Big Love Lessons

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2018 Honorable Mention in Creative Nonfiction

BY CAROLYN GETCHES

There is something magic about the bond between a human and a horse. It doesn’t have the bounciness of canine companionship, or the domestic intimacy that comes with owning a cat. You can’t pick up a horse in your arms or sleep next to one in bed, but horses offer something else—an alluring mix of sturdiness and vulnerability. Despite their strength and heft, horses are skittish by nature and easily spooked. They’ll jump at the sound of a tiny dog’s bark, or panic at the sight of harmless branches swaying in the breeze. It’s a seemingly contradictory combination of traits that has called to me since I was a child. At the time, I didn’t know why I loved horses so much. I simply knew that I did, the same way I loved cheese ravioli and the color green. 

Growing up, every picture I drew was of a horse. Every class writing assignment was about a horse. Every doll, that looked like a person, was actually a horse. I longed for one of my own. I’d ask my parents to get me a horse over Cheerios in the morning and sliced apples in the afternoon. I’d bring it up during bathtime and after my kiss good night. I didn’t understand why my mom and dad said no each and every time. It didn’t occur to me that we might not be able to afford it, that it was a huge responsibility, that maybe they were protecting me. To my eight-year-old mind it seemed like a straightforward problem with a straightforward solution, so it wasn’t long before I went above their heads.

Sunday’s mass started like any other at Saint Ann’s, a quaint Catholic church in my hometown of West Newbury, Massachusetts. I stood, sat and knelt at the appropriate times, and internally cataloged my sins for the week—the Polly Pocket Pony Club figurines I hadn’t put away, the times I’d tattled on my brother, and the extra spoonful of peach ice cream I’d stolen from the kitchen when nobody was looking. I kept my remorse to myself. My family wasn’t big on apologies. Instead, we stuck to the “lighten up and move on” resolution strategy preferred by so many in the 90s. (If only it worked.) I wanted to be a perfect little girl who didn’t make messes or cause fights or eat too much. I lived for the look on my parents’ faces when their friends would ask, “How do you get her to say please like that?” or “She’ll eat broccoli without throwing a fit?” I reasoned that if I couldn’t figure out how to be perfect, I could at least hide the imperfect parts of myself. I vowed to be better and to not make those same mistakes again. After the appropriate promises had been made, I confronted the task at hand. 

Dear God, please give me a horse. 

I requested a palomino or paint. Nothing too big. I wanted a versatile horse I could grow into. I wrapped up my prayer, and mass returned to normal. Once Communion was over, my dad ducked outside to pull our minivan around, increasing his chances of catching the kickoff of the Patriots’ game. On the drive home, I repeated my prayer one more time for good measure. I truly thought that if I wanted it enough, a horse would show up in my bedroom and everyone would understand. And it happened almost exactly like that. 

•••

When I was about to turn ten years old, my dad’s job was transferred from the East Coast to a college town in northern Colorado. The cross-country move and its surrounding chaos took a toll on my family. My parents said relocating was the right decision, but worried about my brother and me. We missed the friends we had known since preschool and the house that was the only home we ever knew. While my dad and I sat on the itchy peach carpet in my new bedroom and gingerly unpacked my toy horse collection, I mentioned the benefits of equine ownership once again. I readied myself for his standard replies. You’re too young, sweetie. Not right now, little girl. 

He set down the plastic foal he was holding and looked at me. “Horses live a long time. Are you sure you’re ready for that kind of responsibility?”

I nodded uncontrollably. His words made me want a horse more, not less. There was no way I was going to be one of those girls who liked horses for a few years and then moved on to boys and eyeshadow. I was certain I would feel this love for the rest of my life. My dad pinky promised me that if I worked as hard as I could in school, he would get me a horse by my eleventh birthday. I couldn’t believe it. Though I didn’t own a horse yet, it sure felt like I did. My dad never, ever broke his promises. 

I began taking riding lessons from a woman named Susan. She ran a small boarding facility with her husband. It had a big metal barn and grassy pastures that backed up to a rocky river. The horses there looked happy and healthy, just like Susan. She was tall and wore her blonde hair in a long braid that got teeny, tiny at the end. Even on the hottest days, she dressed in white long sleeve shirts that she tucked into dark blue Wranglers.

