Sunday, May. 26, 2024

A Letter To The Horse That Saved My Heart (And Yours)



To the horse that saved my heart (or Chanel):

When I saw you the first time, I immediately knew you had to be mine. I’d never seen a prettier face, and the light in your eyes shined brighter than any others I’d ever looked into.

When we jumped around for the first time, we didn’t miss a single thing—every jump was smooth, every move up off of my leg was accepted, and for the first time since Boo passed, I felt happy, if even for a moment.

When I found out you were blind in your left eye, and you still jumped around like a pro, I was sure you were special. Aside from the occasional scoot away from a shadow or look at a funny jump, you were so brave. You never said no to a chip or ran off with me after a flier. You never held it against me when I pulled up right before a jump or when I pulled a little too hard out of frustration. You never said no, even when I was asking you to say yes to a terrible decision.


Chanel has helped me move on after Boo’s death. Photo courtesy of Shelby Phillips.

In the weeks following Boo’s passing, I felt like I was wading in a really shallow pool. As each day passed by, the pool was filling up quicker than I could cry, and eventually I felt myself treading water. All too soon, I was drowning, and my legs grew tired, and fighting the current became harder, and I finally understood what it meant to never see him again. But drowning was not an option.


Thank you for giving me something to look forward to on my worst days. Thank you for being there when I needed to make mistake after mistake after mistake. Thank you for being kind to me at our first show even though you were on the verge of a panic attack. (New places are scary). Thank you for not having “second rider syndrome” when clinicians had to get on you because I just wasn’t getting it. Thank you for being perfect when McLain [Ward] got on you and making me look bad. Thank you for showing me everything I was doing wrong without being mean. Thank you for being a teacher instead of a principal, and thank you for sharing your light with me.

McLain Ward riding Chanel. Photo by Kiira Lizza.

Sometimes I feel like going a week or two without riding, because grief weighs heavier with each day that passes. I’ve begun to truly understand what it means to lose a horse and to have to go every day without hugging them.

I cry every morning on my way to a show because it’s difficult to load a horse onto the trailer other than my golden unicorn. I cry every time I change into my coat and breeches because it’s difficult not to put on a number with Drambuie’s name on the back. I cry every time we walk back to the trailer after a class because it’s difficult to be looking over different ears.

In the midst of it all though, when we’re warming up or on course or walking out of the in-gate to either a smile or a frown from our trainer, I forget all of that. And with each opening circle, I take a deep breath, so that you can take a deep breath, so that we don’t both shut down. And with each approach to each fence, I’m grateful that you’re waiting with me. And each moment we’re suspended in the air, I swear I’m flying.

It’s difficult to forget the competing I wanted to be doing. Without fail, we take home a blue ribbon every week. And that’s fun and fine and makes the walls in my apartment look really beautiful. But as I say every Sunday when we’re schlepping ourselves to some strange town on Long Island: It’s not about the ribbon; it’s about the ride. To me, a blue or a red or a brown ribbon just means we showed up in the ring and got around (our first obstacle). And sure, each ribbon holds a different value to me. A yellow ribbon means I rode well but could have been better; a brown ribbon means I have a lot to work on, and a blue ribbon means I rode my best. They are not about how everyone else rode compared to me or how many points I get with each one. At the end of the day, it’s about having fun, riding better than I’d ridden the week before, and enjoying the ride.



Me and Chanel competing. Photo courtesy of Shelby Phillips.

Accepting stepping down a level was a decision I made because you were waiting for me in the barn and had come home off of a lease right when I needed you. A friend told me that something as terrible as Boo’s passing couldn’t have happened if there weren’t something waiting for me at the end of it, and you were that something. I couldn’t stomach sitting on a dozen more horses, so I said no to looking for anyone else. Sometimes the right one just falls into your lap, and you’ll do whatever they need, even if it means not qualifying for a final or moving up in the eq. Sometimes, for the slightest moment, I regret my decision to take on a different kind of horse, one that needed to be taught to slow down (even if we turn and burn sometimes, much to our trainer’s disdain). But at the end of the day, when you’re sticking your nose out of your stall begging for attention, how could I ever regret you?

I am grateful for a horse with a heart bigger than my grief. I am grateful for a horse who lets me lean my head on her shoulder to cry while she’s snacking on hay. I am grateful for a horse who put her heart in mine and accepted mine in return.

I don’t know what my life looks like without you, and I know that time will come. But for now, I’m beyond grateful to have a horse that saved my heart and made breathing a little easier.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.


Shelby Phillips is a recent graduate of New York University Tisch School of the Arts where she majored in drama with a minor in child and adolescent mental health studies. She spent her summers riding while on vacation with her family and started riding more seriously when she went to college. During her time at NYU, she was a member of the equestrian team and later a co-captain her senior year. She is currently a writer and photographer for Sidelines Magazine, a sales associate at Manhattan Saddlery, a part-time groom and a photographer for her own business, Shelby Phillips Photography. Horses and theater are her true loves, and she hopes to continue splitting her time between Manhattan and Long Island, so that she can do both.



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