Owning a horse is a romantic idea. It conjures up images of windswept landscapes, dashing cowboys, riding off into the sunset. When I was a little girl, I wanted a horse so badly I could practically imagine turning into one, and in fact, I think my desire to ride was at least halfway a desire to transform, to become something stronger and stranger than I was.
I remember dragging my mom over to police horses on the side of the street in downtown Seattle and begging for pony rides at the petting zoo. We didn’t have very much money back then, but sometimes I took the classified ads out of the newspaper and turned to the “Pet” section, circling the horses and telling my parents that we could probably afford one if we let her eat the grass in our backyard. Still, I didn’t actually expect to ever own a horse any more than I expected to sprout wings when I jumped off the deck, over and over, skinning my elbows and knees on the ground. Half the desirability of the idea was in its impossibility.
On long car trips, when my siblings and I were growing up, we’d get into fights about which of us “owned” the horses we saw on the side of the road who had the most, and who had the best ones. These days, I see the same behavior in adults. Real people, with jobs and lives, who still paste themselves to the glass of a moving vehicle and feel the heartache of seeing a beautiful stallion just out of their reach. I’m not judging. I do it too: whispering Horses! to myself if I’m alone in the car, or saying it joyfully to whomever is driving with me. In Wyoming last summer, I watched herds of them roam across grassy hillsides, shaking their manes, lifting their heads suddenly at a distant sound. Muscles shining in the light of the morning, tails flicking, eyes glossy and dinner-plate round.
I’ve thought a lot about why this is: why rational adults are so drawn to this particular animal with such urgency. I suppose the desire could just be the sign of a playful spirit, someone willing to be in touch with their own childish delight. But I also think that horses are simply magnificent, and we can’t help but respect them for it. They are earthy and otherworldly at the same time; they are, in fact, practically unicorns, the physical difference being so slight that our minds can correct for it without almost any effort at all.
Of course, when I say that horses are romantic, I mean for people who don’t spend much time with them. To most actual horse people, the animals lose their mystique rather quickly. On farms and ranches they’re beasts of burden, livestock of the same order as cows or pigs or dogs or goats. To a pleasure rider like me, they’re funny and corporeal: they fart in your face when you try to pick their back feet, and get scared when they see things out of the corners of their eyes, thinking that any abandoned truck tire or garden hose is about to kill them.
When I was a kid, I didn’t know about any of this. If someone had suddenly announced they were going to give me a horse as a present, I possibly would have fainted, or more probably screamed. If that person had said, instead, that I would buy my own horse at age thirty-one, I would’ve accepted it with the same severe faith I had in the idea of someday getting breasts. Like, sure, I guess I believe it, but no part of me that exists here and now can feel the truth of this glorious future.
About five years ago, I went for a trail ride on my birthday and enjoyed it so much that I decided to start taking riding lessons. The ranch was beautiful and rustic in a decidedly Arizona fashion, offering a mix of natural splendor and cowboy detritus, with a sweet-water spring on the property, which was enough of a novelty in the desert to make the whole enterprise feel fated.
I fell in love with riding, there. Leading my horse out of a pasture and then hefting a saddle onto her back; learning to transition between a trot and a canter without getting jolted by a too-sudden acceleration. The day that I sold my first novel I went out for a lesson that involved sprinting down a dirt road and edging our way around a deer-filled copse of trees. The desert was in bloom, so the air smelled like candy, and there was a light wind cooling our faces, enough to feel refreshing but not so much that it spooked the horses. I told the trainer that it was the happiest day of my life, which was probably true, though I wasn’t sure which part made me happier: the feeling of the horse responding to my body and mind, or the crystallization of so many of my hopes and dreams.
The ranch eventually moved to a different county, taking over an enormous property an hour and a half away from my house. It was gorgeous, but the drive was brutal: three hours round-trip for an hour or two with the horses. It was a lot of time to take off of work, no matter how flexible my schedule was, and a lot of time to take away from writing. Every time I got in my car to head out there, I’d tell myself it was the last time, but once I saw the peaks around the Cochise Stronghold, I’d change my mind. Time moved differently on the ranch, leaving me as replenished as if I’d taken a full day’s vacation. Plus, by then the people and the horses were all my friends.
