that time never comes. Yet here I was, physically touching him, feeding him carrots. I rubbed his head and told him as I used to that he was “Leo the lion,” that I knew he had a brave heart and that we’d had so, so much fun together. Wherever life had taken us, we were both changed by the time we’d had together, the challenges we’d taken on, and I felt a special connection and gratitude to him still.
Less than two months later, his owner texted me. An issue she’d been managing had become too severe, and it was time to let him go. I was at work and briefly debated jumping in the car for a final goodbye, but it felt as if this time, this special bond was hers now. It was an unseasonably warm, beautiful day for February. I asked her to give him a kiss for me, and she soon sent me a message that he’d passed peacefully.
The experience came and went in such an amazing whirlwind that it felt like a dream, an unlikely second chance, a hint that maybe the unexpected is not always beyond the realm of possibility. You could say it’s one of the bonuses of social media, but to me, it felt like a true Christmas miracle.
Every now and then we feature a blog from a member of the Chronicle staff. We’re just like you—juggling riding and competing with work and family. President/Executive Editor Beth Rasin balances overseeing the editorial side of the magazine with raising her 10-year-old daughter Maggie and caring for a herd of horses, dogs and cats at her farm.