By: Scherry A. Clarke
Reprinted from FM Online

In this amazing and often painful journey we call “life,” many of us relentlessly strive for release from our pain and misery, desperately hoping each new day that something miraculous will occur to help fill a void in our souls, a gaping void created by grief, loss, pain, low self- esteem, and abject unhappiness.  We flounder miserably in a sea of sorrow and despair, not daring to hope that some day we might rise to the surface and once again breathe the heady and intoxicating fragrance of our own existence.  Following is an account of how I, a very ordinary person, splashed my way to that surface with the help of a very extraordinary horse.

I was diagnosed with type II diabetes in 2000, after ballooning up to almost 275 pounds.  I had suffered through the trials and tribulations of becoming a mother in my teens, domestic abuse, and sexual assault.  One day I found myself sitting on my husband’s side of the bed with a gun in my mouth, and only the tiny tapping of my little boy and his tentative “Mommy?” woke me out of my fogged stupor and ultimately forced me to seek help for my deep depression.
I began medication, took control of my diet, quit smoking, began to exercise, and lost almost 90 pounds.  I wanted to be there for my husband, children, and grandchildren.  I realized that my love for my family was stronger than my hatred of myself.

However, the stress of the past finally caught up with me, and five years ago I was diagnosed with FM.

Because of the unrelenting pain, I lost interest in walking, hiking, swimming, and all the outdoor activities that I was so fond of.  Consequently, I gained back 25 of the pounds that I had lost.  Washing the dishes and doing the laundry became chores that took days, not hours.  Many mornings before work my husband had to draw a steaming hot bath for me before my legs would work.  I had not slept through the night in almost 20 years, was haunted by my past, cursed by my present, and drowning in despair.  However, I had absolutely no clue that a momentous event was about to occur:  one that would forever change the way I looked at myself and the world around me.

My husband already had a large, cantankerous Appaloosa/Quarter Horse that he and our trainer were working on, and he was determined that if I had my own horse, I would grow to love it and we could enjoy trail riding and horse camping together.  So began the hunt for an equine companion for me.  I had always envisioned a cool little pinto or a quiet quarter horse to plod languidly along the trails with, but after weeks of searching, what I wound up with was a nervous, highly spirited 6-year-old Missouri Foxtrotter with the formidable name of “Fugitive’s Bad Rumor.” Jim had insisted that a gaited horse would be best for me because I would not suffer the constant jarring motion of a non-gaited horse, so we yanked her out of her pasture and brought her home to live with us.  I immediately changed her name to Avalon, the mystical island of King Arthur, for she was surely a mystery to me.

Avalon, or “Avie-Mare” as I came to call her, did not settle in well at first.  We were in the process of landscaping and building on our property, and the din and dust were overwhelming to her, having just been plucked from a very large and serene pasture that she shared with several other mares.  She was nervous, extremely spooky, and her mode of operation was to “bolt now and ask questions later” when fear overcame her.  She was terrified of clippers, would not pick up her feet for cleaning, and did not even have the simple skills of being led properly with a halter, having been pulled along with a lead behind a golf cart.  She had absolutely no trust in me, and I had even less in her.Every morning before work, I would drag myself out of bed, limp down to the barn and feed her and Archie, whom I came to affectionately dub “HorseZilla” due to his size and general lack of common sense. I would stand quietly next to her, stroking her silky head and brushing her body with a soft brush while she ate. I would talk constantly to her, assuring her what a beautiful girl she was and how much she was loved.  Once in a while, her eye would turn away from her hay bucket and she would regard me questioningly for a few moments before returning to her breakfast.Realizing very quickly that I needed help with her, we employed the trainer we used for my husband’s horse.  Day after day, I plodded painfully along next to her, my body screaming in revolt as I dutifully performed the halter exercises that our trainer had shown us.  It was difficult at first because she bolted so often and so suddenly on the lead that she would almost yank my shoulder out of its socket and put me in horrific agony for weeks.  However, she was actually very intelligent, and learned quickly.  In a few short weeks we began working on more difficult maneuvers such as pivots, side passes, and backing up.  We purchased some amazing treeless Bob Marshall Sport Saddles that weigh about 1/3 of a regular saddle and literally mold to the horse and rider, and I began working with her under saddle.

To this day I am still a larger rider, but my body is conditioned enough to allow me to mount very well with a block.  But in the early days, my legs, arms, and shoulders were very weak, and my legs would tremble violently when I put my weight in the stirrup, so mounting was a tremendous challenge.  It did not help matters much that my legs were horribly short and stumpy despite my 5’7 height and that Avie-Mare was a big girl, standing about 15.3 hands tall (more than five feet) and weighing in at roughly 1100 pounds.  So, diving into his usual problem-solving mode, my husband built a large 2-step mounting block that I could climb up on to mount her.  At first, she would wait until I was just ready to swing my leg over her back, and then she would politely side-step, forcing me to get off the block, reposition her, and try again.  One day we spent two frustrating hours at this.  I was determined that she would respect me, and resolved to not give up until we had done it correctly at least once.

