Riding out life's storms, one trail at a time
It was hard to sit on the edge of a bench and watch the horses and ponies trot lazily around the sandy riding ring. I especially watched the aged thoroughbred and her young mount - my 7-year-old daughter.
"Look, Mommy, I'm posting," Christa cried triumphantly as she passed me. The horse probably wasn't thrilled about her uneven up-and-down movements, but I couldn't deny the joy my daughter's progress was bringing her. The fact is, I was beginning to want to ride again.
A year later, we were taking lessons together, and then there was no turning back. In steady succession we free-leased a horse, bought one, added a pony, and got a horse trailer and truck. So began an adventure that made my daughter and me close friends.
We explored the trails near our house, coming in rosy-cheeked on fall afternoons to talk horses over a bowl of warm popcorn. We did barn chores together, went to tack shops, cheered for each other at shows, and even shared the exhilaration of having our team win a local pace hunt.
But when I heard that Acadia National Park on the coast of Maine offered a bring-your-horse campground and unmatched trail riding on the Rockefellers' old carriage roads, I began to dream of a mother-daughter experience like no other. Christa, then an ambitious 12-year-old, was equally enthusiastic.
On our day of departure we packed the truck with everything from hay and tack to pup tents and a one-burner gas stove. I don't know who was more excited as we climbed aboard - the two of us or our quick- stepping mares.
Trailering the horses 7-1/2 hours to Acadia required teamwork and alertness. My daughter eagerly accepted her share of responsibility. She kept an eye on the trailer, checked on the horses while I pumped gas, and navigated me through busy coastal routes.
We arrived at the park in time to take a sunset ride to the summit of Day Mountain. The beauty of the view - a pink-tinted panorama of waves and sky - brought us to a reverent halt.
While the horses bedded down in box stalls, we climbed into our tents and fell asleep to nature's lullabies within earshot of each other's voices.
Over the next several days, we did a lot of fun things together. We ate lobster at a harborside restaurant, enjoyed a nature cruise, explored tidepools, and cooked a mushy one-pan dinner on the little gas stove set precariously on the rocky ledges of the shore. Best of all, we shared the joy of doing together what each of us most loved doing - riding.
We galloped side by side, had trotting races, and walked along for miles, slipping in and out of carefree conversation. We also shared the pleasure of new discoveries.
For example, when we spotted wild blueberries, Christa vaulted off her pony, exclaiming at the abundance of the ripe fruit. I have a picture of her kneeling, one arm looped through the reins, her hands buried in the mountaintop's low, leafy texture.
We took lots of pictures of each other with our horses. I wish someone had taken one of us as we walked up a grassy hill and my daughter slid her arm around my waist. I would soon need a reminder of that love, because I was expecting another child, and the arrival of the baby girl seemed to strain the relationship between 13-year-old Christa and me.
I seldom rode after that, and Christa had her own full slate of activities. She became more independent and reluctant to open up to me - perhaps because I spent less time with her. There were arguments, tears, and sometimes an aching, on my part at least.
But our love for each other proved strong enough to ride out the storm. Within a year our relationship began to grow warm again. Now - a decade later - we share not only memories, but new experiences, spiritual discoveries, and a deeply rooted affection. (An added joy is seeing how devoted Christa and her little sister are to each other.)
It's hard to say how sitting in the saddle alongside each other all those years contributed to the bond I feel with my now grown-up daughter. But I think that somehow it did. It's as if we've changed horses but are riding together again - on the wings of ideas.
That's a metaphor we both understand, from the heels of our boots to our leather-stained, dirt-caked hands.