There are things I like about this time of year. The Christmas lights that festoon the trees lining our downtown main street are magical, especially after a nighttime snowfall. I like that the dark reminds us to go inside and recharge after a season of working from light’s beginning to light’s end. I like that I see kindness being given and received more often than other times of the year. It’s a good reminder that kindness can be a gift given no matter the season.
I like spending time with family and for someone who swears off cooking at every chance, I even like planning meals that we share around a big table with people we love.
When I think about why I feel so stressed despite the “joy of the season,” it really only comes down to one thing: the impending doom of December 25th.
Being plugged into the internet is just not a good idea this time of year. From before Thanksgiving onward, it’s a commercial scrum: who can have more sales, who can score the biggest Black Friday win? But wait! Now there’s cyber Monday!
It’s not like December 25th is a surprise either; get past enough Christmases and you know what to expect, you have a general idea of what your friends and family members would enjoy receiving, and you know that on that date everything will come together (or not). After the rush of the holidays, we then start the slow elliptical rotation toward longer days.
Every year I can feel myself winding up like a too-tight rope around a thick saddle horn: December 25th is the cow horse, and I am the steer. Every dang year, I have the same emotional response I did the previous year: race to get everything done on top of everything that already needs to be done until I am snappy and tired and sick of my own company.
This year it occurred to me that instead of fighting the march of time across the calendar, I could take a more active role and begin sorting out Christmas in October. If I got really proactive, maybe June! I could waltz through this holiday season with less stress, more rest and probably be more pleasant company. I could accept that time, and the calendar, pause for no one.
We are capable of sorting these kinds of things out for ourselves. But what happens when we start seeing the first signs that our beloved horse may need a change too? That’s just what has been happening with our horse, Rocky.
Mark and I walked out on the thirty-five-acre pasture where the horses winter, and I call “Hooor-ses!” Six furry heads pop up from eating and they gallop toward us, coming to a walk several yards out before greeting us with a whiff of warm breath that mists the cold morning air.
It’s the beginning of our clinic season, which means that Rocky and two other horses will be joining us as we work around the country.
We halter Rocky and the other geldings and hold them for the vet so he can write up health certificates. After he’s done, we turn the horses loose once more. The two other geldings walk away, noses lowered in a search for the grass under the snow. Rocky stays and we give him a pat on the neck before walking to the truck. He follows us back to the gate, hangs his head over the green rails and watches us walk away.
He’s always been like this; eager to work, greeting us first, easy to catch.
It’s December 2019 now, and Rocky has traveled over a million (no exaggeration) miles in a horse trailer. He’s stood quietly in hot and cold weather, rainstorms and wild winds, city traffic and along desert highways. That’s a lot of time for his hooves to be disconnected from the earth. He’s twenty-one next year and has been doing his job with excellence since he was seven. His nickname is Rockstar for good reasons.
He’s stood calmly while other horses worried. He’s helped our less experienced clinic horses get to know the job. He’s a ranch horse, a trail horse, a clinic horse, has worked cattle, starred in a movie, given a few rides to folks who want to feel how soft true softness is, and in the last four years, has been teaching me how to jump.
In the last year, we’ve noticed some quiet changes. We often need to walk to Rocky to halter him, instead of him meeting us at the gate. He’s harder to keep weight on during a trip and he no longer finishes the hay that we hang in front of him during long hauls.
This past summer while Mark was riding him, he refused three times to get close to a horse Mark was trying to help through a gate. When Mark asked Rocky to step in a little closer, Rocky didn’t move.
Instead of using a stronger cue, Mark let it go and finished the workday. He later admitted that Rocky’s time as a clinic horse was done. Our red horse, who has never said no to anything we’ve asked, refused three times in the space of as many minutes.
He was the first to go out on pasture this winter. As we walked over the grass that was pushing through the snow, I called to them “Hoooor-ses!” Up popped four furry heads, and they galloped toward us, Rocky leading the way.
That day we needed to trim their feet. All four horses stood quietly in the winter sun as we chatted with our farrier. After he was done, we turned Rocky loose first. With barely a backward glance, he galloped away without waiting for the other horses, or us.
At some point, all of us will have to let our good horses rest. We will have to read their signs and listen closely when they begin telling us they can no longer do what they used to. This is, in some ways, of course what we do for Rocky. He doesn’t owe us a thing; it is we who owe him.
This new chapter, for me, is also a braid of emotions: one strand for sadness, one strand for gratitude and one strand for curiosity.
I’m sad that Rocky has reached twenty-one so quickly. I’m grateful we’ve had the pleasure of his company and his big kind generous heart. I’m curious because I’d like to find out where his yes’s still are.
I know two of them: trail riding and jumping. However, these two activities are now done with care and limits. We recognize that his spirit will probably always gallop ahead of his body. We accept that it is time for our good red horse to keep his hooves connected to the earth and go a little easier in this world.