It is said in some cultures that there are four spiritually significant relationships with women in every man's life. One represents the mother, one the daughter, one the sister and one the grandmother. It is also said out West that horses are much like women. I am sure it is safe to turn that around for the ladies and say the same thing holds for them as they find their spiritual brothers, sons, fathers and grandfathers. It must be remembered that prior to the sixteenth century, there were no horses in North America for the men to compare women to. I reckon they likely compared them to the buffalo and occasionally to the mountain lion. Men were likely compared to the wolf and occasionally to the bear.
These are symbolic attempts to explain and understand something that is inexplicable. Every group of humans has a different version but the intent is the same as is the necessity. Anything we could describe in a book and fit in a chapel couldn't be what I call God. If we could actually understand a man or a woman and the bond between them, we would have destroyed that bond, which is rooted in the mystery. We cannot do autopsies on living specimens. Dead things cannot really teach us anything.
When I was a toddler in Texas, my Mom took me to visit a friend of hers. The lady had a couple of horses and I was put upon the bare back of a mother horse while the two ladies chatted. It was in a small pasture and as I clung to two chubby fistfuls of brown mane, the mare walked off slowly to the far end of the enclosure with the younger colt. I felt happy and secure on the massive beast and somehow I knew it was a mommy and gentle by nature.
When they got to where the grass was fat, they began to crop the thick shoots. I had been riding way up high on the neck because my little legs were too short to straddle its shoulders and the more hair I had in my hands, the better I felt. The third time she lowered her head to nip some grass, I slid all the way down, somersaulted over her ears and landed in a patch of bunch-grass. She nickered and tenderly nosed me back upright and continued eating nearby. I couldn't get back on nor could I find my way back to my mother.
Seven or eight years later I went rent-a-horse riding in Louisiana. I was with a party of four or five and I had brought my own money from saved earnings and my newly purchased fancy leather wallet. It had oak leaf stampings and was laced all along the edges. Inside were some irreplaceable baseball cards and such treasures. While trotting along the sun-baked blue clay grassland, it popped out of the ass-pocket of my jeans. That's when I first discovered why people rode “English”, though I never heard that term until many years later.
The first gal I married had a horse in her yard. It was in the Nevada desert and the first time I rode it was the first time I had ever visited her house. Her father was a retired Air Force Colonel and the way I met him was unique. The gal let me ride the horse and warned me that she hated boys because her older brother had been cruel to it. She said it would try all sorts of tricks. It would try to wipe my legs into cactus and bolt from a standstill.
Turned out she was right. In a few moments the filly got to sense I was OK and settled down and let me canter to and fro in the 40 Celsius alkali morning. A dust-cloud coming from the road way out by Sunrise Mountain betrayed the return of the Colonel, whom I was anxious to shake hands with. The horse was anxious too. As the Cadillac got closer both of us could see the fresh bale of hay poking out of the lashed down trunk.
The car pulled up in front of the entrance to the house and the Colonel opened a big sliding glass door and went inside from the patio. As I rode up to the patio where my gal was waiting, I thought what a wasteful man the Colonel was for leaving the door open and letting all the air-conditioning out. I kept this to myself. When I reigned up by the patio and prepared to dismount, the horse bolted into the house through the door. I whacked my sun-addled noggin on the door-frame hard enough to shake the house.
To the sound of the girl's convulsive laughter on the patio, I tried to adjust my eyes to the darkness inside the house. Outdoors in the white sand, my pupils had gone down to pin-points. I wore neither sun-glasses or hats in those days as I had all my hair and it was shoulder length. I didn't like people whose eyes I couldn't see and didn't ever hide my own. Presently I could see.
We were alongside a bar. The Colonel was giving a sugar-cube to the horse and had already poured two Scotch on the Rocks. He reached over the bar, shook my hand and handed me a glass. Not too long later, that man was my father-in-law. My eighteen year old wife was a sweet happy creature who played guitar and sang like an angel. She couldn't make toast or boil water and you could say she fit the archetype of the spiritual daughter mentioned at the beginning of this essay. She grew up and went away.
