By Catherine Macaulay
I wasn’t born a horse lover. Growing up, it was my older sister who held that distinction. Right from the start, Mary had the gift. She understood their sacred language, found pleasure in their company and accepted them for the magnificent creatures they are.
I can still picture her astride that big, black thoroughbred who was her favorite, her innocent face beaming, covered in a smile. But then, horses and Mary were one world. For her, there was no better way to spend a day than climbing aboard her bicycle and peddling down the back roads to the local riding stable.
In contrast, I was content to rig twine about the handlebars of my bike in order to simulate reins and with crop in hand take off toward the lake, clearing imaginary verticals and double oxers along the way. I preferred cats, played with dolls, dressed prettily, attended her horse shows and climbed into the irons only occasionally, and only then aboard King—a sullen pony with no particular attributes save his naturally low clearance between the ground and me.
Things might have continued that way had Mary not urged me to scale greater heights, a suggestion to which I stupidly agreed, being the kid sister always tagging along for the ride. Before I knew it, I found myself perched atop a majestic-looking dapple gray horse named Sharman, struggling to hold onto my courage—that is until I caught sight of myself in the riding school mirror. It was then that I realized that I could look pretty good elevated in such a fashion, provided the horse was standing still.
Out came mother’s old, brown field boots accompanied by a new pair of forest green breeches of epic proportions. Having become a bonified clotheshorse, I eagerly began peddling to the barn with my sister where, appropriately attired, I proceeded to flop around in the saddle like the proverbial dead fish.
But no matter. Each time the lesson was over, I’d proudly return the horse to his stall, the heels of mother’s boots clacking smartly against the cobblestone barn aisle, looking the part of an equestrienne—at least to anyone who hadn’t seen the lesson.
Like most siblings crossing over into adulthood, Mary and I went our own separate ways. She headed west, I moved east, then ultimately in all directions, both of us immersed in the overwhelming struggle to succeed. Gone were those carefree days when we rode out to the barn, pigtails flying, two kindred escapees heading toward a world at once peaceful and serene.
As adults, I had come to envy her six-figure salary. She envied me my artistic freedom. Horses alone remained the mutual dialogue of our ever-widening lives. But even that was changing. She owned her horses and with few exceptions I generally leased mine. She switched to Western, I still rode English. She was innately talented, I spent thousands on lessons, the chasm between my riding skill and my aspirations bridged only by my capacity for self delusion.
Still, nothing could stop me from my enduring attentiveness to equine style, least of all any lack of income. Over the years, I indulged in country casual, cheval chick, equine hip and sport horse active wear, never tiring of dropping my street clothes and, like a matador preparing for the ring, enrolling myself in the latest fashions of an ancient sport.
My husband fails to share my enthusiasm for sport-horse fashion. He claims his riding helmet makes his head sweat, leather tack requires altogether too much cleaning, and bouncing around in a saddle with a narrow twist is nothing shy of sadomasochistic.
Instead, for sport, he has lately signed on to a men’s softball league, pursing its attendant fashion styles with uncharacteristic vigor.
“How do I look?” he recently asked, standing before me attired in full softball regalia. Without waiting for an answer he turned on his heel muttering, “I bet this would look better with my maroon jersey.”
I watched mutely as he retreated down the hallway, feeling unaccustomed to such a swishy line of conversation. This was Barry, the guy who dropped his clothes onto the floor and waited for mold to develop. Now, suddenly, his closet was resembling a high-end sporting goods store?
“What do you think?” he asked, re-emerging from the bedroom.
He held himself inside a studied pose to better show off his new, maroon windbreak and matching cap, which corresponded to the band of color running the length of his stretchy softball pants.
“It’s great honey,” I responded bravely, much like I did when he brought home a 12-foot-tall metal windmill and parked it on the lawn.
Satisfied, Barry slung his color-coordinated duffle bag over his shoulder and headed out the door, confident that he was fashionably dressed according to the dictates of the sport. Watching him leave, I decided to sell his Hermes saddle that he only used a dozen times. Clearly, our sense of style was not in the same league.
My sister would find us both silly. To her, appearances count for nothing, not in sports, not in life. She loves horses because they are beautiful and kind. She loves the smell of their breath, their sense of humor.
Today, Mary and I reflect on our lives spent with those wonderful creatures who have endowed us with so much enjoyment, imparting as they have, many valuable life lessons along the way. We call it horse sense. To highlight a few:
Expect much, be happy with little.
Each fall off a horse is an opportunity to get back up.
Never reward bad behavior—it only worsens over time.
If you want a noble friend, always carry a carrot.
Ride the horse or you’ll likely be taken for a ride.
In the horse race of life, run fast and never ever give up.
Last week, Mary called me on her cell phone to share an early morning hack she was enjoying through the wildflower-rich Arizona mountains, her Arab mare under saddle, her beloved hound at her side. As I sat by my desk, sandwich in hand, listening to her bubbly voice describing the beauty of her wanderings, I heard the echo of our childhood emerging from out of the darkness and for an instant I couldn’t imagine two luckier kids.
She wears jeans, I wear expensive breeches and she can still outride me any day of the week. Happily, in the end, some things never change.