I have been to two funerals in six days. One was in Louisiana last week for my aunt, and another was in Arlington tonight for the father of my 15 year old client.
When death comes, as it inevitably will, I think we all like to picture a quiet passing after weeks of speaking to our loved ones about how complete our life was, and how loved we were, and how we are ready to let go.
But the reality is that for most of us death will either come smashing in and steal us unpredictably, leaving our loved ones shocked in its wake, or it will tie itself to us and drag us along for months, or even years, until the last shred of dignity is gone and, with it, life as well.
I know I sound terribly morbid, but that’s the truth, and in that truth there is something I want to say about horses. In case you were wondering why this was being published here.
Last week I saw an article about a non-profit that grants dying patients a final wish. And unlike the wishes made by terminal children through Make A Wish, the dying adults don’t ask for trips to Disneyland, or to meet a celebrity, or any of those things. Those featured in the article asked: to see her favorite Rembrandt painting, to see the ocean, to go to the zoo and see the giraffe he cared for, and (my personal favorite by a 101 year old woman) to ride a horse one last time.
And in this mess of a few weeks staring down mortality, I have to say that if given one last wish, I would gallop.
I wouldn’t go for a steady canter, either. If all I got was one last moment in this world, then I would go for broke and get into a field of hundreds of acres and gallop.
We all have a speed that is the maximum of our comfort, and I would hit that, then I would kick on a bit more so that I hit the speed where a gallop changes from thundering hoof beats to a steady hum and, looking down at the flash of legs, you can hardly believe anything can go this fast without the axles breaking and the machinery all flying to bits. But the horse doesn’t fly to bits. You just fly.
Right at the speed that is a hair too dangerous, and would make a fall too tragic, right there is where I would gallop. Right on into the arms of death, if need be.
And at its most basic, I think that what horses give to each of us is a glimpse into the void and a feeling that it’s OK. Riding takes the danger of a 1,200-pound animal and the threat of physics and somehow produces a total calm and acceptance in each of us. For the moments we are in the saddle and having one of those rides, we aren’t stressed, we aren’t sad, we aren’t fearful, we just are.
And percentages and penalties and technique are all afterthoughts, I promise, because not a single person reading this would have her final wish be “to ride a 75% dressage test” or “to jump a clean 1.15-meter round.”
Nope. We would all want to walk into a barn aisle and hear the murmured whinnies, or to swim a pony in a river one last time, or to gallop like death itself is chasing you across a field.
I would gallop.
Last weekend I went to my first event in six months, as this year was a total competitive wash for me (and I’m OK with that). But I was in good form and so was my horse so off we went to run the prelim at Marlborough.
And we had a great dressage, and we leapt around showjumping despite a few tapped rails, and we thundered around cross-country even though Lizzie looked twice at the big water complex that took out many a rider that day. Total score = roughly three million? Total happiness = uncountable.
Because as I was coming into the final field on cross country, and her breaths echoed in my ears as her hooves slammed the ground, and the wind cut into my eyes and tears came down my face, I knew that this was it. This is it. This is everything.
For me, a good gallop is everything that life can be: dangerous, daring, exhilarating and yet oddly meditative. For me, a good gallop suspends time and gifts immortality.
As I sat in services this past week and heard the accounting of lives, it struck me that what people talked most about with each of the departed was how much passion they had for their hobby. For one it was cooking, for the other it was art.
For me, it’s riding. Unfortunately riding is not writing, and it is not art, so I will not leave some collection of tangible remnants for my children to cherish. But if I go, and someone is looking for some semblance of a legacy, I would encourage her to wander into a field and check the ground for long gone hoof prints.
Our time is fleeting, but often our biggest pleasures are shockingly simple. The ocean. A friend. The giraffe. A gallop.
What would your last wish be?
One of the Chronicle’s bloggers, Kristin Carpenter juggles the management of her own company, Linder Educational Coaching, organizing the Area II Young Rider Advancement Program out of Morningside Training Farm in The Plains, Va., and eventing at the FEI levels. She grew up in Louisiana and bought “Trance,” a green off-the-track Thoroughbred, as a teenager. Together, they ended up competing at the North American Young Riders Championships and the Bromont CCI**. She’s now bringing another OTTB, Lizzie, up through the ranks.