After each lesson, I’d begin counting the days until I could return. Susan’s stable felt like a sanctuary compared to my new school. The other students thought my dropped r’s and frequent use of the word “wicked” sounded funny, and I hated the daily dilemma of finding someone to play with at recess. To cope, I retreated to my comfort zone of silence. It was so much easier to connect with my four-legged friends who required no words at all. 

On weekends, I started cleaning stalls and stacking hay with Susan’s daughter Ingrid. She was a year younger than me and already had a horse of her own, a petite bay Morgan who liked to fight. Connie would lie back her chocolate brown ears flat against her neck and bare her teeth at any horse that got too close. She was territorial and feisty in ways I couldn’t imagine being. Ingrid and I were paid four dollars an hour to do the work, but I would have done it for free.

Over the summer my schedule increased to full-time. We ate American cheese and Wonder Bread sandwiches for lunch, two things my mom would never buy. On Fridays we piled into Susan’s Ford pickup truck and went to A&W for root beer floats. In that truck we were taller and louder than everyone else on the road. I was so happy to be part of a group, and even happier it was a group who wore Wranglers. I had spent hours at the home and ranch store searching for a pair that fit. While not overweight, I was far from little-girl-skinny. My soft stomach and plump thighs meant the only jeans I could zip came the “husky” section of the boys’ department. I cut off the tag the second I got home, settling for pretend perfection yet again.

My family stopped going to church for the most part, but I quickly found a new Sunday ritual. Susan and Ingrid took me to a weekly horse show in Greeley, a rural city about an hour away. The numerous slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants made Greeley famous for one thing—smelling like moldy beef. I couldn’t wait until that thick scent hit my nostrils. It meant we were getting close.

The dusty fairgrounds were packed full of massive horse trailers, stocked coolers and nervous parents. I’d watch Ingrid and Connie breeze around the ring, often placing in the top three. After, Ingrid would hold up her bright ribbon and pose with Connie for pictures. I would clap and cheer as loud as I could, hoping it would mask my jealousy.

Back at the stables, Susan’s husband waved me over to one of the outdoor pens. He pointed to a horse standing by herself in the coral closest to us. I knew every horse from forelock to tail, and this palomino was definitely new. She was tall, I guessed almost sixteen hands, and muscular. She had a light gold coat, and her mane and tail were a creamy white. 

“She’s so pretty,” I said.

“An old friend used to own her and saw she was for sale,” he said. “She’s fourteen now, but I bought her anyway thinking your dad might want to get her for you.” It was August eighth. My birthday was on the sixteenth. I stared at the beautiful mare.

He handed me a light blue halter with tan detailing across the noseband. “Go on. See what you think.” I entered the pen and gently eased the halter over the horse’s head. Her long whiskers tickled me as she nuzzled my hand. Up close, I could see she had green eyes that were speckled with brown. I had never seen green eyes on a horse before. They were green like my grandma’s, green like mine. 

My dad was almost as excited as me when he bought Amarilla for three thousand dollars. He had been a 4-H member as a kid, and together his club had raised enough money to afford a single gelding. He was so proud to be able to buy his daughter a horse just for her, not one eighth of a horse like he had. His father was a plumber and his mother a teacher, when she was well enough to work. She suffered from debilitating bouts of depression that left her in bed for weeks on end. Through her sickest years, my dad was responsible for feeding several local horses on his way to school. Just like they would do for me three decades later, horses offered him solace in a time of struggle.

The instant Amarilla was mine, I began relishing my new role as owner. I baked her homemade treats filled with oats and molasses. I gave her long baths with lavender-scented shampoo. I devised secret ways for us to communicate that only we could understand. If she tilted one ear towards me that was a yes. Both ears? That was a no. I knew it was ridiculous and that we weren’t really talking, except what if we were? 

I tried to predict her every want and need. When I sensed her face was itchy, I would turn around so she could run her large head up and down my back like a scratching post. I felt so good in those moments, so necessary. It seemed my obsession and solidness finally had value. 

