BY CHELSIE BROOKS
In early December of 2018, I stood in the bathroom, half-dressed, hot curling iron in one hand shouting out instructions to my husband. We were running behind, partly because our 11-month-old took a longer nap than usual, but mostly because I have no actual idea how to be on time.
As my husband rushed around, shoving diapers and bottles into a bag and zipping up boots and jackets, I picked up my phone to check the time and found a screenshot message from my trainer.
“You should buy this pony.”
Much to my husband’s dismay, I put down the curling iron and sat on the toilet lid to click the link to the attached Facebook post. She was the cutest pony I had ever seen. She was well put-together, only 13.2 hands, and I wanted her as soon as I saw her.
She would make the perfect Christmas gift for our oldest daughter (and me), who inherited my love of horses and started lessons at age three. A couple of hours and one PayPal payment later, the pony was taken out of the pen and put into a box stall until we could arrange pick-up.
The delivery day finally came, and her name changed from hip #572 to Willow. We managed to hide her from my daughter until we made a surprise trip to the farm on Christmas Day. I will never forget that day. It was the kind of magical, dreamy Christmas that tends to only show up in Hallmark movies.
Though I loved Willow right away, the feeling was not mutual. She was willing to try, but she was scared, strung out, and incredibly reluctant to let her guard down. She was terrified and determined to remain compliant but aloof, and I was determined to turn her into a kid-safe pony.
I had my work cut out for me, but with the help of my trainer, we began to break down her mental walls. Willow started to take notice that the people around her meant safety, treats, and love. She bonded with other horses in her herd. Her confidence grew.
She went from running like a lunatic on a lunge line, fearful of what stillness would bring, to walking slowly and relaxed. She was even better under saddle, eager to do her job, trying hard for my daughter and me.
It took almost a year, but she found her rhythm.
Willow and my oldest child make an adorable team. Watching them form the connection they have and kill it in the show ring has been gratifying, to say the least.
As for Willow and myself, we’re pretty tight. Though I ride her occasionally, our bond came from the quiet moments. It came from the hours spent together on opposite sides of the indoor area because she was too nervous to come close to me.
It came from early morning training sessions and long, late-summer walks on the trails around the farm. But in the early winter months of 2021, our bond went from solid to unbreakable when I found myself unable to remember why I enjoyed living.
Just typing that sentence gives me an anxiety rush, but because I know some of you have felt the same way, I am more than willing to share the raw emotion that comes with honesty regarding mental illness. I never wanted to die, but I couldn’t find myself.
My anxiety was at an all-time high. I was struggling with undiagnosed Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and it didn’t take long for depression to tighten its grip on my entire being, telling me to stay in bed, stealing my appetite, my sense of self, and my joy.
I stopped going to the farm unless I had to. I spent my days on autopilot in a state of panic. In mid-February of 2021, after weeks of misery, I got myself together and went to the barn. Not because I wanted to, but because I needed to muck.
We’re lucky enough to board at a farm where turnout is 24/7 unless the weather is atrocious, so it had been more than two weeks since I’d been out. Willow was outside, looking in my direction, ears forward, while I was silently thanking a greater power that no one else was around. I mucked, my head spinning, intrusive thoughts screaming at me.
As I finished and made my way back toward the car, I noticed Willow was now at the fence, quietly watching me. I forced myself to get her out of the pasture, take her into her stall, and groom her.
I used every ounce of energy in my tired body to run a brush over her, and then I sat on the floor next to her water bucket and the flake of hay I’d given her, and I cried.
She stood calmly, continuously dipping her head to acknowledge my change of emotion and show her concern. She let me unload my mental burdens, sobbing in a way I couldn’t at home because there was no way I was going to let my kids see me lose it.
I told her I couldn’t remember how to be happy. I was lost somewhere in my brain, which had turned against me completely, and I was done. I was giving up. The panic, sadness, and obsessions could have me.
I sat that way for a long time. Willow never once gave up on me, nudging me and regarding me softly, occasionally stopping to munch on hay or shift her weight. As I shakily stood and noticed that the snow had started coming down again outside, I had the first decent thought I’d had in weeks.
Maybe she’s returning the favor.
There, in the last stall of the lower barn on my beloved farm, I finally found a tiny part of myself. The part that doesn’t give up. I held onto that thought for dear life for the next four months as I made my way toward recovery.
Now, things are better. Healing from mental illness brings uncontrollable gratitude. You find it in hot coffee, morning walks, sunshine, and the welcoming nicker of a horse that loves you just as much as you love her.
If it wasn’t for that unwanted auction pony and the subtle ways she taught me to persevere, I don’t know when I would have found my way back to myself, despite an incredible support system. She is so much more than a horse. She is my family.
So, to whoever dropped her off at New Holland Stables to ride the auction circuit for a few months, I hope it was because you had to. I hope you cried when you left her and told her how much you loved her and how you wished things could be different.
I bet you think about her sometimes, lying awake and wondering whether she found a loving home or made the trek to Canada in a packed trailer for slaughter. Above all, I hope you read this because no matter how you felt about her, I want you to know that I love her, that I saved her life, and she did the same for me.
A freelance writer since 2011 and horse addict since 1992, Chelsie Brooks loves writing about all things horse-related, but she adores racing. An advocate for the industry, she prefers to spend her days reading the Daily Racing Form and talking to anyone who will listen about what changes need to be made to relegitimize the sport. When she’s not writing or spending time at the horse farm, you can find her in the aisles of TJ Maxx, sipping a coffee with two children hanging off the side of her cart.