About seven years later, I was invited to go horse riding with a group of bank employees in Canada. I was the new guy and was asked if I could pick up one of the other employees to bring to the ranch. She was a pretty little gal I had glanced at more than a few times at work but we hadn't ever spoken much. At the corral we all chose our horses according to our level of skill. I remember asking for one that could run, although I was only going on my fourth ride ever.
We all went as a group slow as molasses along a salt-marsh road until we could see a beach. When the horse ridden by the gal who I had driven in my car smelled the water it took off like a rocket. My horse sprang into action and gave chase. I didn't know how to ride that fast but the horse and the moment showed me how. I felt like I had been doing it all my life. I looked back at the others who were almost too small to see, such was the distance we had covered.
I turned around and focused on the jet-black braids of the gal I was chasing and I caught up. When we got back to the corral, we found out that the two horses were lovers. I had randomly chosen the male and the gal who became my second wife and the mother of my first born son had randomly chosen the mare. Five years later we were married. She had a burr under her saddle that I couldn't fix and I had to turn her loose for both our sakes about five years after that.
Once her and I had to pick up someone at the airport in Vancouver and before I had cleared the parking lot, my old Volkswagen van died. The lady we had just picked up hopped out without a word and began to help me push start the ailing vehicle while my wife hurled verbal abuse. I was already gone in spirit but hadn't figured out just how or when to sort out the unhealthy state of my affairs. Soon I got my courage up and made my irrevocable decision.
After I was moved out and officially single, I wanted to go horse riding. I invited my brother-in-law, his two children and the lady who had helped me push start the van. We went to another coastal ranch and all chose our horses. It was a beautiful sunny day and everyone was having a good time. There were several miles of dirt road to walk along before we could run the horses on the soft sand.
I remember asking the farmer for a horse that had the equivalent of power steering and brakes. That is, I wanted to control it with light touches on the reins and not have to work too hard. While we sauntered down the road a bunch of cars came from the North, heading for the beach. My niece was complaining that her horse was too slow, too fast, stupid and that she hadn't really wanted to be there at all. My brother-in-law was trying to encourage her and her horse started to go home. He rode back to try and get her going the right way and my nephew was just minding his own along with the woman I had invited.
The cars got close and as we were along side a machine-cut deep drainage ditch, I suggested that we all rein in our horses til the vehicles passed by. I gave a light backward tug to stop my horse. It started to dance nervously. I tugged again, very lightly and it went into reverse. I remembered the power steering and brakes and lightened my tugs.
As the mount started to do a crazy dance there beside the ditch, I had to give a good hard tug on the leather. My horse complied and backed herself right into the ditch. It all happened fast. When I got my bearings, I was pressed into the soft mud of the side of the canal by the shoulder of the horse and staring right into its eye which was as big as a pie plate. My head was about eighteen inches above the duckweed covered water. I began to laugh when I realized that I could have been crushed in a drier ditch or drowned in a deeper one. It was a good day but I wasn't to die.
The horse was good and sunk into the soft muck as was I and the top of the ditch was so high above both our heads all we could see was a ribbon of blue lined with blackberry bushes. Way down was a massive culvert where a road crossed the ditch. I could hear my niece crying, my brother-in-law and nephew calling and the woman I'd invited asking if I was alive. I couldn't see any of them.
I tried to calm the stricken horse so it didn't struggle too much. Every time it did I risked getting the breath squeezed out of me and the animal became mired deeper into the mud. When she was sunk to her armpits, I managed to get clear. I couldn't crawl out the vertical sides, so I began to cut weeds and overhanging brambles. I shouted up for my woman friend to go get the farmer.
While she was gone I managed to pile armloads of brush in front of the horse and then I clawed a few crude steps onto the boggy sides of the canal. I finally got to where I could reach the off-road side and up there I cut brush which I threw into the ditch. I clawed two huge steps and tried to pull the horse up onto that side. It almost worked. She saw the step and gave a huge effort to scramble onto the pile of twigs and brambles.
