BY OLIVIA JOHNSON
Horse: /hôrs/ n. a large, solid-hoofed, herbivorous quadruped.
The dictionary always makes things sound so technical. I prefer to think of a horse as a generous, sure-footed, carrot-loving partner. Not something that can be readily pigeonholed into a standardized class of indistinguishable definitions nestled in right between horror and hose. Stupid student’s dictionary. I’ll never understand why we have to methodically look up and write down the definitions to fifty words using a physical dictionary. I’m in a ninth grade accelerated honors class, for God’s sake. I can’t do English homework right now. All it takes is a little thinking about horses and why I still do what I do to send me deep into the darkest crevices of my memories.
September 22nd, 2017 changed my life. I can’t pretend that my “illness” was worse than what other people were going through, but I also can’t pretend that it didn’t destroy a year of my life. Being dominated by something that I had no control over devastated my relationships, suppressed my personality, and consumed my life.
My memories begin when I first got on a horse. Those memories were some of the fondest of my life, and still are. I cannot imagine my life without them now, but it certainly was not always this way. That fateful day I was tossed from the saddle, I hit the ground hard. If only it wasn’t ingrained in the brain of every horse-back rider that you always get up and get back on.
“Are you okay?”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course. Nothing like a little sand in your breeches to humble you up!”
You brush off the fall, you laugh about it, you talk about what you did wrong. It’s never the horse’s fault, and you always get back on. Always. But I still wonder if things would have been different if I had given my body and soul the time it needed to rest and repair.
I have never once thought it was his fault. Secret Honor, a green OTTB, was a twelve year old plain bay, had a sweet, knowing eye. It was simply bad luck that his last owner had always landed hard on his back and ripped on his face after a jump. He never deserved that.
It took a few months to finally at a place with Secret that we could jump a solid 2’6 and not have any problems with bucking or taking off after the jump. That day, he rounded his back and snapped up his knees; when he took that flying leap to the roll-top, everything in me wished I could have stayed with him. I kept my hands as forward as I could, tensed my core and forced my heels down. I did what I could to protect him. I didn’t touch his mouth, but there was nothing I could do to protect his back from a less than soft landing. It was after the third buck that I came off. Or, at least that’s what people told me.
Your brain protects you from remembering a traumatic experience. That’s my best guess for why I can’t remember most of that fall. I got back on, rode for another thirty minutes, and worked three more hours before going home. The doctors said it was whiplash. I didn’t even hit my head. There was nothing that happened that day to suggest it would change my life.
Two weeks later I passed out for the first time. The concussion had started to peek its head out of the shadows and tap me on the shoulder. I really tried to ignore it, I did. But four weeks after the fall I realized that school was going to have to be put on hold. I saw doctor after doctor, tried therapy after therapy. The headaches were a pulsating, blinding constant. Closing my eyes, all I could do was to hope and pray that things could get better.
Please, please God, I only ask to have more control over my own mind. I don’t ask to be where I was before the fall, just to have enough of my soul back that I can begin to feel like myself again. Please.
I had to go back to first grade exercises. I matched pictures of animals with their names and followed a little red light on a wall. I played catch with my physical therapist, matched cards with my occupational therapist, discussed healthy habits with my speech therapist. Slowly, slowly I began to improve. At about eight weeks in it was finally a good day when I was able to focus my eyes on the end of a pencil without one eye darting in and out of focus. I could walk a straight line — heel to toe, heel to toe. I had a plan for how my day was going to go at school — when I was going to rest, when I was going to engage.
We had talked about the barn, how I knew that I couldn’t yet get back in the saddle because another fall could lead to things I didn’t even want to imagine. I knew it was for the best, and told myself that covered up the little hole in my heart that was starting to grow. I wasn’t allowed to go to the barn until I was able to go to school. They were worried about my even being near a horse in case I got kicked in the head.
But they had no idea. They had no idea how horrible it is to be locked away from the thing that keeps you sane, keeps your secrets — keeps your heart. They had no idea, but they were the ones with the doctorates; they were the ones who knew how they could help me to heal. If that was what they thought was best, if that would help me improve fastest, then I could wait. But only for so long.
School was the only part of my life I had yet to tackle. We went over all the possible situations I could run into — over stimulation with the crowded halls, unbalance on the stairs, noise in homeroom — we had accounted for everything. I had strategies in my tool box that would help me deal with these situations. In the nurse’s office I could take a period off to rest from the booming chatter of adolescents, carry sunglasses and a hat to protect from the obnoxious overhead lighting, even take a half day off from the uniform, prison-like white building.