With all my determination and hard work, Avie-Mare slowly began to change.  I was the only one who fed her, rode her (beside our trainer), groomed her, sang to her and played silly little games with her.  I talked to her constantly. She began to trust me, and I finally began to warm up to her.  I French braided her beautiful flaxen tail and brushed her silky white face.  I taught her to let me clip her face and bridal path with electric clippers by plying her with horse cookies every time she saw the clippers.  It was not long before she began to look forward to clipping and to this day gets very excited and eager when she hears the buzz!  I also taught her to lift her feet for me with the word “hup,” thus minimizing the intense back, neck, shoulder and elbow pain that would occur whenever I had to reach down and forward, and she learned to drop her face into the halter so I would not have to stretch up very high.  She learned the commands of “head down,” “head up,” and most importantly, “Ho!”  She began to spook far less frequently, trusting me more often to know what was good for us, and calming down much faster after her spooks.  And I  too was changing … in my heart, in my soul, and in the very core of who I was. But I, like Avie-Mare, was very slow to acknowledge and warm up to anything, especially my own salvation.

Prior to purchasing Avalon, I had been plagued with resentment, guilt, and misery for most of my life.  I was sorry for myself, impatient, and resigned to merely go through the agonizing motions of life until I felt the sweet oblivion of death.  I hated the pain.  It was like a coat that I put on each morning, and slept with each night; a coat that I could never remove or find relief from.  I was impatient, short, resentful, and very sorry for myself, convinced nobody could possibly understand what I was forced to endure.  I had begun to turn away from everyone, even my own husband and children, preferring to be alone with my pain.
However, with the arrival of Avie-Mare I was literally forced to care for her, day in and day out, seven days a week.  I rode her despite the pain and constant weariness, and I groomed her beautiful coat, mane, and tail on days that I did not even brush my own hair.  She always had her feet cleaned and trimmed despite the fact that months went by without me getting a pedicure!  Her diet was meticulously maintained with only the finest orchard grass, weighed out to the exact amount each day and supplemented with vitamins, minerals, and a hefty amount of horse cookies.  I had not taken a vitamin for years.

One day after work while Avie and I were zipping along in the large round-pen that had been purchased for training, my oldest son came up to the gate with his fiancée, and they both commented that I was actually smiling as I sped along with Avalon.  I was bit taken aback.  How long had it been since they had seen their mother smile?  Far too long, it would seem.  But I was smiling, and I found myself in the days ahead not only smiling, but laughing aloud more than usual. Things certainly were changing, no matter how stubbornly I clung to my shroud of doom.  I was losing my impatience, for instance. Suddenly, those slower elderly people who always seemed to take forever driving and walking across the intersections did not seem to annoy me nearly as much!  I began to love the outdoors again, and often would spend so much time down at the stable that my oldest son would have to come down and gently remind me that it was dark and too cold for me; would I please come in.  The earth smelled good, the trees whispered to me as I worked, and my horse whinnied her love to me each and every time she saw me (with HorseZilla doing backup vocals!).  Yes…I was beginning to change.  I was finally starting to swim my way to the surface.  This is a picture taken on “The Day I Smiled” and it was indeed a turning point for me.

In retrospect, Avalon was the worst type of mount an overweight, anxious and somewhat disabled rider (who was getting back into horses after a 30 year hiatus) like me could have chosen, and by all accounts our relationship should have floundered.  However, I no longer need to ask myself why ours not only worked, but flourished when so many others have failed.  I finally know the answer:  rarely in a lifetime does an event occur that is so profound that it alters a person or animal’s very soul, and through adversity and hard work, challenges them to become far more than they ever dreamed they could be.

And while I, like so many others, have faced many seemingly insurmountable challenges in my years, Avalon proved to be one of the most complex, frightening, thrilling and ultimately rewarding experiences of my life.  I also know that by hiring a trainer to teach me how to teach her, I greatly improved both our odds of success.  The extra money was hard to scrape up, but I couldn’t afford not to get help.

I know I can never fully repay Avalon for her courage, loyalty and companionship, but I will care for her with love and compassion until the end of our days.  I will ride her until I can no longer mount, and then maybe she can learn to pull me in a cart!  She and Archie and whatever horses we have in the future will grow old with us and we will all go out to pasture together as cantankerous, crotchety old farts.

And when I die,

*God forbid that I should go to any heaven in which there are no horses.

*R.B. Cunninghame Graham