I’d been riding a mare named Lady for two years at that point—a quarter horse paint, her mane black and cream, her attitude feisty. She liked it when I sang her James Taylor songs, and let her run barrels at the end of a lesson. At the end of every ride, Lady’s coat was thick with sweat and grime, so I’d spray her all over and cool her down, letting her lick droplets of water of the hitching rail. Then I’d wipe the water off with a squeegee, and brush her again, so she was slick as a seal.
Before turning her out into her pen, I liked to give Lady three little treats—she’s a cheap date and a single six-dollar bag lasts months. Sometimes, if they hadn’t all melted over the course of a hot morning, I gave her ice cubes from my water bottle, running them gently over her lips until she figured out what they were and took them, gratefully, into her mouth. I still remember the surprise on her face the first time she ate one, the dawning awareness: what’s this, what’s this, what’s this?
And then one day, it all changed. I always texted my trainer—who was also the ranch’s owner—the afternoon before a lesson, and he would usually text back immediately to confirm or reschedule. Then, one week, he just didn’t reply. That in itself wasn’t so worrying—I ignore my phone sometimes, too—but the fact that his cell phone and the ranch phone were both disconnected when I tried calling the next morning was. “I think I better go anyway,” I told my husband, “just to see what’s up.”
When I arrived, my trainer wasn’t there, and the horses were being divided up by ranch hands: apparently the bottom had fallen out of the operation’s finances, and everything had to go. The animals would either be sent to a different, solvent ranch in New Mexico or else stay in Arizona and be sold at auction—including my bossy paint, Lady, a fact that made my heart seize up. An auction is a crapshoot for any horse, particularly one that has no breeding papers, because human beings are unreliable to the point of being plain bad; one of the things I’d always liked about the ranch was the way they adopted strays in need of help: the mustang whose face was burned in a rumored cartel fire, the two pregnant mothers who gave birth the month I started taking lessons, the gelding someone in a neighboring county had tied up to a telephone pole to die.
I couldn’t see Lady disappear to an unknown fate. And so, in the most intense moment of impulse shopping of my life, I bought her and moved her to a new barn much closer to my house, with help from a knowledgeable friend and her trailer. In the space of three days, I’d become a horse owner. I had no idea what I was getting into.
First, and most literally, I didn’t know what kind of care a horse would need: I barely knew how to pick her feet, or how often to bathe her or when to call a vet. I knew it would be expensive, but not how expensive. And more importantly, I didn’t understand just how much time being a horse owner would take: how big of a difference it would make to be Lady’s only source of exercise, training, and human companionship.
In an average week, I go to the barn three times. The drive is 35-40 minutes each way, and once I’m there I have to catch Lady, brush her, pick her feet, spray her with fly spray, tack her up with saddle blankets, saddle, and bridle, and then exercise her for anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes. After that I can ride, which I usually do for at least an hour, after which I have to dismantle the tack and hose Lady down before turning her out and driving back home. The whole process takes the entire morning, conservatively about four hours. I could go less often, but then would it be worth it to pay to board her, feed her, train her? Wouldn’t it be less enjoyable, since she’d be more crazed with unspent energy every time I did make the trip?
Having spent my adult life obsessively organizing my time to allow for more writing, losing all those morning hours—and in the summer, when it’s often 100 degrees before 10am, morning is the only option—is a bitter pill to swallow. The morning is when my mind is best, when my thoughts are fresh and unencumbered, so I prefer to devote as much of it to novels and stories as I can. But on the other hand, the time that I spend at the barn is also often the only time I spend away from a computer all week.
Riding gives me confidence and makes me feel strong; it provides room for my mind to empty out. If I’m having a bad day, I can lean against Lady’s muscular neck and scratch the soft spot between her ears. I can listen to her breathe; in fact I can feel it, the air moving through her enormous body as she flicks her tail and stamps her foot. Unlike the books, shows, podcasts, and articles I spend most of my life immersed in, there is no ongoing narrative to riding: there is only the moment, and how you see it through. A place where I’m as much body as mind. That would be a lot to lose, too. As would Lady herself, who is increasingly dear to me.
But what’s the right thing to do? How can I ever, in any part of my life, know what will bring me the maximum joy?
Is that even the right question?
In the past few months, I’ve written three or four versions of this essay, thinking the topic would come easily to me. But one by one, each draft has failed, and I could never quite figure out why. Now it seems obvious. The more I write, the clearer it becomes that I might have to sell my horse soon, and the pain of possibly losing her is just too great to be masked by the pretence that she is a sunny hobby and a fait accompli.