I was ready, right? I had a plan that I could stick to. What could go wrong?
The answer, everything. From throwing up the breakfast I had tasted in the morning to being blinded by the lights above, even to falling down the stairs, I encountered every problem. I can’t describe how utterly lost I felt — adrift on a sea of my own pain. I didn’t feel engaged in life. I no longer could talk to my friends at school, no longer could see my best friend at the barn — the horse who could share my pain.
I went back to my doctors. They asked me where the plan had gone wrong. Then they understood. Finally, finally, they could see past my physical symptoms and see inside. They understood why I wasn’t healing — I had been denied the only place where I could heal. That place wasn’t school, wasn’t my home, wasn’t even the hiking trails that I had a special connection with. As much as I could try to find a new place to heal —I couldn’t. I had to be at the barn. And they finally understood.
The first time I was back after the incident evoked feelings I didn’t even know I had. I’ve always appeared more apathetic than impassioned. I hide my feelings because I get joy from helping others find theirs. I spend more time thinking about how my actions are affecting the people around me rather than how they are affecting myself. I internalize any negative feelings I have and instead present a front of maturity and restraint. I am so easily able to hide my own bitterness, apprehension, and anguish. No one knew. Except for the horses. Their kind, knowing eyes absorb my misery. As if they were a sponge soaking up all the late night tears, thoughts about my self-worth, and the prison I implanted myself in—they just know. The horses held my fragile feelings as if they were a frail little flower –held securely enough that it will not escape away with the slightest breeze, and softly enough as not to harm the silken petals. I know now I cannot go through life without them.
The first day back, all I did was sit in the corner of the ring and watch the lesson I used to be a part of. I think my mom thought it must make me sad, to see what I once was able to do go on so easily without me. In truth though, I felt revitalized. I felt free. I had no headache, my eyes could focus, I felt in the moment and able to engage. It was glorifying. Finally, I could begin to heal. But properly this time.
Looking back, I have to admit that it wasn’t just the barn that saved me. The doctors did know what they were talking about. But I think the horses didn’t only heal me from my concussion, they healed me from a much older problem, rooted deep into my soul. They provided me with an outlet to deal with my own feelings and problems, and share things I could never share with someone else.
By March of 2018 I could finally see an end in sight, even if I could just barely reach it. And on April 12th, 2018; the date finally came that would change my life for the better.
Appariscente: /apːari’ʃɛnte/ adj. giving an impression of value by a bright and striking outward appearance.
Appariscente, the 15.3 hand chestnut quarter horse with thirty plus sun-spots was the one who sealed the fate of my riding life in stone. Apollo, the horse with the show name no one can pronounce, carried me through the most important moments of my life— he still does. He took me from a wiggly, weak, uncertain kid to a strong, helpful, confident rider. He supported me when I was still recovering, waited while I regained my strength, and excelled with me when we were ready to move up together. It’s still incredible for me to think about having taken him to Harrisburg for a local finals and winning only five months after I had started riding again- all after half a year’s break. He took me to some of the biggest rings, the Harrisburg indoor complex, the Dixon Oval at Devon, and the Grand Prix ring at Saugerties. I am certain there was no other horse who could have taken me through those moments. I will forever be in his debt; he shared his heart with me to help fill the hole that had gradually and painfully expanded in the time I was away from my home.
Apollo is the horse who is continuing to shape not only my riding career, but my heart and my soul. The secrets he keeps for me are still secrets too painful to talk about out loud, but they no longer consume me. I place my trust in him just as he places his trust in me. The wise amber glow in his eyes is where he holds my new flower —but this one is different— it’s strong, brave, and mature- not muted, flimsy, and naive. I —no— we have begun our new journey on a path of lasting friendship. That’s all I can ask of him, and that’s all he asks of me. Everything extra he provides me is something special I will never take for granted. I hope he believes the same for me.
After everything I have suffered through, I am certain my definition is correct:
Horse: /hôrs/ n. A generous, sure-footed, carrot-loving, partner, and most importantly, a friend.
Olivia Johnson is a senior at Bayard Rustin High School in West Chester, PA. She started riding at eight years old, and has strived to be a better horsewoman ever since. She enjoys photography and art in addition to riding and writing.