I traced Amarilla’s whole body with my hands, finding a slight indent above her shoulder. Susan said it was likely a dead muscle from being overworked by previous owners. She had heard stories that Amarilla’s old trainer used to cover the beams of each practice jump with sharp spikes. I searched her smooth stomach for scars. I liked the idea of being Amarilla’s savior. I was going to show her the good life, and it would last forever.

Like many new parents, I thought everything about my horse was rare and worthy of praise. “Breathe in. Right here. What do you smell?” I said to Ingrid, pointing to Amarilla’s shoulder.

“Old horse poop?” she replied. 

“You can’t smell that?” I said, pitying Ingrid’s limited senses. “Ammy smells sweet like sugar.” Ammy was my latest stab at a nickname. Earning your own epithet was a rite of passage in our house, a holdover from my dad’s years in a fraternity. Within a few months both of my parents were calling her Am Bam. I stuck with Ammy. I thought she liked it better. 

In the afternoons Ingrid and I took our horses on long, lazy trail rides, delighting every child we passed. “Can we pet them?” they would ask. Ingrid often had to decline since Connie could be mean and unpredictable. 

“Of course,” I’d say. I was beginning to understand the pride my parents felt when other moms inquired about my love of broccoli. 

As the days got hotter, the snowpack on the Rocky Mountains melted, and the nearby river nearly overflowed its banks. Ingrid and I couldn’t resist the chance to take our horses swimming. We rode bareback to avoid damaging our leather saddles and headed for the shore. Ingrid barely had time to kick off her boots before Connie charged into the icy water. She started to laugh. “I thinks she’s doing the doggy paddle,” Ingrid said.

I used my heels to encourage Ammy to follow Connie’s lead. She took several slow steps, wading in deeper and deeper. The water was cold and astringent on my toes. Suddenly, Ammy’s lungs filled with air, and I felt her powerful legs cut through the current. I wrapped my arms around her neck, worrying I might float away. On Ammy’s back, my body had a lightness that I wasn’t used to feeling while wearing my husky Wranglers.

After a few minutes, we returned to the trail. Ingrid and I lay back and rested our heads just above our horses’ tails. We let the spring sunshine warm us up. 

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•••

The first show of the season was approaching, and it was time to let everyone see the Colorado cowgirl I’d become. When we arrived at the fairgrounds at seven o’clock in the morning, they were already bustling with activity. I complained as my dad covered my face with too much sunscreen. He put on a brand new ten-gallon hat to protect his balding head and fit in with the crowd. “Squire Jim reporting for duty,” he said. “What do you need?”

“Can you brush the lint off my helmet?” I asked.

My dad gave me a salute and got to work. For the next two summers, every weekend he would press my clothes, help me condition my tack, and carefully pin my number on the back of my fitted show blazer. Months down the line, when Ammy and I began competing in most of the day’s events, he would rush over to us as we left the arena, handing me cold drinks and candy bars. His enthusiasm made me feel like one of the professional athletes he loved to watch on TV. 

It was almost time for my first class. Susan advised Ingrid and me to keep a few horses between us in case Ammy and Connie were tempted to misbehave. As we filed into the ring, the Dixie Chicks song blaring over the speakers cut out, and a hush fell over the bleachers. 

“Please walk your horses,” the announcer said.

I lifted Ammy’s belly with my ankles. I could feel her energy beneath me, an extra spring in each step. I made a quiet clicking sound hoping Ammy would tune in. Can you hear me? Her ears stayed pointed in Connie’s direction.

“Trot,” the announcer said.

I pressed my outside leg into Ammy’s ribs, keeping my reins tight. She lurched forward. I gripped her withers for support as we sped past the horse in front of us. Ammy threw her head high in the air. Then she arched her neck, and kicked her hind legs off the ground. While Ammy continued to buck, I heard the announcer tell the other competitors to halt their horses. I managed to hang on for a few seconds before falling off completely. By the time I got to my feet, Ammy was skidding to a stop right next to Connie. My face was hot with humiliation. I was already mentally composing a newspaper advertisement for a disobedient palomino mare when Ammy turned around and looked directly at me. “Oops,” her expression seemed to say. My fury disappeared. She was sorry. I brushed the dust off my pants and ran over to her. Ammy tucked her head right behind my shoulder as we exited the arena so the others could finish the event.