She got her feet on the raft and lunged at the first step and broke through the second one. Now temporarily free she started down the canal. I went back into the ditch and kept her moving until we reached the culvert. There we stayed trading stories until my gal friend returned with a Dutchman who came cussing in two languages.
He hitched up a big chain around the horses neck and dragged her out onto the field with his four by four. He returned my money and confessed that that particular horse had spooked three times that week and wound up in the ditch each time. As the fragrant mud dried on my clothes I laughed at my good fortune at not having worn my Tony Lama boots. I had worn old carpenter boots instead. That turned out to be my first date with the lady I have been married to for the past twenty-four years and the mother of my second son.
I spent thirty years delivering mail for Canada Post. Toward the end, in my last year I had a run in with technology. It was Christmas season and I had signed for a package so that the recipient wouldn't have to stand in a long line to claim it. The mailboxes at that building were very secure and the customer was very happy. The sender, in Japan was not. They had tracked the delivery on-line and were concerned by my signature. Rather than contacting their friend, like in the old days, they contacted Canada Post. After 29 years with an unblemished work record I was to be suspended for three days. No big deal to some men but to me it was devastating. A crack started to grow in my calm exterior.
It was not from a compulsive desire for perfection that I was crushed, rather it was from shame and frustration. I am a father and learned long ago that my sons listen not to what I say but carefully note everything I do. Therefore, the way I taught them was by example and this negligence born of becoming complacent over the many years at the same job was a horrible example in my books. Under this was a torrent of unexpressed childhood emotion to do with undeserved punishment suffered at the hands of my father.
I went into the little room and took my medicine like a man. When I came out, I knew I had fallen into a deep emotional ditch. A switch has been flipped. It was sudden, debilitating and my wife and family couldn't fix it nor could they pull me out of my dark. I was going to explode in frustrated rage and then drown in tears, there at work on that day and at that moment. All that was required was the tiniest little push. The first person I saw was a gal I didn't know at all.
She had worked beside me for a short while and we had rarely spoken. I was like a turtle completely out of its shell tight-rope walking with a stick of dynamite and the fuse was lit. I was sunk in mud and going deeper fast. I was a hairsbreadth away from being a nonfunctional fool. The young woman asked me something and when I finished my reply, it was 7:30 PM. I cannot remember all of what I said but the story began at a point when I was about four years old.
Within a few days, she knew more about me than I did. I discovered much about myself that I hadn't known. Her presence kept predators away for the next year while I found my feet. Every bad road I'd ever known lay all around me beckoning. Slowly, I was led out of the ditch. She fed me carrots, listened to my stories and showed respect to me, my sons and my wife. She cut branches, pulled on my reins and made steps. Why she did is a precious mystery. She acted totally unselfishly and with honesty and dignity.
I couldn't say if she was my spiritual sister, daughter, mother or grandmother. I shall never forget her as long as I live and there is a room in my heart that belongs only to her. I was sitting on my porch one day after I retired and glanced at a tin full of river sand I was using as an ashtray. It was originally full of almond milk powder. There was a picture of a pretty lady playing a lute and a logo with a horse. The writing was in Chinese and I recognized one of the characters. It was the same as the family name of the young woman who had helped me and it translated as “horse.”
There is no adequate way to repay the kindness of certain souls who act beyond our understanding. I have been blessed that way. I stand in awe, humbled, with every reason to be honest, to be brave, to be gentle and to be strong. The bar in my life has been set mighty high by horses and by women. I write songs, I write poems and I tell my stories.
I wouldn't trade my wife for the world. She has stood by me through every catastrophe and celebrated every triumph. I could never find enough words to chronicle the happiness, peace and loyalty she gives me. I wouldn't have recognized my beloved wife when I saw her if not for the women I'd known before her. I also wouldn't have gotten back up to fight that day at the Post Office had it not been for a brave, wise, strong and kind woman named horse who helped me out of a ditch and sent me on home. This essay is for her.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.