BY NOA LEIBSON
I know I am not the only person in the horse world who has been called a great and terrible fool, prone to great and terribly foolish decisions. There is truth to their claims of irrationality, that I cannot always do what I should. But I know I am also not the only person who has smiled weakly to these things, nodded, and fled only to remain stuck in my ways. I have left barns, turned away deals, and been left to my own devices because of this chronic foolishness of mine.
We make those “foolish” decisions from the heart. Those decisions that do not fit the structure of ambition at shows or the perfectly placed plans we make at home. For some, perhaps this is changing goals halfway through the season, changing disciplines, or going independent. There are so many things we can do in this horse world of ours that can brand us as silly.
For me, it was choosing a horse. This one horse. And I did not understand the gravity of this decision until a perfect, June day.
Gatsby is my heart horse. I know how often heart horses—the beloved creatures we have a bond with like no other—tend to complicate things. Sometimes we can’t move past the physical capabilities of these horses, or they develop health problems, or our circumstances and finances may change. But that is where we become fools. When there’s a heart horse, we do everything we can to hold on to them. We owe them that much.
All of these things happened to me and Gatsby at the same time. Not long after I purchased him as a green, unbelievably kind gelding as a wide-eyed young junior, he developed EPM, a degenerative neurological condition. Meanwhile, I struggled with other things in my life and found myself lost more often than not.
Everyone around me told him to sell him, or retire him, or something, but I did not. I was reminded of my goals, of big equitation and junior jumpers, but I did not relent. Being with him made more sense than anything. Even with his health struggles, insurmountable costs of treating this condition, knowing how it ends, and the reality that those I rode with were now competing in classes far more illustrious than me. With him, I found peace.
Instead of listening to everyone else, I treated him. He recovered. We moved up the levels. We moved across the country. We grew up together. Then, he relapsed. So did I. I was told he would never jump or move truly soundly again. And I was reminded of what a fool I was in the first place. The dreams I shrank so we could be together were dashed, and I found myself even struggling to find a place I could keep a horse that was considered sick without draining my finances even more.
Through tears, I found him a place. I paid for his retirement, and sacrificed my own riding to do so. I love him. I have always loved him, but by god—did all of it sting.
Life can be cruel. Bad things happen to horses who have never done wrong in their lives, and everything we can build up can just as easily fall down. I hurt. In anger, I shut myself down. Everything felt like the end, that we were falling down this hill, and gaining momentum. I became so fragile, damaged, stinging from not only the words that echoed back at me. I felt I made a mistake. As everything new came my way combined with the state of the world, I didn’t know how to handle it all.
With this horrible ache, I visited Gatsby, who nickered and looked back at me with a kindness and innocence I knew was meant to be sung by poets. On that warm, breezy June day, I tacked him up, swung into the saddle like old times, but pointed him to the biggest field I could find instead of any arena or pathway.
We walked along the grass. Everything around me seemed to disappear. All was silent, save for the wind, which blew our way, rustled his mane, and made the swaying grasses sing. His gentle breathing matched the new vigor in his stride as he merrily made his way through this wide, open space like I figured there’d be in horse heaven. His ears went nowhere but forward, pricked in the direction of each place his head turned, as he sought out every sight and smell that could be found in this land that looked like a dream. Sometimes he pranced. I let him as I sat up there, content, with nothing but a smile on my face.
When we reached the top of the hill I knew, in that moment more than ever, that everything was perfect. I was exactly where I was supposed to be. He was spirited, joyous, happy to be alive, unhindered. Upon that hill, I felt taller than ever and that which made me ache and that which plagued my mind was replaced by nothing but love and peace. Troubled girls find troubled horses. I knew that, but felt it in the big field that felt like more than just a big field in a moment I will remember for the rest of my life. I knew that it couldn’t last forever, but forever was how it felt.
In one single moment, with nothing but me and my horse who I loved with all my heart, I was happy to be the fool. One day this horse I love will die, and I will ache all over again. But I found something that meant more than any of my old dreams I thought I required. I thought I was cursed, but I wasn’t—not really. I learned more from his kindness, resilience and our journey than I have from anything else. I knew then, when everything stopped hurting from our place in the grass when endings seemed like lies, that I had made the right decision.
It can be taboo for horse people to act from the heart. We are labeled fools for ‘throwing everything away,’ even when we stand to gain something beautiful from it. We are shamed for choosing love. We are shamed for trying to heal the broken. We are shamed for going on journeys that we don’t know how to explain. But I know, and I cannot stress enough, that there is no shame in love, or listening to our hearts.
I’ll be called the fool again and again, just as we all will be at some point. And I will smile and turn away, as I have before. And I’ll remember that moment in the big field when I stopped thinking about the end of the world. I’ll remember the call to the void I had felt which turned into a song from the wind, and it seemed to tell me, “it’s going to be alright.”
This world moves quickly and chaotically. So be the fool. Listen to your heart. Take no shame in choosing a different pathway.
I did. It hurt. But it healed, too. And I have not a single regret for dropping everything for this horse who gave me the world.