“Thank God your mom wasn’t here. She’d of had a conniption,” my dad said, patting Ammy’s neck. “What was that all about, Am Bam?” That afternoon, Ammy bucked me off two more times. I wasn’t deterred. I just had to figure out what she needed. 

Inspired by The Horse Whisperer that had recently come out in theaters, I started practicing natural horsemanship with Ammy. We spent hours in the round pen, working on trust and communication. I’d stand in the center and she would spin around me as we learned to translate each others’ languages. Soon, she would stop, walk, trot and canter based on subtle shifts in my stance and tone of voice. Our fictitious “one ear, two ear” method of communication was replaced by a true connection. 

Over the next couple years, my bedroom walls became lined with ribbons. Ammy and I even won the occasional trophy. Our quick rise to success piqued the interest of the show’s longtime attendees. They’d often ask about Ammy’s age, not believing how good she looked for seventeen. Then she started to limp. 

•••

Ammy was diagnosed with navicular disease. There was no cure, but our vet thought steroid injections would alleviate the pain temporarily. My dad routinely got cortisone shots in his knee to treat an old football injury, and he assured me the injections wouldn’t hurt Ammy too much. After the first one, her limp seemed to vanish. Unfortunately, it only took a few days for her left leg to begin to swell. 

The following summer, while Ingrid and Connie continued to train at more advanced levels, I walked Ammy in slow circles around the arena. In addition to the shots, our farrier installed silicone pads under the metal shoes on Ammy’s front hooves. My dad called them her “high heels.” They helped, but only at a walk. Taking lessons from Susan didn’t seem to make sense anymore, and eventually cleaning stalls for four dollars an hour didn’t either. Without a firm schedule binding us together, my friendship with Ingrid dissolved. As the season came to a close, we decided to move Ammy to a more affordable barn closer to our house.

I led Ammy past the stalls for the last time and bid farewell to every single horse. When we got to Connie, Ammy let out several quiet whinnies, her anxiety clearly intensifying as the distance between them grew. I didn’t blame her. Ever since we left Massachusetts, I dreaded goodbyes. They felt messy and permanent, and even though I knew her new home was only a few miles away, I assumed the ache was the same.

•••

The more complicated Ammy’s illness became, the more I yearned for the simplicity of typical teenage drama. Heading into ninth grade, I finally had a good group of friends at school. They weren’t interested in steroids and custom horseshoes. They wanted to talk about boys and eyeshadow. There was a part of me that wanted to discuss those things too, though I wouldn’t have admitted it back then. I couldn’t bear the thought that maybe horses were only a phase after all, especially when Ammy needed me most. 

I was certain these emerging desires meant I was selfish and uncaring, an increasingly common conclusion at that point in my life. All those years spent hiding my imperfections had allowed a negative internal monologue to flourish unchecked. I just knew I was inexplicably rotten and that it was my job to fix it. I learned to act happy when I felt sad, say please when I meant no, and always smile rather than sulk. This pretending made it impossible to truly know who I was. I simply knew that I felt bad. I felt bad I didn’t visit Ammy more at her new stable. I felt bad she was hurting, and worse I didn’t know how to help. I felt bad her vet bills cost my parents so much money. I felt bad I wanted to leave and return to the East Coast for college. I felt bad I got an A- in AP physics. I felt bad my husky Wranglers were now too tight. I felt bad, about everything. 

I quickly latched onto the only issue I could control—my body size. Losing weight became my answer to everything. The steps were simple. Eat less. Exercise more. Repeat. 

Despite this growing preoccupation with weight, I did manage to get accepted to a liberal arts school in New York. It was a relief when my dad came up with a plan for Ammy’s future, so I didn’t have to. His cousin owned horses in Texas and said Ammy could stay with her while I was away. Although I worried she might not buy Ammy the right shoes and medication, I didn’t focus on it for long. I was too busy calculating if that scoop of peanut butter I had just eaten was closer to one tablespoon or two.