One of the most difficult considerations, I’ve found, is other people’s reaction to the idea of selling Lady. Even my father, who is the proudest man I know when it comes to the achievements and independence of his children, has looked at me with drowning eyes and said, “I’m sure that isn’t really necessary, is it?” The other day, I finally told my trainer and the owner of our barn what I was thinking, and it was much worse than I anticipated. They are the saltiest, most practical women I’ve ever met, and frequently deride people who buy horses “just to hug them.” The barn owner will snort at the idea, right in front of someone’s face: “Get a teddy bear,” she’ll say. “Have a baby.”
But when I told them that I was going to be increasingly busy in the next year, and it might be better for both me and Lady if I sold her to them, they were quiet for a moment, and then my trainer said: “You mean you’re thinking of being parted from her?” It was as if I’d told her I was selling off my child, leaving a basket on the porch of an orphanage.
I started crying as soon as I got in my car, and cried for the entire drive home. I couldn’t explain to Linda and Laura why they were wrong to question my decision, because they were also right: I love riding, and I love my horse. Lady soothes my mind, and makes me feel tough, and gives me a place to flex, unseen. It’s fun to ride, and I’m lucky to be able to do it. But it is a pleasure that has taken on the weight of a passion, and in order to honor my actual passions, I might have to let it go. No matter how many car rides I sob through.
I recently saw the movie Call Me By Your Name, based on André Aciman’s novel, and the overriding feeling I remember while watching was one of drunkenness on romance. It bubbled up in me throughout the film, like envy, or champagne in the nose: the romance of love affairs, certainly, which form the movie’s heart and spine. But also the romance of living in a gorgeous villa, in a quaint Italian town. Of having peach trees yielding fruit in the backyard. I’m sure there are challenges to living in such a place, but while watching the movie, it all looked so beautiful to me. I can only imagine that if the characters had leaned out of the screen to complain about life being a little too sun-kissed and dull, I would have scoffed at them, saying, You don’t know how good you have it.
When I tell people that I have a horse of my own, and that I’m thinking about selling her to give myself more financial security and time to write, I imagine they’re thinking much the same thing as they recoil. That I have pulled off a magic trick, and am not equal to it. That I am making a stupid mistake.
I worry that these people are right.
The reward of horseback riding, which once felt so immediate, has become more long-term, and thus feels less perfect than it once did. But not entirely less; I waver in my decision, daily. I worry that if I sell Lady now I’ll regret it in six months, and for the rest of my life. Maybe I’m making myself miserable for no reason, ruining my rides by worrying over the cost, worrying over the time, which I can never get back anyway. I rarely talk to anyone about these concerns, because I know how it sounds to complain about your horse: it sounds like you’re complaining about your Italian villa.
The strange thing is, I still whisper Horses when I drive past a field with a mare and her filly, browsing on grass. There’s an appaloosa I see frequently who has a plastic barrel in his pasture, which he pushes around with his nose. It always makes me want to clap my hands with delight, how he nudges it forward and nudges it forward without ever tiring of the game.
Having a horse has done nothing to mute the joy of wanting a horse, is what I’m trying to say. The little girl inside me who thought that a day would come when she would climb onto an animal’s back and ride directly up into the sky—she is still there. She still wants wings. One of my life’s greatest joys is adventure, seeking experiences I’ve never had before. And perhaps if I do sell my horse, that will ultimately be why. So I can do something new, which a young me could barely imagine.
Adrienne Celt is the author of the novels Invitation to a Bonfire (Bloomsbury, on sale June 5, 2018) and The Daughters (Norton/Liveright) which won the 2015 PEN Southwest Book Award for Fiction and was named a Best Book of the Year by NPR, as well as a collection of comics: Apocalypse How? An Existential Bestiary (DIAGRAM/New Michigan Press 2016). Her writing has been recognized by an O. Henry Prize, the Glenna Luschei Award, and residencies at Jentel, Ragdale, and the Willapa Bay AiR. She’s published fiction in Esquire, Zyzzyva, Ecotone, The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, and Electric Lit, among other places, and her comics and essays can be found in Catapult, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Rumpus, the Tin House Open Bar, The Millions, and elsewhere. She publishes a webcomic (most) every Wednesday at loveamongthelampreys.com.