When we first decided to take our oldest daughter to a nearby horse farm for a pony ride, we were both thinking it would just be a fun way to pass an afternoon. We had no idea that it would bring us closer together as a couple, that it would turn into a destination for so many afternoons. We would have laughed to think that we would use trips to the horse farm as rewards for chores done—for us, not for our children! We couldn’t have imagined how much a part of our family life it would become.
How could we know that the palomino pony Spongebob would bat his eyes at me and give me an irresistible horsey look, causing me to fall head over heels in love? How could we foresee a four-year-old asking, quite out of the blue, if we could have our picnic within smell of horseflesh?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been horse crazy. I was one of those girls who dreamed of hooves and manes, who went to horse camp through a stroke of luck, who fell in love with the horse down the road and not the boy next door. I would dream, in my pre-teen years, of transforming our backyard into a pasture. I could see myself exploring the sixty-five acres of swampland on the back of a four-legged companion, battling muskrats and bullfrogs. We would have adventures together, my horse and I, and life would become glorious and ethereal.
My daydreams never became reality, though I did make friends with the people two miles away, riding my bike down to drool outside their paddock as they exercised their bay. They let me ride a time or two, and my bike became a horse as I pedaled it back and forth to their house. I read and reread everything Walter Farley wrote and then discovered Marguerite Henry. I immersed myself in the mechanics and details of horses, absorbing horse encyclopedias and poring over glossy pictures.
I had buried all of this deep in my memory chest, in the far corner of the attic of my mind, and hadn’t ever thought of telling my husband just what an obsessed youngster I had been. Oh, he saw the horse books on the shelves. But he didn’t have a clear idea of just how consumed I had been with things equine until we made our first visit to the horse farm.
There, surrounded by the sweet smell of horse and hay, I realized that Cowgirl Sarah wasn’t dead. She wasn’t even gone. She was just in storage.
Cowgirl Sarah came out of storage pretty fast. She made her appearance with a squeal of delight that rivaled three-year-old Elizabeth’s. She dusted herself off and immediately spouted off observations about the horses, insights about the environment, raves about the experience.
My husband, for his part, handled this pretty well. As it turns out, we were both horse-crazy in our younger years; he had read all the Walter Farley books at least as many times as I had and some others I hadn’t. He had spent his years growing up in the city remembering his preschool days, when there had been cows and calves and, yes, horses, on the farm where his family had lived.
In five years of marriage and five years of dating, we hadn’t once discussed horses. What would I have done without horses in my youth? Would I have gone to the fair and mucked out stalls on the off chance that I would be able to ride a horse for a few minutes? Would I have watched the Triple Crown races without taping them and rewatching them?
When I’m on the back of a horse, the world changes for me. Not only do I realize, with a sort of dazed wonder, that I’m doing one of the things I used to love more than anything else, but I also see the world through different eyes.
When I’m riding a horse, my body is different—for one thing, I’m not used to it anymore, and my legs scream in agony for at least three days after a ride. I have to pay attention to the world around me and I have to pay attention to the horse beneath me.
The horses I ride are old hands at novice riders, and there’s nothing to fear. Yet even though I know that, I don’t ever forget that I’m on the back of a horse.
It makes me think of how I go through my life, so often. I cruise along, doing what I think is best, maybe asking for help here and there, thanking God every so often, involving Him when it suits me. Do I realize the immensity of what it means to be going through life as a Christian? Do I live my faith? Do I look down and see the Hands that are guiding me?
Reading about Saint Monica’s devotion for her wayward son, Augustine, reminds me of this need to pay attention. Monica was a devout Christian, but her son wasn’t. In fact, he was about as obstinate as it was possible to get. He didn’t want a thing to do with Christianity, and he could tell you why.
And yet Monica kept praying. Her prayer was so noteworthy that Mary appeared to her as Our Lady of Consolation. She was wearing mourning clothes with a belt around her waist, which she took off and gave to Monica, instructing her to wear it and spread this new devotional practice.
Mary said she would protect anyone who wore the belt in her honor. Monica gave the belt, also called a cincture, to her son Augustine, and years later, he not only became Christian but became a renowned bishop, saint, and doctor.
When I hear Mary referred to as Our Lady of Consolation, I don’t immediately think of Monica’s tears and desperate pleas for help with her son’s salvation. Sometimes I think of the little pains and tribulations in my life, like not getting to the horse farm as much as I’d like.
There’s therapy in that time spent among the horses, in the open air, unplugged from the technology that tries to run my life. I notice how much joy my family takes in the peacocks and the swings, and I treasure how we laugh and photograph and dawdle. Time stops at the horse farm, even as it flies by all around us.
When I’ve communed with God among the horses, I often realize how much I need Mass, how much I need that time with God. Though I may be distracted or interrupted or preoccupied, with kids crawling on my lap and sifting through my purse, people behind me or in front of me catching my attention; though I may be imperfect as I kneel there, I can see myself at the hitching post, waiting as the horses do, for my Herdsman to lead me to the still waters. Mary is right beside Him, wearing cowboy boots and probably a cowboy hat. She has a black leather belt, and she winks at me when I notice it.
“You probably thought I only wore robes,” she whispers.
There’s a lot of surprise in my daily life. I never expected, for example, to enjoy my babies so much. I didn’t think I’d find solace in horses, having given up my equine dreams for more practical matters years ago, and I certainly didn’t think I’d find Mary in a cowboy hat!
Our Lady of Consolation reminds me that there’s comfort, even in the parts of life you don’t “win,” in the pain and suffering, in the knowledge of the prize I seek. As I share those moments with my family at the horse farm and rediscover that old horse-crazy part of myself, I find that there’s help for me in the midst of my life, right there in the manure and the grass-stained knees. From five feet in the air, framed by alert ears and a wisp of mane, I see how far I have to go…and how easily He can get me there.