Saturday, May. 25, 2024

Amateurs Like Us: Saying Goodbye, For Now

They say all good things must come to an end.

You might know that I'm a rider, and that I have a wee bit of a love for horses. My brother teases me that I blow up his Facebook with horse pictures; my car smells like a barn; my wardrobe consists mainly of comfortable pants and shirts in various shades of J. Crew’s latest name for manure.

I returned to riding when I was 43, after a 20some-year hiatus. I did not choose this hiatus—it was the fallout from my parents’ divorce. From the age of 5, riding had been my oxygen, showing ponies my joy. 

PUBLISHED
AmateurPiperBlog3.jpg

ADVERTISEMENT

They say all good things must come to an end.

You might know that I’m a rider, and that I have a wee bit of a love for horses. My brother teases me that I blow up his Facebook with horse pictures; my car smells like a barn; my wardrobe consists mainly of comfortable pants and shirts in various shades of J. Crew’s latest name for manure.

I returned to riding when I was 43, after a 20some-year hiatus. I did not choose this hiatus—it was the fallout from my parents’ divorce. From the age of 5, riding had been my oxygen, showing ponies my joy. 

When my father told me it was time to sell my ponies and quit I was leveled, and left missing a large piece of who I was. As soon as I could drive, I got myself to the barn and rode every horse my trainer would put me on, but eventually I went to college and then law school, and then I was 43 and had not gone one day without feeling like a part of me was still waiting to wake up and breathe in horse.

In December 2013, my husband Bill surprised me with a trip to a ranch and spa in Colorado. “They have horses here!” I was like a kid when we arrived.

We took a trail ride together the next morning. Later that day I met a woman who would become one of my closest friends, and she happens to be a rider, so we took an “advanced” trail ride together the following day. Think galloping through a canyon, making fresh tracks in the snow, surrounded by Aspens, while snow is silently falling all around you. Nirvana. 

Four weeks later I bought a horse and named her Flurry. A few months after that, I came to my senses and realized that while riding a coming 3-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred who delighted in going on wild, nose-to-the-ground, feet-clicking-above-my-head bucking sprees was great fun and quite an adrenaline rush, I was likely better suited on a more reliable mount. 

Enter Dooney, my trainer’s fancy pants Dutch Warmblood. On Mother’s Day, he became my horse of a lifetime.

I’ll admit that I’m probably not the buyer that Mia originally had in mind for her horse. He once stopped mid-course to fart and, instead of getting after him, I doubled over with laughter (my kids got this on video and think it’s very amusing). 

In our first show together, he spooked coming into a line, and I circled to get my act back together. I knew I wouldn’t get pinned, but I was having fun, and I was pretty sure that was the point. I rarely made him go in a frame, I fed him far too many treats, and I loved every moment. 


DoonBug and I in action.

He gave my girls their first riding lessons. He reawakened my dreams. He got the nickname DoonBug.

Riding Dooney, I felt inspired again, and important, and respected, and so, so proud. Of myself. Of my dream horse.

More important, I felt connected to the earth and the sky and the dirt and the grass. I cherished the sun on my back and on his coat, warming him and making him shine. I soaked in warm days, felt the exhilaration of cool breezes, and would tolerate freezing feet to watch him discovering fresh snow.

ADVERTISEMENT

Dooney is a sensitive and soulful horse, and we have a remarkable connection. When my daughter Kincaid hacks him, he will find me at the side of the ring and come to me for hugs. Over and over again he will find me, and given the freedom to go where he chooses, instead of heading for the green grass or back to the barn, he comes to rest his nose in my lap. Every time. 

If Dooney sees me in the pasture, he will come to me and hang out with me. When the herd moves on, he’ll stay with me for as long as he can, and when he finally leaves, he will stop and look back, almost apologetically asking, “Are you coming, Mom?” No, Bug, not this time. 

Dooney once got loose and ran down the long driveway of the barn, out onto the road, heading toward the busy crossroad. I ran after him, calling his name into the wind, hoping he would hear me while also not chasing him/spooking him/scaring him/making him feel cornered. When he headed for the busy intersection, I stopped in my tracks, terrified.

As a truck coming from one direction stopped, and I waited for what could be coming over the hill from the other direction, Dooney stopped exactly on the center yellow lines. He stood perfectly still, head raised, nostrils flared, facing away from me and toward a wild uncertainty.  

At any moment, he could decide to run, and I would have any number of potential catastrophes on my hands. “Dooney,” I said quietly. 

He slowly turned around, looked at me with great, big, frightened eyes that seemed to say “Mommy?” And he walked back across the street and buried his face in my arms. He was quivering with fear, and he had come to me for comfort and safety. This is trust.

