I’ve had the dream several times over the past months. It’s not an exciting dream, or a particularly emotional one, but it is incredibly specific.
In my dream, I’m riding again.
I call my horse in from the paddock. She comes readily and I slip the halter over her head. I speak quiet nonsense to her, telling her when to walk through the gate and when to wait for me, even though she knows the routine as well as I do.
In the barn, I set to work brushing the dried mud from her red coat. It takes a while and most of the dirt that was on her transfers on to me, but it’s my favorite part of grooming. As I run the brush over her body, I’m also checking for sore spots or cuts. I pause here and there to scratch her favorite spots on her chest and the base of her mane.
“Pick” I say firmly. Slowly, she lifts her hoof into my hand. She’s not as young as she used to be and arthritis makes it a little harder for her to tuck her leg up under her belly, but she does it and waits patiently while I clean out her hooves.
It’s time to put on her tack. Unlike some horses, she doesn’t mind being saddled and opens her mouth willingly for the bit. She’s ready to go, but I still need to put on my helmet and shed my coat. I slip the reins over her head and say “Ready to go to work?” Her ears perk forward.
In my dream, we have the arena to ourselves. I mount and we start our warm up.
For someone who’s never ridden hunt seat or dressage, it may look like we’re just riding around in circles. But between her mouth and back and my legs and hands, a rich dialogue is happening. We start long and loose, her stretching her neck down toward the ground, me consciously relaxing my back and sitting deeper in the saddle.
Slowly, we pick up a trot and our work begins. We make patterns across the packed sand of the arena. 20 meter circles and 10 meter circles. A path across the center lines and the diagonals. A wide path along the outer wall where we practiced shoulder in and haunches in, stretching her body in a curve around my inner leg.
I don’t talk much but my calves, seat and hands are in a constant conversation with her. A slight press of the left calf and a shift back of the right leg of about a half inch and we have the beginning of a half pass. But a little extra pressure on that right leg and she picks up the canter. My hands are less for steering and more about controlling her frame. To turn us both, I only have to turn my head and she feels the subtle shift of my head and shoulders and follows naturally.
As the minutes roll by, the power builds in her. Her back and neck round and her steps have more of a bounce. I shorten and lengthen her stride through a subtle press of my legs and a firming of my fingers. In the canter, she snorts softly with each stride, her mouth soft, her ears forward.
Sometimes I make a mistake, sometimes she does. Both of us have a weak side. I’m afraid of speed, she’s afraid of buckets in the corner. When the circle isn’t quite round or the canter transition down to a walk contains some sloppy half-trot steps in between, I laugh softly but then we do it again and again until it looks smooth and effortless.
We’re both sweating but before we cool down, we sketch out a 20 meter circle in the middle of the arena at a medium trot. Then we do one of our favorite exercises. I slowly let the reins go longer and longer and her neck falls lower and lower. Without breaking her stride or slowing down, she goes long and low, both of us trusting each other and holding our balance without any pressure on her head or my hands. She loves the stretch and snorts softly in pleasure. Without complaint and again without changing the tempo or stride length, I slowly bring the reins back into play and she comes back into contact with the bit.
We slow to a walk and start a proper cool down. She’s back to the rangy thoroughbred walk of her warm up. I slip my feet out of the stirrups, letting my legs stretch down and pointing my toes briefly. I pat her neck and say “good girl.”
The dream always ends here. In real life, I would have eventually hopped off. We would retrace our grooming steps, just in reverse order. At the end, fed and cleaned up, she’d be released back out into the paddock to roll and reacquaint herself with the neighboring horses before investigating the contents of hay manger.
It’s been more than two years since I’ve had a ride like that, but for over a decade, several times a week, this was my routine. Over the years, we both learned new skills. We had injuries. Sometimes the weather was too hot and sometimes it was too cold to do much, but whenever I asked “Are you ready to go to work?” her ears would prick forward. She was always willing, always patient with me (especially in the early days).
She made me braver. She gave me a glimpse of what it’s like to be an athlete. She showed me the beauty of dancing with another.
This summer, her 31st on this earth, she got sick. Her eyes were dulled by cataracts. Her ribs stood out prominently along her body. It was time to let her go, and so one Friday in September, that’s what we did.
These dreams reminded me how much I miss riding. In some ways, I wonder if that’s her final gift to me. Underneath the tears and grief at her loss, is the memory of those quiet afternoons in the arena, and maybe the possibility that I might have it again.
You carried me all these years. Now I carry you in my heart forever.
Good girl, Hibbie. Good girl.