Christmas Day in 2007 was a winter wonderland in Hamilton, Mass. Several feet of snow was already on the ground when a storm blew in on Christmas Eve. It blocked the driveway of the farm where my family boarded our horse. In a frenzy, the owner of the 72-stall stable called my father and begged him for help because we lived within walking distance of the stable. Christmas morning came with a gentle “Hey, get up. We have horses to feed!”. I bounced up and climbed into far too many layers before hopping into my father’s 4-wheel drive truck.
We skidded down the mile-long road on the way to the stable. The driveway was blocked, so we had to dig ourselves a track to get over the initial hill before we gave up and just walked down the (very long might I add) driveway. We were greeted by the merry nickers of warm horses when we opened the barn doors. With Christmas music on in the background we went to work, breaking ice on each bucket in every stall of every wing of the massive stable. We threw hay, we dumped grain and we casually moved piles of manure into the corners of the stalls because there were too many for us to muck alone. Tired and more than a little dirty, my father and I trudged back up the road and went home to take showers before anyone else in the house was even awake.
What a long Christmas morning.
Never before have I been more thankful for a cup of hot chocolate and a warm fire, but there was something more simmering in my heart, too. We had done something big — the horses wouldn’t have had water or food if we didn’t get there that morning. Without fail, each and every one of them lowered their lips to drink once the ice was broken on their bucket. The satisfaction I felt was overwhelming.
Growing up inside a barn teaches us a lot of things. It teaches us that hard work has meaning – every blue ribbon hung on a horse’s stall after a show proves it. Our hours logged after lessons playing in the barn aisle reminds us there is always room for fun and laughter. Every difficult ride on a not-so-forgiving horse encourages us to be resilient and to try again, because with patience and persistence, any challenge can be overcome. At the end of a long day, our horses never judge us and offer the most important gift of all: unwavering love and affection.
Every teenage girl (admit it, all of us still) finds refuge in the four walls of a stall while her fingers run through her horse’s mane, both admiring him and telling him the details of her day. Every illness, every lameness – we feel too. Anyone who experiences colic also experiences canceled plans, quick exits and very fast drives to the barn. This leads to soft spoken, intimate moments where we assure our four-legged friends they’ll be okay, followed by long nights sitting on tack trunks outside our horses’ stalls while we observe, hope and wait.
We have once in a lifetime moments where a goal is reached, a championship is won or medal is earned. On the backs of the horses who are our teammates, we ride into an arena that asks questions of us as riders and as people. Have we earned our moment? Months or years of practice go into a dressage test, an equitation final or a hunter derby. Some of the best moments of our lives are won with our teammates.
Horses teach us to give of ourselves and nourish a relationship. They teach us to reach deep within ourselves and bring every bit of us to every challenge. And they teach us a love different than all else. They ask nothing of us but to be respected and loved.
Though we were tired that Christmas morning, it dawned on me that while we might not have wanted to trudge through the snow, it was one of the very best gifts we could have given to the horses. After all, the greatest gift is to love and be loved in return. Our horses and our lives with them are gifts, more so than anything that could have been wrapped and put beneath our tree.