Challenge the Wind
I walk out to the barn with a combination of enthusiasm, apprehension and fear—an odd mixture of feelings just to go for a ride. But nowadays riding on Milady is never normal...never like it used to be. Milady will be 36 in the spring, and for a horse, 36 is beyond ancient.
It used to be that when we would take off, we would be down the driveway before I could get three breaths taken. For her, everything was a challenge. Hills needed to be charged up. Downed trees needed to be jumped. If we were with another horse, Milady had no patience for dawdlers and no tolerance for a horse which might try to take the lead from her. It wasn't that she was hard to control, just that it was like having a small black steam engine under you that would only take a touch to explode into action.
As she headed past 30 she started slowing down. Understandable, since a horse ages about three years to our one year. But she is still the first one to come over when I come out to go riding. She wants to go. As she gets older, I can't help but wonder—is this the last time? How much do I dare ask her to do? What if something happens and she dies on the trail? I think it was only last year that as we were rounding a turn on the trail, I saw a tree lying across it. She saw it too and I could feel her begin to gather herself. I wondered, do I let her jump it? Do I stop her? Where is the line between keeping her safe and letting her enjoy life? I let her jump. She did fine. Decision OK. We moved on down the trail.
I walk into the corral, and she comes to me. Grooming her is not the same, either. There is no longer a basic roundness to her body. Her muscle mass is always shrinking and her bones are more pronounced. I feel like I have to be careful even just using the brush. She doesn't balance as well when I try to clean her feet. I feel her nose resting gently on my shoulder—a ritual we have shared since she was a gangly-legged foal. I catch myself wondering how many times we have left to share, and my eyes fill up, but I have to shake it off. This ride is about a companionship that's still here. Grief has no place in it. At last she is saddled up and we leave the barn to go for a ride.
The weather is marginal. We have a week of rain showers approaching and today is a changeover day. If I am going to get her out at all, it pretty much has to be now. The forecast is for increasing winds and showers turning to heavy rain. There is no wind now, though, and my hope is that we can make the ride before the weather closes in on us. We start down the driveway.
It is a mild autumn day. Many of the leaves have started to turn, but not yet fall from the trees. Things will probably be a lot different after this approaching storm. I wait for Milady to get her balance. It takes her a while now to feel as if she is able to walk a straight line. We move carefully down the drive, along the gravel road toward the trail system, and gradually her path straightens up. My attention is focused on her, and it is only as we enter the trail that I realize that the wind has begun to pick up a little. An occasional leaf drifts past and I think about autumn as I watch them. Things change. You can't stop them. That's where Milady and I are now, changing. The wind dies down.
One of the things that has always fascinated me about riding in the fall is the time when there seems to be no wind, the trail in front of you is like a painting or a photograph—still and unchanging—and then, somehow, a shower of leaves lets go and drifts down. It's as though all of a sudden a dance of leaves has appeared where none can logically happen. There is no wind and still the leaves dance downward. I see that happen ahead of us and cannot help but smile.
And then there is wind again. This time it is stronger. Leaves connected to small branches are drifting past. Maple "helicopter" seeds whirl and dance through the wind like a swarm of dragonflies. Milady has leaves in her mane. She picks up her pace. Her head is higher. The wind is getting stronger. I can hear the trees whipping with the stronger gusts. Sometimes there is a sharp "crack" in the distance as a larger branch cannot withstand its force. I have begun to wonder if I have made a mistake to ride today.
We have reached the point where the trail crosses a road and somewhere upwind there is a tree whose small leaves are dried and blowing off. They come at us down the road like a small river—like an invasion of giant cockroaches audibly skittering down the concrete. I marvel as Milady walks through them, for it is a sensation which makes my stomach turn.
We are back on the trail now, and the gusts of wind are stronger. There is a multi-branched tree top across the trail, but we are able to walk around it. Milady crosses the wooden bridge at a trot, beginning to be anxious to get away from these unseen assaults. She picks up to a canter, and for a few brief moments I remember the grace of her and the thrill of speed—and then ahead of us there is a series of sharp cracking sounds and I see tree tops moving wildly as a resounding crash occurs. I rein her in to a walk and find myself wondering what I would do if I saw a tree starting toward us. She no longer has the speed to accelerate or the agility for sharp turns. But the tree ahead of us has broken off as it fell and only sticks out about halfway across the trail. We go on.
The crashes are coming more often now. I am wishing we were home, but I cannot ask her to go any faster than her balance and stamina allow. I briefly wonder how much wind it would take to push her over. A tree is across the trail ahead of us. A pretty large one, but this time there is no gathering underneath me. She will walk across it and I sincerely hope she can lift her feet high enough and keep her balance for this kind of obstacle. We make it across, and I realize I have been holding my breath.
Not much further to go now. We are back on the gravel road heading for home. The wind is still howling and the rain is starting. Milady begins to call for her companions, but there is enough noise from the wind that they cannot hear her. Her calling gets more frantic until we reach the driveway and she hears an answer. Not far to go now. Somewhere behind us, on our neighbor's property I hear something else crack and crash. We are wet. We are windblown and shaken. But once again, we have made it home.
I suppose some people would question the wisdom of that ride, and I would be the first to admit that it was fraught with hazards. But there was also a sense of triumph at the end of it. A sense of being able to shake your fist in the face of growing old, and say, "You see! Life isn't over until it's gone!" A sense of gathering enough courage to help a beloved companion retain some sense of normalcy in a life which is changing beyond her control. It's what we do when we love. We grit our teeth and step out of our comfort zone. We challenge the wind.