Of all the important moments in my life, I hate that watching Ammy leave for Texas is the one I can’t recall. I tell myself this void of memory stems from hurting too much, not caring too little. I hope I’ll remember it someday.

•••

It turned out it would take just over one semester for my compulsive dieting to morph into a full-fledged eating disorder, and five years to reach some semblance of recovery. By that point, I had moved back to Colorado. My weight was stable and I appeared to be a healthy young woman. I even had a boyfriend. When my therapist had asked me to follow a prescriptive meal plan, I did. When she’d suggested I limit my daily runs to a few jogs per week, I did that too. It was following her more abstract advice that was proving more difficult. What did being kind to yourself even mean? For the time being, I stuck to her concrete instructions, like incorporating desserts back into my life. I was making brownies when my cell phone rang. “Hello?” I said.

“Hi. This is Tiffany, the lady who took your old horse.” Tiffany’s voice sounded younger than I had imagined. Ammy only lived in Texas for a couple years, before my dad’s cousin sent her back in the middle of a difficult divorce. When we got the news, I was still too lost in my eating disorder to be of much use, and my dad made a plan once again. He had heard a woman was looking for a horse her daughter could take on trail rides, and we agreed it sounded like a perfect fit.

“I lost all my money a while ago and had to give her away,” Tiffany explained. “But I just moved my other horses to a new place, and I couldn’t believe it, but Ammy’s there.”

It had been a long time since I heard someone say Ammy’s name out loud. I talked about her occasionally in therapy, but always in distant terms as “the horse I used to own.” I repeated her name in my head. Ammy. Ammy. Ammy.

•••

My boyfriend and I waited with my parents in a grocery store parking lot. A slim woman with bleach blonde hair and teal eyeliner stepped out of a shiny sports car. “That’s Tiffany,” my dad whispered. I thought it was odd for someone who was broke to drive such a nice car, and then quickly scolded myself for being so judgmental. 

I hopped in the passenger side and Tiffany drove us into the foothills, with my parents and boyfriend following close behind. I was grateful the loud engine erased the need for small talk. I was torn between wanting to yell at Tiffany for letting Ammy go and wanting to thank her for taking care of Ammy when I couldn’t. She let her foot off the gas as we turned on a dirt road.

“You need to be ready,” Tiffany said. “She’s a lot older than when you last saw her.”

We pulled up to a rundown stable. There weren’t any pastures or arenas, just a few muddy paddocks with slanted roofs. Several chestnut geldings stood crowded together in one pen. In another, I saw a boney mare facing the fence. The horse’s hind legs were stained with manure and her hooves were split and overgrown. 

“There she is,” Tiffany said. I looked at the horse’s ribs, plainly visible through her patchy gray coat. 

“That’s Am Bam?” my mom asked. My dad grabbed my shoulder. I got closer and saw the brown speckles in her green eyes. It was her. She must have lost over five hundred pounds since I’d last seen her. It was a thinness I could not admire. 

“Hi, Becky!” Tiffany said to a woman walking my way in flip flops.

“So you know Ammy?” Becky asked, mispronouncing the “a” like a short “o.”

“Yeah, I used to be her owner.” I looked at the goop gathered in the corners of Ammy’s eyes.

“Something’s wrong with her. She limps and has diarrhea constantly. Nobody told me any of that stuff when I got her,” Becky complained. 

I held out my hand and Ammy searched it for food. I wondered if she remembered me.

“It’s looking like I’ll have to put her down soon. I can save you some of her tail if you want,” Becky offered.

“Thanks,” I said, trying to hide my devastation. Ammy shifted her weight from one swollen leg to the other. I surprised my parents by hurrying back to the car. My days of religion were long behind me, but I was positive that Ammy had been brought back into my life for a reason. I was getting a second chance to be her savior, and there was no time to waste.

