Haunted (and Helped) by a “Heart Horse”

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Photo courtesy of Li Robbins

BY LI ROBBINS

When I was a teenager, which was… well, a while ago,  I competed in horse shows in and around Winnipeg, Manitoba. Boon, my ultra-calm Thoroughbred-Quarter Horse cross, often carried me to victory—notably in one show where we were both Junior Champion and Open Hunter Reserve Champion. I came home with a few trophies, multiple ribbons, and a stomach ache from the banana split my dad bought me for a post-victory celebration.

But neither the awards nor impressing my parents mattered one bit compared to the way I felt about Boon. Back then, the “heart horse” expression wasn’t commonplace, but that’s what he was. He was part of me in a way that no other horse (or human) had ever been. 

My special connection with Boon couldn’t stop the inevitable—growing up. In a non-horse family without lots of money, it seemed obvious that I had to sell him in order to go away to university. Obvious to everyone but me, that is.

First, I convinced my parents I should lease him. That didn’t work out. School didn’t work out either though, and when I quit I was determined to work and support my horse. Pumping gas in November in Winnipeg to make board didn’t work either. Finally, I had to sell him. For real. To say it broke my heart is an understatement. 

Photo courtesy of Li Robbins

Years went by. Of course, I often thought about him. Whenever I had to “face a hurdle” in life I’d focus on the feeling of heading towards a literal jump. His power, even the memory of it, gave me confidence. When I was anxious, I’d think about slowly brushing him, slowing myself down by the mental meditation of grooming.  When I was lonely, I’d remember how we’d lean into each other, forehead to forehead. It seemed a heart horse could be a comfort and a friend—even when he was only there in memory. 

I never stopped wanting to ride. But living in a huge city without access to a car on a freelance writer’s budget, I didn’t have the means. Still, Boon stayed with me in a recurring dream. In my dream he’d look at me over a paddock fence, the question mark written on his face. Where are you? Even after I’d heard he was no longer alive I still dreamed of him. Each time my heart would leap (He’s here!), but then I’d wake in tears. It was just a dream. 

One time I told a colleague about it, wondering what the dream could mean after all this time had passed. She looked at me like, um duh? “Maybe he’s saying that you need to be around horses?” 

Oh. Of course. 

From that point on, riding again became a goal. Boon had a message for me, one I really should heed. It still took years to achieve, but finally, a few years ago, I moved from that big city to a much smaller, more affordable one. I bought a used car. I found a little non-show barn with an excellent teacher. I began to learn from her and a 22-year-old Oldenburg, a former show jumper called Whitey. 

Photo courtesy of Li Robbins

At times, Whitey reminds me of Boon. His patience, calmness, essential willingness to let me try and figure out this whole horse-human thing again. And, funnily enough, since I started riding again, I no longer have the recurring dream. 

I don’t feel like I’ve lost Boon though. More like his work is done.


Li Robbins is a freelance writer (and former Canadian Broadcasting Corporation producer) whose work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and The Walrus magazine, among other publications. Li spent her teenage years riding and has now become a passionate “re-rider.”