Copper over smooth muscle. Sweaty sparkle, casting off the sun’s light. Snorting, indignant, fire-breathing dragon – tail high, hooves thundering across the pasture. That’s the memory I’ll keep. That part makes me smile, breathe, pause for just a little minute, and soften.
She was a small, red, affordable mare. Affordable, because she was a poor fit for equine therapy. “Get her out of here. She’s yours.” That was when I worked with children tucked away in warm, colorful cottages – cottages where they lived away from their homes, because home was not able to hold them, or their minds, or all that sprouts from mental illness, or having been held too tightly, or too harshly, or not at all.
This horse, she couldn’t hold them either, and so I took her to a barn near my home, where I found I could not hold her. I don’t remember when the “interesting challenge” story fell down under the pressure of my clenched jaw. She was indomitable, but in the briefest moments of synchronicity, the sirens sang to me and I stayed the course – for just about three years.
During that time, I was newly married, had completed graduate school in a program two hours from home, and then life changed forever, when a nine pound, eight ounce, blue-eyed girl came to be. With her, the mother’s curse, guilt, crept in. I rushed through the barn routines. I rushed through everything. I drowned out mean spiders whisper-crawling up and down my back, “It’s too much time away. You’re not doing anything right. This horse needs more. This baby needs more.” Lament-resent, repeat, drown them out, stay the course.
It wasn’t guilt. I had postpartum OCD, sleep-deprivation, and a breast pump that let me go to work, away from my sweet baby. Pushing through the whisper-talk, I kept showing up for work because I had a new career, treating psychiatric illness in others. I did not tell anyone I needed help. I did not let anyone help. I did not know I needed help. I helped others, and that is the nature of this beast – tick tock, just keep moving. The horse slipped lower on the day to day “musts.”
I moved her closer to my house, and then closer yet. Closer to my house, where my mind whispered certainty my infant was not getting enough of anything, especially all of the vegetables, in all of the colors nature had to offer. Closer to my house, where my jaw never let go, my brow never released, and the paperwork started to fill all the breathing room.
I don’t know how long I would have continued like that, or how long my husband would have tolerated my stalwart dismissal of his concerns. I will never know, because of what happened next, and how it literally shattered my little terrarium of denial.
My husband had driven to Colorado to deliver a sculpture for public installation. I took our daughter, then 2 1/2, to the coast to see her grandparents. She and my father fashioned hats from her pull-ups, and we interrupted the monotony, if only for a moment.
We returned home near dusk; I’d reassured my horse-sitting friend she did not need to feed Annie that night, I’d be home. I carried my daughter into the house, stood her near the front door, handed her a granola bar, and went to feed. I left the door ajar, and one of the dogs slipped free.
She had slipped free just days before, too, when she’d chased the horse, initiating that memory of copper and magnitude. This time, I wasn’t smiling. I was agitated, and I was metronomic, hurried.
The horse was hungry. I carried her hay in one hand, grain in the other, and the dog fell into her usual place at my side. We’d kept them apart, the dog being unschooled in the ways of horses, but there she was, on the same side as the horse, who wanted nothing more than the food in my hands. She started reacting to the dog. My hands were full, but somehow I pulled the dog closer.
She bumped me. I bumped her back, and said “back off,” an exchange we’d made countless times before. That time, instead of reluctantly making space, she exploded forward, and shot back with both of her hind feet. Whispers told me to stop. I kept walking, directly into the one foot that hammered my chin.
I landed in the pushup position. The behaviorist in me said flatly, “She does not get the hay.” Another part was infuriated, betrayed. Another part knew exactly what I had done wrong, and how I should have reassured, rather than reprimanded, and one very small part of me wondered why I had not simply stopped walking.
The part of me aware blood was seeping wastefully onto the grass touched my forehead and eye sockets and spit onto the ground, certain teeth would come out. Nothing I pushed on moved, and no teeth appeared. I called the dog, and that is when I felt asymmetry, and the grinding of bone on bone. She was still at my side; the horse snorted and began to eat the hay. My jaw was broken.
In yoga, we say namaste – the light in me honors the light in you. That night, on the cold ground, the light in me honored the light that was protecting my tiny daughter. I don’t know how long she would have been alone.
As I walked toward the house, my haven illuminated in the darkness, I saw her nibbling her granola bar, holding it in her two chubby hands. She was wearing a pink and white striped t-shirt. Stepping through the doors, I mumbled, “Hey, look at the floor right there.” Sweetly, she did exactly that. I slipped past her, to the bathroom, where I grabbed the first thing I saw to ebb the flow of blood; her hooded yellow bath towel.
I went to my little girl, squared down to her level, and with the lower portion of my face covered, I looked right into her eyes. I mumbled, “Mommy got a hurty and we have to go to the hospital. Grammy will come and get you, you’re going with her for a night sleep, ok?” She stared into my eyes, and said flatly, “Go clean that dirt off your face.”
Back in the bathroom, I saw the dirt from my horse’s hoof sprayed over my face and glasses. Then, I saw the jar I used to measure and feed her grain. It was sitting there, on the brick colored tile, smeared with my blood, and I was morbidly happy I’d not let her have it.
Dirt removed, I thought maybe I could drive myself, then thought better of that. I made phone calls, mumbling my way through the acquisition of a ride to the ER from a beloved neighbor, and two grandmas to meet us there – one for my daughter and one to sit with me. The third call was to my office manager, to cancel clients for the next two weeks.