I filed complaints with the humane society and called every horse rescue I could find. Since Ammy had access to water and shelter, I learned there was little anyone could do. I asked, and then begged, Becky to sell Ammy back to me, but she rejected every offer. Our communication ceased entirely when she figured out I was the one who involved the humane society.

In the midst of manically brainstorming next steps, a text popped up on my phone. “Becky put Ammy down :(,” it read. My mind raced for another solution. This could not be how our love story ended. I got an idea. Eat less. Exercise more. Repeat. 

I entered back into the world of hunger pangs and sore muscles. Every morning, I went on long runs and tried as hard as I could not to think about my dead horse. Of course it didn’t work. I kept imagining burying my face in Ammy’s golden coat. Throughout college, whenever I had passed the desserts in the dining hall I’d held my breath, convinced that smelling freshly baked goods meant I was consuming extra calories. Now, I longed for Ammy’s sugary, sweet scent—calories be damned. It took Ammy’s passing for me to finally accept that restriction did not cure, it merely numbed. For what felt like the zillionth time, I threw away my scale and welcomed carbohydrates back into my cupboards.

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•••

A few years ago, I decided to hold a memorial service for Ammy. I harvested several of her hairs from an old saddle pad and gathered with my parents and boyfriend by the river where we once swam. I dumped the hairs in a metal bowl and lit them on fire with a match. As they burned, we took turns voicing our grief. Sensing my nerves, my boyfriend volunteered to go first. He talked about how happy he was that he got to meet Ammy, and joked that he knew I would never love him quite as much as I loved my first horse. My dad and I smiled—we knew he was partly right. After, my mom told Ammy’s spirit how much she meant to us. “You made our lives so much more special,” she said.

My dad took a breath to steady himself. “Am Bam. Thank you so much for everything you gave our family. Those horse show days are some of my favorite memories.” I wondered if the same moments that flashed through my mind, flashed through his—singing country songs together on our way to Greeley, sharing cold cans of Diet Coke in the summer sun, and him smiling in the bleachers precisely the same way, whether I placed first or last. “Just, thank you,” he said. He looked at me with tears in his eyes, signaling that he had said all he could.

My turn. Time to confess my sins. Between sobs, I told Ammy that I never should have let her go and that I hoped Becky wasn’t as bad as she seemed. I swore that she deserved better and that I loved her. “I’m just so sorry, Ammy,” I said. “I’m so, so sorry.” I sprinkled Ammy’s ashes on the river. As they drifted away, I pictured her healthy, strong legs slicing through the water. 

For a moment, I felt like a fool for admitting my mistakes outloud. Then I recalled my therapist’s counsel to counter my self-doubt with kindness. In the past, I had used threats and pain to demand unrealistic results—the same methods employed by Ammy’s old trainer. It was a frightening and ineffective way to live. Maybe I had been wrong. Maybe strength and vulnerability weren’t contradictory traits after all. Maybe one needed the other. Maybe that’s where the magic comes from.

Over the next few months, I would learn to pamper myself in simple ways. I went on slow walks instead of runs. I baked endlessly until I discovered my favorite cookies were oatmeal chocolate chip with walnuts. I cried in public and ran to my fiercest friends. I let myself apologize. Looking back, I can see that caring for Ammy had taught me how to enact kindness long ago.

When we got back to the car, my dad pulled me in for a hug. He smelled like classic Old Spice, the same deodorant he had worn since I was a kid. I inhaled deeply. While I wasn’t comfortable with all the gooey language yet, I was beginning to see that I didn’t have to carry my pain alone. I knew the ceremony didn’t technically fix anything. Ammy was still hurting and hungry for years. I still wasn’t there when I should have been. Yet, next to my pain, there were inklings of forgiveness and gratitude. For a split second, my love was big enough to hold all of my feelings at once.


Carolyn Getches is a writer and filmmaker who currently splits her time between the deserts of California and New Mexico.

*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

The inaugural $2500 Equestrian Voices Creative Writing Contest celebrated stories written by and for horse lovers from all over the world. We were inundated with amazing narratives about triumph, loss and the deep emotional experience that is being with an amazing horse. To learn more about the 2019 contest, visit theplaidhorse.com/write.

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