Then one day while sitting at my desk chair a result came up. I gasped. This NEVER happened. But there he was, just half an hour away. He was a gelding already trained to ride, drive, and had trail and farm experience. His name was Merlin. I instantly posted the ad on my Facebook and said something along the lines of how awesome but impossible the horse would be to have. And one person made this comment:
"Email the owner. The horse market isn't what it used to be. They might come way down on price for the right home."
So I did. Right then and there I opened up my email program and pretended to be writing an office email, but instead was pouring my heart out to a stranger. It was an act of passion, but I wasn't so twitterpated I was delusional. He was too expensive and buying him was totally unrealistic. I had just bought a house the year before and keeping it up was a second job in itself. I had no paddock or shelter for a horse. I had no way to store hay. Oh, and I had very little riding experience.
My only history as an equestrian was in the walk/trot class in my college's equestrian team (one beginner's lesson a week) for 2 springs — And that was nearly a decade ago. Recently I had gotten the horse bug again as a young professional and had started taking a lessons with a school barn near Cold Antler. But I knew my riding skills were barely enough to fill a thin pamphlet. Honestly, I had just enough experience and confidence to be truly dangerous. When you learn how to sit, use reins, use your legs and direct a horse but have never been hurt or scared by one - you are a ticking time bomb. And my fuse was burning for that dark horse on the computer screen to slap some knowledge on me.
It happened. I got the horse.
Merlin was acquired through a negotiation of a kind and willing owner. She came down thousands on the price and was okay with a contract sale. What does that mean? It means that I was allowed a three-month free lease to try him out at that barn I was taking riding lessons at. If I wanted him after the three-month trial a downpayment would be made and then monthly installments for two years would follow. That was the only way I could afford him while also taking on the projects of building a pole barn for him, getting hay and storage, and finding a farrier, vet, etc. I was far too excited to be daunted.
This was where my entire tax return went that year - into three months of boarding a horse I didn't own. The plan was to take one lesson a week with him and have the trainers at Riding Right Farm evaluate him as well. When you board a horse you also have full access to the school's arena's, trails, and tack so I could go every day after work and ride him in the safety of indoor rings and fellow experienced riders. I didn't use the trails though, since Merlin wasn't interested in being bossed around by the beginner on his back and would simply stop at creeks, turn around, and do what he wanted. I'd come back to the barn defeated and explain to the trainers, who would smile and say -
"He's got your number, Jenna."
What they meant was he had me figured out. He didn't respect me as someone above him in his herd mentality and I didn't have the experience, miles in the saddle, or tools to attain that holy math that handed numbers across species. I would still be in that space if it wasn't for friends, farmers, and farriers who wanted to show me what owning a horse could be if I was a little braver.
Enter Patty. Patty had her Percheron Steele and to me he was a beast out of ancient Myth. He weighed a ton. A literal ton. He was 17 hands tall, white as a ghost, and had crimped hair, dark eyes, and a long tail. He was the unicorn on our childhood posters from Scholastic. I had a rental pony who thought I was an ass. And to watch Patty ride that horse in open country and harness him to drive a cart on public roads.... it was like meeting someone who understood the common tongue in a foreign land. Patty spoke horse. I barely could flip through the phrase book without insulting one.
Patty had this saying about barns like the one Merlin was being boarded at. She said that some people just bought things for their horses and some rode them, and I wasn't going to be one of those woman who just bought things. So she would hook up her trailer and pick Merlin up at the boarding stables and take him back to her farm. We were going to ride in open country beside her and Steele. I still remember that first real trail ride with Patty and how scared I was. I was near shaking up until the point I got on his back and we headed down the dirt driveway. I wasn't nervous on Merlin because it was too late for fear. I was on a horse, outside in the big world, and whatever happened would happen. My job was to stay on.
I'd like to say I spent the first real trail ride on a cloud, but I was far from that. I was scared the entire time. You don't get comfortable using a horse to get across the landscape any other way than using a horse to get across the landscape. I spent that ride stiff, making nervous chatter, and never moving faster than a trot. Patty never pushed me to do more than I was comfortable with and she even dressed up in English breeches and a helmet to match what I was comfortable with already. Looking back it was incredibly kind. We came home and I didn't fall off or get hurt. And much like the feeling of finishing a long jog I was more happy having done it than I was actually doing it. The insta-nostalgia was sweeter, and I got a taste of what a fearless ride could be.
So I kept riding.
That first year with Merlin was all about over confidence and inexperience - the story of my life. I fell off. I got hurt. The horse scared me. I made mistakes as simple as not tightening a girth enough to as complex as riding him alone past a fence with mares in heat. There were times I cried just getting in the saddle. There were moments I told the owner I couldn't afford the payments and was scared she would take him away. But there were also highs so amazing that it makes me shake as I write. Yes, the learning curve was treacherous but within two years of riding regularly I had an animal I knew. I mean, knew. I knew his moods, his tricks, his footing, his eyes, his whole self. I knew what was a snobby crow jump or a true skitter of fear. And all of that knowledge came from choosing to get on that horse and keep riding, even when I was scared and the numbers were against me.
And then the great days of the horse came. I got to a point where I could lead him to the hitching post in front of my house and groom, tack, and pack saddle bags for hours together exploring this mountain. I would pack meals, drink, and books. I would roll a wool blanket or fleece behind the cantle and turn him towards the steep mountain trails and race up them at a full gallop. So many trails to explore, thanks to a neighbor who allowed us to ride on the fallow snow mobile paths. So many new friends made in the local horse scene - from clubs to cowboys. And it was these mindless rides on sunny afternoons with Merlin grazing while I read Tolkien in dappled sunlight I think of when sI tell someone, "I ride."
And now this horse, THIS HORSE, is something I can not fathom being without. The journey of going from strangers to teammates has been humbling as it has been joyous. While owning this horse I changed so much. I quit that job I hated. I wrote four books. I slowly gained back self esteem and forgiveness I had no idea were so lacking. I went from a naive girl to a strong, hard, woman. And I am certain all of this happened because of what trailridng alone asks of rider and horse. We are not wrapping legs and prancing in an arena followed by braiding manes - We are jumping fallen logs, shooting arrows, exploring new places, driving carts past school buses and scouting hunts. The woman I am today is so much more thanks to the smallest choices of courage in the face of fear and pain, the friendship and experience of my community, and my stubborn streak -which is both my spinach and my kryptonite. Lately I can not stop seeing how far I have come thanks to Merlin. He's the next book I want to write. The next story I need to tell. He's changed me so much. I am grateful beyond breath and paper. We will ride today.
He was the path.