I called my husband, due home later that night. I left him a voice mail, “You’ll want to come to the hospital, instead of home. Annie kicked me in the face but I’m ok. Please don’t shoot her.” I was only half joking.
The ER was chivalrous, pleasant, too bright. The memory is adrenaline-sped, shaky at best. I was noisy, comedic, entertaining the part of myself that was very aware of how I’d gotten here. I felt myself running – a fault line had gone, and there was no way I was going with it.
I thought maybe I could keep it from being real, and it worked, initially. I was numb, as in, I had no pain response to the accident. My nurse joked about my “odd aversion to pain meds.” When I finally did accept morphine, it was because I realized my physical body was in pain after I’d started using the F word in place of many words, and my chatter passed from rapid into frantic.
Hours later, my mouth slowed. My husband showed up at the ER. Things became very real. The doctor stayed late to suture my wounds. The hoof had cut through the skin over my chin and somehow separated part of my bottom lip from the place where it meets my gums.
I’d discovered this after I kept hearing an odd sound when I spoke, like air escaping from my face. I remember saying “Wait, what was that?” and “There it is again.” No one else could hear it. Finally, I pushed my tongue down into the space and found the injury went all the way through. I spent a good portion of the night trying to determine whether it classified as a blunt force injury, a partial avulsion, or a laceration – anything to stay in the safe realm of my orderly left brain.
I was sent home in the middle of the night with pain medication, antibiotics, and instructions to call the surgeon in the morning. My jaw was still broken, hanging awkwardly. My chin was epically swollen, and I started to wonder how bad this would all feel tomorrow. My now-quiet mouth left me no distraction from the profound ache of sadness.
Once home, I slid out of the truck and started walking to the pasture. My husband asked, “What are you doing?” I told him I had to do something; I was not going to be afraid of horses. The night sky was clear, the moon was bright. I approached the fence line and she came toward me, head low, gently greeting me with her sweet sounds. I stood there in the dark, and tears pressed at my eyes. I stood there until my body was calm, my breath was even, and I could scratch her ear, and then I went to bed.
My jaw was wired the next day, and I did, incidentally, only allow myself two weeks off before returning to work. I sat with clients, and provided mental health services, with a jaw that was wired closed. I told each client that I was not supposed to talk much, and that I would do my best to listen and support however I could. Each client watched me speak, through a wired jaw, more than I should.
But they also watched me listen, deeply, and sometimes I think, for the first time. I’ve always been a good listener, but I am also eager to normalize, eager to alleviate suffering, and eager to connect. With these tools inaccessible, I was deeply uncomfortable. I could not provide the “little extras” that have always felt important, to me, and this marked the start of my slow, arduous breakup with overachievement.
The horse didn’t only break my jaw, she shattered my little puppet show, and knocked me into a grave acceptance of many things: that I am mortal, and bad things, really bad things can happen, and especially when I am ignoring screaming clues from the entire world all around me. She showed me, harshly, that I cannot do it all, that I could, in fact, use some help.
She made me stop, something I’d never learned to value. To cope, we roll: through adversity, amidst challenge, and right up against, then around/over/or through obstacles. The bad story is seared deeply into us – do not stop. If you stop you won’t get up. You’ll fall and the monsters will overtake you.
What monsters? Our own. It is far easier to grapple with all the chaos and suffering in the world outside, or to numb ourselves down, than to befriend our own amplitudes. Sometimes we have to clutch that story. I did.
But, to the contrary, if we move into that fear, and test those turbid waters of our own innate complexity, we eventually, arduously, learn to float it, and we become grounded in our own excellence. Then, we can properly go about the work of letting go, and we can free ourselves. We don’t have to wait for the kick to get started.
After the accident, I had a few more sweet days with my horse, filled with sun softened memories, before I sent her to a trainer to be worked over and re-homed. When he came to pick her up, I stood in the pasture, unable to talk. I petted her and held onto her lead line for over an hour before I was able to hand her over. Even then, I felt the deep ache of losing big love not meant for me.
Six years have passed, and I definitely inhabit a gentler stance. Life continues to knock, on a regular basis, and I try to answer humbly. Sometimes I am unsuccessful. I still battle my ravenous nature, and the acquisition of too much to manage. There is still pain in the world around me. I still live to alleviate suffering.
But, I am working with new tools, and when I find myself buried in the clench and furrow, I am happy to say I now have the ability to pause rather than roll, reflect rather than ignore, shed rather than hold, and listen to the wisdom of all the little mounting tensions that precede a wind-up. And when life does land a blow, as it always will? I tend to rebound with less resistance, and far less fragmentation.
Physically, I am left with a decent scar on my chin, and every once in a while a photo catches my too-wide laugh and crooked jaw. When I clench too much, there is pain, and I think this is a little brilliant. I pay the fat hospital bill monthly, because I did not have insurance, back then. These are but small earmarks I am grateful to carry, in place of other stories that could have been made that day.
As for my feelings toward horses, and this one in particular: I miss them, and her, terribly, but now with the awareness that it is the 20-something me, who didn’t yet have children, whose heart was well nourished by good horses. And while I might yet own another horse in this life, my children will be much older, and this one will not be of the fire-breathing type.