I eventually moved Dooney to a bigger show barn and got more serious about my riding. I set bigger goals for myself and for Dooney. We showed, we did well, we set bigger goals. My riding was coming back to me, and it made me feel centered, purposeful and connected. 

When my girls were enveloped by the same sense of wholeness when they rode, a pony, Hobbes, joined our herd. The barn became a place of being like “the family room” or “upstairs.” Where are you going? Where did I leave my phone? Where is the last place that you saw Mommy?

I had found the missing piece. I felt good about myself when I set goals, worked hard and achieved them.

I was thrilled to be learning again, and to be improving myself. And I felt like me again, the horse-crazed kid all grown up into a horse-loving mom of horse-loving kids (well, OK, and a baseball-loving one, too), grateful wife and proud rider.

And my horse, oh, this DoonBug. When I come down the barn aisle, he knows I’m there, and I see his white face at his door. He gives me horse hugs by wrapping his neck around me. He nuzzles my back when I groom him. He frisks me for treats. He nods when I ask him if he wants a peppermint.

He puts his nose against me for comfort whenever he is near—his or mine, I’m not sure of his intent, but I am sure that we are both comforted. He lets me lie down against his neck when he is sleeping. He follows me like a dog. I once yelled at him, and he hung his head, then stepped forward and put his head against my chest, “I’m sorry, Mom.” 

And when I fell, I’m told he didn’t want to leave the ring. 

ADVERTISEMENT

I came into the line with some pace, hoping to add another win over fences, confident we’d win the hack, and hopefully then the championship in our first AA show of the season. My goals were big: begin in the adult amateurs and move up to the low amateur-owners. Our lessons and schooling had been amazing, and I was feeling very confident in myself and in Dooney. I had finally developed the confidence to ride with pace and stay out of Dooney’s way. 

But coming down to the oxer out, I mistook pace for impulsion, got to an impossibly long spot for a horse too much on its front end, and Dooney patted the ground, catapulting me over his head. I was tucked in for a nice, fluffy landing on the other side of the jump when I felt something very hard hit my head and the lights went out.

The impact of Dooney’s hoof hitting my (helmeted) head as he landed the jump caused subarachnoid hemorrhages on my brain that were exactly the size (5mm, a pencil eraser) that passed me under the line of requiring surgery, swelling around my brain, and, I would later learn, a fractured skull. At first, I was told that I might be able to ride in a few months.

Then six months. When riding six months post-injury caused me searing pain, I was told to wait until it had been one year. Some said never again. 

This time it was me facing a wild uncertainty, and it was Dooney who I turned to for comfort. When I first started going to visit him, I could barely walk or see much beyond what was directly in front of me, but just being near him and breathing him in was therapeutic. He has been the very best snuggler, friend to share a banana with and shoulder to cry on. He, in his gentle, loving presence, nourishes my soul.

It’s been a year and a half since my fall. I have some permanent effects. I’ve lost some of the hearing in my right ear. My short-term memory is embarrassingly bad, although my dog will tell you that getting fed over and over again is a bonus for him. 

I’ve lost much of my sense of humor, as well as my understanding of humor and sarcasm. I sometimes stutter. I can’t multi-task. Having more than one person talking at a time feels like someone is blaring a radio in my ears. I often cannot tell where a sound is coming from, or who is talking to me. I take medication to keep the place on my head where I was struck from causing me to call out in pain. I can’t drive at night because the lights are disorienting and painful. I have trouble holding and following conversations.

I’ve tried to ride over the last year and a half, and each time I do my head starts to hurt as soon as I post the trot. My brain, it seems, prefers to be a pasture puff.

Dooney, on the other hand, prefers to have a job and be revered and be Remarkable. He gets cresty-necked and quite full of himself when he’s bathed and braided and shiny. He loves to go into the ring and point his toes, show off his floaty trot, flash his chrome and feel special. 

Victory gallops after derbies are one of Dooney’s very favorite things—he might even squeal with delight while doing his best to suppress a victorious buck. 

And so, my beloved DoonBug, you’re off to great places. I’m not going with you, not this time, Bug. But know this: Even if we’re apart, I’ll always be with you. I’ll be right here. 

When you are tired and ready to bury your face in my arms for comfort, I’ll be here. When you need a friend to eat a banana with or snuggle up and take a rest with, I’ll be here. I’ll keep track of you and your adventures, and I’ll find you when you’re ready to come back to me, and I will bring you home.

We’ll make great pasture puffs together one day.

Piper Johnson, an amateur rider from Omaha, Neb., sent us this one-time blog about her decision to part ways with her beloved horse, Remarkable K. 

ADVERTISEMENT

EXPLORE MORE

Follow us on

Sections

Copyright © 2024 The Chronicle of the Horse