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 V.24 No.15 | April 9 - 15, 2015 

Feature

Nervous Hearts

Or how the Pet Mayor of Corrales made me less afraid of myself

Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
As I sat in my car in the dirt lot of Nancy Freshour’s Corrales home, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The only reason I was there was because of a three-fold pamphlet sent to the Alibi boasting all of the accomplishments of a mare named Aspen. Most notably, she is a former Pet Mayor, a “movie star” and children’s birthday parties’ “most exciting guest.” And though many people I talked to before making the drive out to this village found the idea of a “Pet Mayor” cute, if silly, my gut told me there was more to Aspen’s story than her star status, American Competitive Trail Horse Association wins and political history.  

A shadow fell across my windshield as I fumbled for a notepad and pen. I looked up; there stood Aspen with Nancy saddled in. Aspen’s mane was only slightly ashier than her black coat. She wore a silver medallion on her bridle with her name affectionately engraved next to two small, red flowers. A white stripe climbed up her snout, from her nostrils all the way to the space between her gentle eyes. Nancy had a wide smile and shortly trimmed hair. Her lipstick reminded me of a shade my mom wore when I was growing up, and she was dressed in mostly denim. Both Nancy and Aspen had a presence that was commanding and somehow still tender.

“You must be Amelia!” Nancy said as I stepped outside of the car, and we proceeded to do the things humans do when they first meet. The connection Nancy and Aspen have was immediately and strikingly obvious. Without making a sound, Nancy communicated with Aspen. Saddled on, her eyes shifted gently, and Aspen began trotting backwards. Her eyes shifted again, and this time Aspen began trotting forward. “I do it all with my hips,” she said.

Without making a sound, Nancy communicated with Aspen. Saddled on, her eyes shifted gently, and Aspen began trotting backwards. Her eyes shifted again, and this time Aspen began trotting forward. “I do it all with my hips,” she said.

Standing in front of the giant mare, I thought back on the stories of compassion the pamphlet bragged about. An autistic boy uncontrollably sobbing, comforted by Aspen’s love. An elderly woman who had never been close to a horse in real life, loved and reassured by Aspen’s gentle heart. Foolish, egotistical human that I am, I worried Aspen wouldn’t like me. That somehow all of the magic and compassion everyone had experienced with her would be lost on me. That, despite a lifetime of trying to not do the “wrong” thing, this horse would know in only a few seconds that something was not right about me, which is something I had been afraid of my whole life.

Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Nancy spoke firmly, with a confidence that I both admired and envied. She told me Aspen has never met a human she didn’t like, and as she pat the side of Aspen’s underbelly, she told me “Aspen doesn’t love all other horses because she is the alpha mare. She’s the boss.” We both admitted that, like Aspen, we are bossy women too. But I couldn’t help but wondering if Aspen was reading my growing fears at every moment.

“Sometimes we reach into dark parts of our heart. Have you ever done that while you were riding Aspen?” I softly asked. “Does she know that we sometimes don’t like ourselves? Do you think she feels it?”

“Absolutely,” Nancy answered. “This little girl is my salvation. And the good thing is she knows it, and I worry sometimes that I put too much on her because I don’t want her to think that she has to do all the work and that I don’t reciprocate.” As Nancy spoke, Aspen began to whisp her face toward her. Nancy smiled and said, “So I try to tell her all the time, and I mean it, ‘You are my life. You are my love. And I appreciate you so much.’”

We fed Aspen little hockey puck-sized vegetable treats, and I admired Aspen’s “brother,” a goat named Clide that was as charming as he was obviously jealous. Nancy looked over at me and asked me something that at first I thought I heard wrong.

“So do you want to ride her?”

“Me?” I asked shocked, and also stalling. I was terrified of making the wrong decision. I’d only been horseback riding once with my sister when we were girls. Now, as an adult, I was afraid of being hurt, of looking stupid, but also of allowing fear to rob me of what could be a beautiful experience.

“I very rarely allow anyone to ride Aspen. Trainers will warn you that inexperienced riders can undo the training you’ve done with the horse,” Nancy said. Trust does not come easy for me, but something about Nancy’s tone, her confidence in asking me and Aspen’s warm gaze made me feel like I could lean in to this opportunity.

To get on a horse, you need to nestle the crook of your heel into one stirrup while you swing your other leg over the saddle. It takes both physical strength and confidence in the horse you’re riding. Aspen waits sweetly for me to muster up the bravery to get on top of her. Once I am on, we begin slowly trotting. Her body is powerful and distinctly inhuman. The swaying of a horse’s body while walking is rhythmic and indescribably maternal. It’s a tense excitement that can very quickly turn into profound anxiety when reality sinks in, and I am reminded that I am saddled onto a horse I have only known for about an hour, and that at any moment I risk being bucked off. I imagine cracked ribs. Broken teeth. I imagine having to talk to journalists about my near-death experience. And yet, none of these fears come from instinct. They are formed from years of being afraid of myself, of others and situations in which I was not in control.

I quietly say “I’m scared, Nancy.”

“Why are you afraid?” Nancy asks, but when she asks this, her voice issofter than it’s been throughout the day.

“I don’t know,” I lie. Of course I know; I’m afraid because we are told our entire lives not to trust. I am afraid because I don’t want Aspen to know I’m not as brave as I say I am. I don’t want to trust anything or anyone, even for a minute, if it means they can hurt me.

“You’re okay, I promise,” Nancy says. “You have to trust Aspen. She will take care of you, okay?”

“I know,” I nervously mutter. Nancy instructs me to lean into the saddle and settle in. I do. She asks me if I am okay again; this time, only half lying, I say I am.

“Are you holding on?” she asks.

“Yes,” I answer. I stare off at the Sandia Mountains and the blue, baptismal sky, and settle into the saddle, breathing deeply as my heart eases. Aspen slowly picks up her pace, and within a few seconds, we are galloping.

Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Unlike people, animals don’t care about accomplishments or status or bone structure or haircuts. They don’t care if most people like you or if you are a goddamn rocket scientist. They have the most sacred and terrifying ability to cut right through you, down to your darkest parts and brightest truths. And if you fear yourself in any way, they can feel it. But unlike some humans, animals won’t hold you hostage with your own pain. They simply carry it for you, for a few moments, because their hearts are made to heal broken things.

Life is incredibly lonely. We are barbaric at times, desperate and hungry and nervous. We may spend our entire lives not trusting. But if you ever find yourself atop a horse like Aspen, you will know trust, even for a short moment. We might laugh at the absurdity of things like “Pet Mayors” and horse movie stars, but Aspen’s magic isn’t gimmicky, nor is it delicate. Her magic exists in the way she gently blinks her eyes as you talk about her love. It’s in the way she asks for nothing and gives everything she has. It’s in the way her velvety black marble eyes look at you, haunting but never menacing.

Aspen’s magic is in her ability to remind you of how it is possible to be sweet and trusting and alive. That we aren’t as ugly as we might have always thought. We are not as lonely as we’re convinced we are. That’s her most remarkable talent—to hold a nervous heart and show it how brave it can be, how fearless it can be and how it was never meant to be broken.

 

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