Monday, August 8, 2016

Goodbye, Horsegirl

Raffiki and Sierra (aka Horsegirl) in 2014, before she left on her mission
Next week, Horsegirl is leaving for college.

Horsegirl is my oldest daughter Sierra. She is 20 and just recently  returned from an LDS church mission. When she goes to college, she will board her 12 year old palomino quarter horse, Raffiki, fifteen minutes away from her apartment.

I haven’t called her Horsegirl in a long time, probably not since she was eight or so. And today, I am thinking of her and her horse craziness from long ago, and how much I’m gonna miss her.

That’s because I am staring at the beaming, happy faces of two eight year old girls who are enrolled in a horse camp that Sierra’s younger sister is putting on as a service trip fundraiser. They are best buddies, these girls, both horse crazy as they come. One of them says, “I have been wanting to ride on a horse by myself since I was four.”

I can believe that hyperbole, because I have seen that same devotion in Sierra who loved horses since she was old enough to read and collect chapter books. Her closet is a testament to her obsession. She owns an impressive amount of Breyer horse models and horse books – bought, bartered, gifted – collected over the years.

This craziness  probably would have peaked and dissipated had we not moved to Grantsville, a small town where icy patches form on irrigated alfalfa fields on cool spring mornings, where horses graze on property at the outer edges of town and where horse-crazy girls can still live their dreams.

= = =

Sierra wanted a horse riding party for her eighth birthday. We had just moved to Grantsville and didn’t know anyone who could oblige. Somehow, through someone who knew someone, I tracked down a lady fittingly named Susan Bale.

Like a parent looking for a rare toy around Christmas, I was desperate, ready to pay anything for this experience. She normally didn’t do this, she said, and rattled off a generously low amount, twenty-five dollars. I told her she had a deal. Giddily, I took Sierra and seven of her girlfriends to Susan’s property west of town. Susan lived on a sprawling place with several pens and a huge barn where she led Sierra and her friends past cats and old machinery to get the horses ready.

Susan turned to me, a complete novice at horses – well, I rode one once as a child, led around for fifteen minutes – and asked if I could help her. A relative who was supposed to come couldn’t.

So there I was helping get four horses get tacked up by girls who equally didn’t know what they were doing.  Susan, unfazed, explained what we needed to do, and somehow, none of the chattering, hyper girls got hurt. The girls rode two by two on each horse and it all came together without a hitch.

And then, Susan said the words that would forever change our lives, and is the reason I am now staring at the faces of the eight year olds on six acres of horse property – “Would you like to borrow a horse for 4-H?”

= = =

We thought Sierra's obsession would go the way of most obsessions of girls that age. Especially since borrowing a horse for a year wasn’t convenient nor easy. At shows, Sierra occasionally missed gate calls since Susan’s granddaughter needed the horse for another event. It took me a long highway ride  to take  Sierra down to practice on Susan’s property. But none of these fazed Sierra. She braided her hair and wore her jaunty thrift store cowgirl hat and jeans, took her place among kids most of whom wore fancy show clothes, and rode on.

It’s been quite a trail ride since.

Without the hubby who was out of town, I took her to look at the first horse we ended up buying. Wixie was a high-strung mare who was a handful for a novice, but somehow, we survived that first year. The next year, Sierra wrote an essay and won a two year old palomino colt. Which was super cool, except no one warned us how much work training a colt would be. A point driven home when this colt, Raffiki, bucked her off on the street, the impact of which broke her arm and tore her nerves.

But there were also lots of good memories.

Of Sierra getting back on Raffiki after a heart wrenching and painful recovery. Of Sierra winning more than a white ribbon in 4-H on temperamental Wixie and even winning blue, bareback on Raffiki. Of me accompanying Sierra in Kentucky for her 14th birthday  to attend Breyerfest. Of practices at the place where we boarded our growing herd of horses, with me watching horse and rider, thinking, they are beautiful.

= = =

Wixie died the year we finally took the leap and bought these six acres of horse property, where we are now hosting a horse camp. Sadly, we were still building then and she didn’t make it to our new place except on a Bobcat, so we could bury her in a grave in the back. We have buried two other horses since, imperfect horses who taxed our patience yet stole our hearts in the end.

That’s what horses do, if you let them.

I once believed, when Sierra was older, that she had gotten over her love of horses. She never once mentioned Raffiki in her letters home on her mission. But when she came home, she announced she would take Raffiki with her to college.

I’m glad. Sierra without a horse is like having a saddle without stirrups, incomplete. Horses formed Sierra’s character. I believe she is who she is today because she had to have the grit, courage,  mental toughness, and resilience  to work with horses over the years. Her heart expanded, learning  love from these gentle giants.

My own heart feels like an old, beat up lead rope – sad and frayed that Horsegirl is leaving. Luckily, she’s just a phone call away, a two-hour drive to a home-cooked meal, if she so chooses. But it’s not the same as having her home. I just realized, however, looking at these campers and their beaming faces, that Horsegirl’s legacy lives on.

I will feel her presence when I feed the horses these upcoming autumn evenings and smell that sharp sweet scent of hay. I will remember watching her ride for hours on end when her younger sister takes to the arena with her own young horse. I will understand when our campers grin from ear to ear as they ride.

I’m grateful that in college, Horsegirl will have Raffiki to keep her company after a hard day. She could burrow for comfort in the smoothness of his supple neck. And, in a valley surrounded by mountains, tinged a lovely blue in the deepening twilight, she could ride her cares away.

Jewel Allen is an award-winning journalist, author and ghostwriter. Visit her at

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