Neither of us had been horseback riding before. Not on an open ride like this. In the middle of the desert. Not a head to tail ride. A ride you had full control to go anywhere you wished. For as long as you wanted. Which had us goosey but excited.
When we arrived, two young cowboys escorted us to the barn. Along the way, educating us on heat stroke. The importance of staying hydrated in the middle of the desert. The warning signs. Headache, nausea, chills. “When you feel the chills, you could be too late.”
Then, they guided us into the barn. Where each horse was secluded in its own stall. The cowboys encouraged us to walk through greeting and meeting each horse. But recommended not to get our hearts set on any particular one.
“While you can pick any horse, we strongly suggest you go with the horse that picks you…”
He adds, “You’ll see a similarity between your personality and their horse-onality.” He jokes.
I stood there wondering what that meant and what that would look like. A horse picking you.
I walked my 9-year-old son around the barn. Meeting each horse with him. Both of us intimidated by the size of some. By the reputations of others. Either fast, or leaders. Wanting a calm, easy ride for each of us. Reaching out and touching each one. Seeing which one pulled away from his small hand and which ones leaned into his touch.
I noticed a brown horse in the first stall intently watching us. I looked over. Her big brown eyes staring at me like a laser beam. Moving with me as I walked from stall to stall. Not looking away. Her gaze with intent. Watchful. Sure.
I would look away to greet the next horse with my son. Each time I stopped, I made a point to look back at the brown horse gazing back. Wondering if her intense glare was her picking me, or showing her distain.
Finally, my son met Allegro. A white stallion with Carmel freckles covering his body. We entered Allegro’s stall. My son reached out to him. The horse closed his eyes as my son groped his neck. He leaned his head down to my son’s level. His calm demeanor showing acceptance to my sons young age and inexperience.
I noticed the other riders bonding with their horses. One by one, a horse choosing its rider. While I looked back at the first stall. At the brown horse’s gaze that never wavered away from me. Her big brown eyes meeting mine every time I looked in her direction.
I finally walked toward her. Her watching each step as I approached.
Face to face, I reached out to rub her snout. Both her head and stare didn’t move.
A cowboy near the feed on the other side of the barn smirked at me. He walked over to us.
“You interested in Meredith?” He asked in a calm draw.
“I can’t tell if she likes me.”
He chuckles, “She’s a thinker.”
His comment intrigues me. Knowing I am the same.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“I’ve known this horse my whole life.” He says as he affectionately slaps her neck while her eyes stay fixated on mine. He continues, “She looks at every situation carefully. She weighs her options before she makes a move. She lives life like a chess game. Not to win. No. Just to find the best option. She’s a trip.”
“So, she guides you?”
“No. She’ll listen, once she trusts you. But, first, she thinks.”
I look away from the horse to look at the cowboy interested in his observation. Curious to hear more of his thoughts on us thinkers, “Are you saying that’s a good or bad thing?” I ask.
He smiles at me and says, “It’s a beautiful thing.”
Then, he slaps Meredith with another loving stroke down her neck as her eyes meet mine once again. “Anywho… you’ll see what I mean in the desert.”
He strides away from her stall as I call out to him, “So, you’re suggesting I chose Meredith?”
“Nope!” He smiles again. “She already chose you.”
I look back into her unwavering eyes now thinking I see a certainty behind them.
Half excited, half nervous to trust this animal I just met. But mostly trusting his words, she’s thought about it. She must know best.
I took her out of her stall. Walked her around the barn and property. When we got near a grape vine, she head butted me from behind. In the middle of my back. Pushing my body forward. Causing me to stumble.
I turned toward her, shocked, quickly questioning once again if she really chose me or if she didn’t like me. I had a suspicion it may be the latter. But, only time would tell.
We spent the afternoon bonding with each horse. Slowly gaining their trust. While they slowly gained ours.
We fed them, brushed them, touched and talked to them. Me looking into Meredith’s big brown eyes to figure out if our connection was thickening. She not looking away as I did. Leaving the question floating between us.
We rode bare back around a corral to feel how their hips moved so we could better appreciate the saddle and their work underneath it. We learned to jump, to request with voice commands, to saddle and finally, to ride. Under the heat of the Utah sun.
We left the ranch on horseback to trot down the side of highway 9. The rest of the group up ahead. Meredith, takes her time. Saves her energy. Grazes on long grass and wild flowers as we saunter past. I feel the hot afternoon Utah sun bake down on us as we stroll. Instantly causing a sweat. A dry heat that bakes against my skin and shines against the horse’s brown healthy coat. The horse hoofs clank against the heated asphalt as cars rush by. Some slow down. Some don’t. She seems unaffected by them as they pass. While my heart races. Half with excitement, half with a blind faith in an animal I had only met hours ago.
Until we reached a bridge that joined country rode with open, deserted desert.
I watched as Meredith stopped one last time along the bridge. Eating the last nibble of long grass before entering the dry terrain she had learned to expect.
She tried to take the lead at first. Observing paths and cutting her way through the other horses to the middle than toward the front of the group. Finding her stride and comfort as the sun beat down intensely. The heat was strong. Yet, she carried on. Leaping over rocks, boulders, dodging cacti and darting through rugged territory I knew little about. While knowing Meredith did. Supposedly carefully choosing each move past dried brush, jack rabbits, rattle snakes, and an unforgiving sun.
I watched as she followed the other horses at times and found and blazed her own trail on others. I noticed when she chose to jump, to run, to gallop through branches, over bushes, when she picked the path less traveled. All while I held on to her and the reigns.
My trust now in this animal.
Along the way, my stomach turned. I became nauseous. I reached into the saddle bag for water. While Meredith’s trot turned into a walk.
Her neck looking back at me from time to time. So, her eyes could meet mine as my nausea increased. She went from the middle of the pack to the back. She looked back more and more frequently when I noticed goosebumps that ran up and down my arm and back of the neck. While feeling the heat resonating off my face.
Chills, I thought. Fuck.
Meredith led me to branches. To shade. Then, on her own trail, to a river. When I got off her, hot, tired and sore, she head butted me from behind. Causing me to stumble forward, into the water. Her brown eyes watching as I got my skin wet. Her head nudging the middle of my back, pushing me to keep stepping deeper. To cool. Reading what I needed and how far I could go.
Telling me not to quit. Reminding me she was there. Thinking one step ahead. Reminding me to trust her. Showing me the gift of her mind. Her thoughts. Trusting she has thought it through. How she let her thoughts lead her. How they guided me. How those thoughts picked me. How my trust allowed me to follow her lead instead of feeling I had to keep tight hold of the reigns.
I took off my boots. Stepped into the water with Meredith by my side. I dumped water on my head. Rinsed my face. As she intently watched.
I looked back into her big brown eyes staring back at me. Grateful she chose me. Grateful she taught me to trust this animal I just met hours before. Hearing the cowboy’s words echoing in my mind. “It was a beautiful thing.”