This morning, I called my boss to request a vacation day, and my request was granted. On the spur of the moment, I decided to go, alone, to the movie Secretariat, and only a few hours later found myself alone (quite literally) in a huge, darkened theater, watching a matinee showing, enjoying the life of one of the greatest horses ever to place a hoof on earthly soil.
Even knowing the story, knowing Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973, I still laughed and cried and rejoiced at the triumph and the simplicity of one of God's greatest creatures. (I've given nothing away about the movie; the history of the horse is only the vehicle that carries, as Paul Harvey would have said, "the rest of the story.")
Then, this evening, Netflix, on my pauper's account (the single-disk version), Ruffian was delivered to my mailbox. I have to chuckle at Providence here, for until a few days ago, another movie and another TV series was in line far ahead of this movie. I changed it on a whim.
So it was, today, that I came to realize that I was born between the triumph of Secretariat and the fall of Ruffian, during what may have been one of the greatest periods in the history of American horseracing.
I'm thrilled to have been conceived, born, and weaned during such a time, simply to be able to claim my heart was perhaps already beating in symphony with those of two of the greatest racehorses ever to grace American soil, bar none.
Ah, but do I wax too poetic? I cannot help it; as I said, I have horses in my soul and believe they were placed there by God himself, for He continues to communicate with me through these incredible works of art, these paragons of beauty of His own creation.
I've written before of one of my earliest childhood memories: Mom holding me up so I could see what was passing by our house: two horses, two riders. I asked what those creatures were, and Mom explained, carefully, that they were very beautiful animals called "horses". I exclaimed, "Oh...I LOVE horses!"
I meant what I said, down to my soul, to my heart and to my intellect and will. Oh, yes, in spite of the fact Mom told me many times as I grew up, upon viewing my many drawings of horses and my many requests for ownership, that I would "outgrow it."
It's the only thing Mom was ever wrong about: I never stopped loving horses. That love has matured, but it has never left me, and in fact, was a vehicle to my conversion.
This afternoon, I came home from the movie and spent some time reading, then decided to take a brief nap. As I drifted off, thinking of horses, I thought of Brandy, the Shetland pony owned by a family in my neighborhood.
(As an aside: is it called a "neigh-borhood" as opposed to "the hood" when there are horses in it and not just gangstas?)
Perhaps it wasn't just fishing that introduced me to contemplation. Perhaps it was horses as well.
I remember the first time I rode Brandy, and I recall, vividly, even though I was only 8, being bucked off. She didn't like the way I rode her very bumpy (to me, the unschooled sack of potatoes on her back) trot, and decided to be rid of me. She succeeded the second I realized she was bucking. I could paint you a photograph of her hind legs stretched out above me, the image from the impact as I struck the ground, before I rolled away in survival-mode. I still remember Laura, the girl who was leading Brandy, getting her under control, her mouth a perfect "O" as she turned towards me, shocked, a mere teenager, unsure of what to do, her blonde bob refusing to move itself being in the same state of shock.
I stood up, shaking, assuring her I was fine, but it was years before I rode again - I mean rode.
Still, through Brandy, I also learned forgiveness. I so loved horses that I could not stay away from her, the horse (pony!) who had broken my heart by introducing me to fear.
I decided I needed to really make friends with her and so I visited her often. She seemed so lonely. She was not kept in a paddock like other horses, and the one shelter/paddock she did have was a junkyard. It may have been a shelter, but the neighbor kept all sorts of rusting tools and implements there, and there wasn't a shred of green in that fenced-in piece of hell on earth. For that reason, they kept her tethered with a chain around her neck, and attached on the other end either to a spike in the ground or a tree on the slope across the gravel "road".
That's usually where I found her.
I remember, shortly after she bucked me off, finding her wound by her chain tether around the tree. She let me approach and even nickered at me, clearly recognizing her demise. She kept trying to reach her head to the ground to search for grass, but she was held fast. I took her by the chain and led her, unwinding her from the tree. After awhile she became anxious and started to run. I ran away, diving to the side as she did so, thinking she was after me, angry with me. But no...she was only happy to be free! (It took me years to realize that, sadly. But one best learns about horses by being with them.)
I remembered from Laura's instruction how to leap onto Brandy's back, but because Mom had aways taught me to ask permission to access someone's property, I started asking the neighbor (in spite of my intense shyness - my love of horses, and Brandy was enough to overcome it) if I could visit her and sit on her back while she grazed. The neighbor stood there in his dirty wife-beater, holding his can of beer, and grunted his approval. He didn't care what or when I did it, as long as I didn't let her loose.
It was carte-blanch access to her, and yes, I took advantage. Mom always knew (I think) when I went to visit Brandy. (Mom was insistent on safety around animals and insistent that she "know" an animal I was around!)
