Three years ago, I bought a young horse named Gnocchi. She had just turned 5. I’d recently retired my older mare, and I needed something to ride that could also be an investment.
Gnocchi (Clearaway—Afonya) was bred by Cara Anthony, my previous trainer on the West Coast, so I knew exactly where she came from and how she was raised. Both my daughters and I had ridden with Cara, and we’d even seen the first foal she bred before we moved back East. I remember my older daughter begging to be driven out to the barn the night he was born. Gnocchi was the fourth foal Cara bred, and she felt like family to me when I tried her.
When Gnocchi arrived in the Northeast, where I live, I attached immediately to her, but in a different way than I had to my previous mare, Tomasa. Gnocchi was like a 1,200-pound toddler with a short attention span, while Tomasa had been a mature 10-year-old woman when I bought her, an adult professional.
I felt maternal responsibility for Gnocchi and a strong sense of duty to produce her properly. Because I am an amateur, tongues wagged that my then-trainer let me buy a 5-year-old, but a young horse was what I could afford. And I was desperate to keep riding.
At the time, I’d launched two of my three children out into the adult world, and my youngest was a year away from graduating college. I’d been a stay-at-home mom, and I knew that my job as a mother, which comprised the lion’s share of my identity, was about to end in a profound way.
Horses had seen me through some of the worst moments of my life, including a divorce, and I wasn’t about to risk another identity crisis without being able to go to the barn. I knew I would need the comfort of feeling a warm horse under my hand, the sound of hoofbeats galloping through my body and the thrill of flying over jumps to ground me.
A year after I got Gnocchi, COVID-19 hit, and I moved her to another barn to save money. It was a bigger operation, with multiple disciplines, and I was more on my own in training her. Gnocchi could be a bit of a handful, as many young and smart girls can be. Managing her physical care, her temperament and willfulness, while trying to figure out whether bad behavior was a reaction to pain or she just had my number, reminded me so much of raising my older daughter that I often felt raw and hollowed out with self-doubt. I wanted to be a good mother so badly.
By spring my youngest was home from college due to COVID-19, and she never went back. We had a makeshift graduation at home for her. She lived with me for six months—a bonus period that I mostly loved and sometimes loathed, much like all parenting (and horse training). But my daughter eventually flew the nest, moving to upstate New York for her job.
I comforted myself with the thought that at least Gnocchi still needed me. But she also needed better training than I could give her, particularly if I wanted to retain my investment. So in 2020 we traveled to Florida and went into training with Carly Anthony, Cara’s daughter, in Wellington. It was a rigorous boot camp season, during which Gnocchi and I both had to get in shape, build muscle and break bad habits. As part of the process, I had to re-learn that good parenting requires clear boundary setting and consistent practice.
Gnocchi and I made a lot of progress last season. I told Carly I was open to selling her for the right price, but when a trial came up, I went into an emotional tail spin, and my riding disintegrated into overthinking choke mode for a week or two. Clearly I wasn’t ready to part with her. There had been so much change in my life. So many endings. Who was I if I wasn’t a mother anymore?
My youngest got a new job and decided to move to San Francisco this past Christmas. Even though her two older siblings already live out west, losing my baby to the other side of the country felt like losing her to the other side of the world. No more coming home for the weekend on a whim, where I could pretend I was still in charge of her happiness, cook her favorite dinners and steal glances at her sleeping. The time change alone would rob me of many phone calls.
By Christmas, I’d already sent Gnocchi back to Florida, this time resolved to be financially prudent, to let her go. Carly worked quickly and had her leased out before I even arrived in January. Gnocchi is now doing well with a young girl in the equitation, and she seems to like her new job. I’m happy for her and proud. But when I see pictures of her braided, looking all grown up, I get a pang. Just like seeing a picture of my daughter’s stylish new hair cut from San Francisco. She’s happy in her new job too. And while I’m thrilled for my daughter, proud she’s blazing ahead with her life, I can’t help feeling just a little bit lost without her near.
Once again, I have turned to horses for solace. Carly found me an older gelding to ride and show this season while Gnocchi is off furthering her education. He has a sweet nature and comforting manner on the ground, and irrepressible, contagious energy when jumping. And when I ride him, I feel a little bit found.
Ashley Collins is mother to three grown children and currently lives in Connecticut. She graduated from Stanford University in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology. Her work has appeared online at US Equestrian Magazine, HuffPost, The Plaid Horse, Grown and Flown, Equestrian Weekly, Horse Network, the Roar Sessions, Mothers Always Write, and published in several anthologies. She currently writes a blog about her family and animals, and is working on a novel. You can read more about her at ashleycollinswriter.com and on social media at facebook.com/ashleycollinswriter and instagram.com/ashleygriffincollins.