Vivian was my role model.
Twenty-one years ago, she was in her eighties, her bay gelding, Rufus, was in his very late teens. Vivian said she didn't care if it took a crane to get her up in the saddle; as long as she could take a breath, she was going out riding with us on the dusty trails in the Angeles National Forest.
Viv was bent like a gnarly willow branch from arthritis and osteoporous, but she'd grab Rufus' leather reins in her claw of a hand and drag him over to the mounting block. Watching her slowly hoist herself up the steps of the block made us wince, but once Viv got her left foot in the stirrup and threw her right leg over Rufus' back, into the worn trail saddle, she was the equal to those of us more than half her age. With a tap-tap of her boot heels on his sides, off he'd go at a bouncy trot to the trailhead, and we'd follow on our horses, marveling at her. Rightly so.
When Viv's cancer made it too difficult to get to the barn, we loaded Rufus up in my trailer and brought him to her house, into her back yard. Her nurse brought her out onto her patio in her wheelchair, and she cradled Rufus' great head her arms, stroking his shiny coat with those crookedly tender hands. He understood he needed to be gentle. Although she was hooked up to IV lines, Viv wore the cowgirl pajamas we bought her and her best riding boots. She died a few days later.
Buddhists teach about "no self," a process I understand as the falling away of things, beliefs about ourselves, and other sources of identity until we arrive at a place of "nothingness" which is the universality of our interconnectedness with all living things at its most essential level. I look back on my life, and I can see this process as something that naturally occurs. I was a "daughter" until my parents died, a "wife" until my husband died. I've been (among so many other descriptions) "the woman with all those dogs," "that girl who rides horses," "the one who lives alone on a farm." People would forget my name but refer to me as "Mrs. Rupert" (one of my more memorable dogs).
Until many of these things were lost or altered or simply changed, I don't believe I realized how much my sense of identity depended upon them. Even a change of landscape challenges my sense of who I am -- former Midwesterner turned Westerner carries with it deep connections to the physical world, a world we will all leave one day.
This is not a painless process. Or else I am not a particularly good Buddhist.
For my birthday six years ago, two dear friends bought me the horse of my dreams: an Irish cross-bred from County Waterford. He jumped the moon, had the temperment of a saint, and was the horse I wish I had twenty years ago when I was still riding rescued Thoroughbreds from the track that challenged my riding skills. Brave, smart and skilled, we did everything together but team penning (cows were scary). By my calculations, he and I would grow old together, and he would be the "Rufus" to my "Vivian."
I hadn't anticipated breaking my pelvis when a car sideswiped my bicycle last fall and tossed me onto the pavement like a rag doll. I would not allow myself to imagine not healing well enough to haul myself back up into the saddle again to ride my fine horse. I refused to accept that sitting in chair, let alone a saddle, would always be painful.
The woman who kept her companions "til death do we part' faced a pivotal decision. My lovely horse was too young and too fine to plop down in the pasture at home with nothing to do simply because parting with him felt like a broken promise. The young woman who had been riding him for me loved him, would offer him a great home, and they could go on together doing all the things I could no longer do. It was the right thing to do for him. It was hard. And now it is done.
We will both adjust, he more easily than I perhaps. But I don't have that nagging question "who am I if I am not a horsewoman?" And I don't feel an urgency to fill that gap. Gaps can be gifts as well. Of all the lessons I've taken on and with horses for the past fifty years, my "gift horse" gave me one of the most important. And it wasn't in the saddle.
He was a once-in-a-lifetime horse whose greatest gift turned out to be a lesson in letting go of the fear of letting go.