I recall long summer afternoons, either walking or riding my bike along the part-paved part-gravel road of our country neighborhood, approaching Brandy who often took little notice of my presence. I always asked her if she minded if I just "sat along". She didn't, so unless she was obviously agitated (which she was, some days), I leapt aboard and spend the hours daydreaming. Sometimes she would walk a bit, according to what her tether would allow, and my heart leapt at the movement. In those hours I spoke with Brandy, I spoke with God and...I was fully myself. In all that I was, I was me. Alone, in solitude and maybe...contemplation.
I didn't need anyone or anything else. There was no one there to demand anything of me, there was no one there to ridicule me, there was no one there to laugh at me. It was me and the horse and God. Perhaps it was there that I really learned to pray. I remember thanking God over and over again, for horses, even if they be at rest in the field. So was I.
As a child I was always a loner. Some of that had to do with the lack of children in our neighborhood. Certainly I had some wonderful friends, but I learned early on never to depend on their presence in order to have fun. I always loved reading, and silence, and nature. If Mom kicked me out of the house and told me to go play outside, I had many places to go...the woods across the road, the yard, riding my bike in our country neighborhood, or maybe visiting Brandy, my favorite pastime. I was never lonely, and if I felt lonely, I went to Brandy, for I thought she might be lonely, too. Her "family " never seemed to pay attention to her, and she was often without the food and water she needed. More than once I provided for those things, out of what I knew: immediately fresh-cut grass and gallons of water from our sink.
This afternoon, as I drifted off, I felt myself once again astride that stout little bay as she grazed the bare crabgrass on that shadeless Illinois hill....ah, yes...I forgave her, time and time again for having thrown me that one time. I'm sure it must have been my own damn fault. After all, I'd never ridden a trot before and bounced like a sack of potatoes. She was meant for better things.
God has often used horses to reconnect with me. Of course, it is never He who has needed the reconnection, but me. I have needed the grounding, the foundation. I have found, in looking at the pattern of my life, how God has used horses to bring me back to "center". Fr. Barron, of Mundeleine Seminary, speaks in his video "Three Paths to Holiness" of "finding the center".
Some find it in the rose-window of a Cathedral, and yes, I see it and find it there, too, and of course, in Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, exposed in the Monstrance or held aloft at Mass. Yes, indeed, there is My Lord and Savior.
But I also find Him, in lesser form, which connects me in perhaps a lesser way to Him, through horses. Through their movement, through nature, through the solitude inherent in an afternoon ride.
While I tolerate commercial trail rides, I prefer the silence and solitude of riding alone or with someone who also prefers the resonance of passing hooves, the dappled shadows of an autumn day, the calls of random birds, and the rhythmic movement of one of the glories of creation in full stride.
It was this that reconnected me with God, years ago now, and it was this that reminded me of my mortality.
Who can foresee God's Providence? Doesn't He always provide for what we need?
Until a few days ago, "Ruffian" was not on my docket. Other things were. But I came across it and decided to place it at the top of my queue in Netflix. A few days ago, I proclaimed I would be in to work as usual on Monday and able to handle a particular thing (nothing of importance).
This morning I woke up, felt just fine, but...needed a day off. I was tired of all the events of the past weeks, the irregular schedule involving late nights, early mornings, and irregular days off. I don't do well with an irregular schedule; I am a regimented person who needs, to function properly, a regular schedule. I haven't had one in over 3 years. But some weeks are worse than others, and this morning, I couldn't take any more: I needed time.
I called in to my boss, asked for the day, and she gave it to me. I don't know if I've ever been so thankful.
It was with this setting that I went to see Secretariat, and then, this evening, watched Ruffian.
Those who are not horse enthusiasts might miss the connection, so I will lay it out: Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973. Ruffian's first race was May 22, 1974 (as a two-year-old). I was born just short of a month later. As I squalled in my mother's arms, some of the greatest horse racing drama in history was playing out, and some of the greatest horses in history lived, translating their heartbeats to hoof-beats, and in that time, I was introduced to their species.
I only wish I could have seen them. I am happy to have lived when they lived. I think, had I not been born a human, I would have instead lived as a Thoroughbred.
Do you give the horse his might?
Do you clothe his neck with strength?
Do you make him leap like the locust? His majestic snorting is terrible.
He paws in the valley, and exults in his strength; he goes out to meet the weapons.
He laughs at fear, and is not dismayed; he does not turn back from the sword.
Upon him rattle the quiver,
the flashing spear and the javeline.
With fierceness and rage he swallows the ground;
he cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.
When the trumpet sounds, he says
He smells the battle from afar,
the thunder of the captains, and
~ Job 39: 19-25
* The photos of Secretariat and Ruffian were taken from stock footage in their races at Belmont - in Secretariat's case, his winning run in the Belmont Stakes.
* The last pic is my own, a pastel on paper, "The Challenger" from 8th Grade. I may make a more complete picture possible at another date. It just seems to match the scripture and versus of Job.