I’ve been unexplainably in love with horses for as long as I can remember, but not in the way a true lover loves. More like in the way I loved Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez in The Sandlot: from afar. I would never meet Benny, because Benny is real only in the movies and my overactive imagination; the reality of loving a real live horse seemed just as unlikely.
Or maybe this unexplainable love can be explained. I mean, doesn’t every little girl ask for a pony at some point? And I am, after all, the product of two farmers, who are the products of four more farmers. My mother was riding horses before she could walk and eventually became quite the horsewoman. She and Billie often found themselves “on the top of the heap” in the disciplines of western pleasure, halter and trail riding competitions. I cherished this photo of me as a baby, sitting in front of my mom, both of us perched happily atop Billie as she stood in front of the barn on our farm. Later I learned that baby was actually my sister Tessa, but I just continued to pretend it was me, as I yearned for what could have been. Because my life headed down a different fork when my parents changed their own life paths. Farms were sold, sacrifices were made, my mom’s love of horses being one of them, and any dreams of being the one sitting astride the horse were soon covered by tiny suburban houses, close neighbors and small yards.
Instead, I channeled my love into horsey things. I read all the great books on all the great horses: Black Beauty, Stormy, Misty’s foal, Secretariat, etc. I played with horse figurines, and by “play” I mean I stared at the plastic horses and created an entire world for them on my imaginary ranch. My Aunt gave me a subscription to Horse & Rider for my 9th birthday, which I read not a word, but cut out all the pictures of the beautiful horses and taped them next to Benny Rodriguez on my wall. My favorite movies (still so excellent) were Phar Lap, the true story of the New Zealand racehorse’s unlikely rise to fame in Australia, and The Return to Snowy River (sequel to The Man from Snowy River, of course), both coincidentally(?) starring Tom Burlinson, to whom I trace back my longstanding obsession with accents. (And maybe men in general. That man is fantastic.) Both have excellent soundtracks, ridiculously corny love scenes and dramatic slow-motion horse scenes (very important).
When I went through my short-lived not-so-trashy romance novel stage, I only read those that took place on ranches (i.e. Nora Roberts’ Montana Sky), worsening my extremely unrealistic idea of how love actually works. I went to “Horse” Camp when I was 11, which was really just regular camp where we drove an hour to ride horses twice, which I never told my mom, because I didn’t want her to feel bad, or think she wasted all that money for two hours with horses.
I remember standing in the country western shops, short stops on our family holidays out west (meaning west of Wisconsin), inhaling the smell of leather saddles and cowboy boots, fingering the reins and bridles, imagining putting one on a wild horse, like Jim Craig does when he finds himself all alone in the Australian wilderness after his horse is murdered right from under his body while he’s tearing down a steep mountainside chasing after a bad guy, and his only hope is to befriend the dangerous black stallion who keeps mysteriously appearing in Return to Snowy River (I’m telling you, so good). Whenever I encountered real horses in real life, I would blink at them in fascination, the living, breathing, moving plastic figurines of my mind, only better smelling.
Oh, the smell. Horses have this unparalleled, unique smell, unlike any other animal. Cats poop in a box inside and can be terribly smelly, especially when you realize the stink is coming from a dingleberry stuck to their fur, dogs can be equally disgusting especially when wet, don’t get me started on the rodent family, birds smell like shit, and fish smell fishy. But horses…the stalls, the hay, the stables, the barn, their hair, their bodies. You can bury your face in their face, in their mane, inhale the hot air they breath into your nose, and they smell fresh, smell clean, wet or dry, even just after they take dump. Yes, those horsey smells are right up there with the smell of a good book, my hands after cutting garlic or onion (bonus if both), old basements, cold winters and Wisconsin summers. Johnny, a neighbor here in Ireland, told me I should bottle that sweet stable smell up and wear it as a perfume. If only.
And now I’ve found myself on a farm in the middle of Ireland (turns out, it’s not that long of a way to Tipperary) with thirteen horses, the four-legged family of George and Maria, who together share a love of horses, the way true lovers love. Both were raised with them the way people are raised with family dogs, and horses have been a driving force in their lives ever since; today they bring life to their passion by breeding horses for National Hunt races. Love pours from their finger tips as they carefully apply cooling medicine on Libakko, the foal with a swollen leg; drips from their voice as they call the equine hospital to check on Alec, a foal who chewed on a metal door then panicked when part of it got stuck in his mouth and needed stitches; oozes from their mouths as they softly reassure the mares and foals while leading them on short walks so the blacksmith can do proper paring. Unprompted on separate occasions, George and Maria both mentioned how these majestic animals are not just a part of life, they are life. They literally couldn’t live without them, wouldn’t live without them. The sight, the smell, the presence, all of it. And you can feel that here. You can squeeze the love right from the fresh Irish air above Knockara Stables.
A true lover’s love.