The summer I was 52, I spent being 12 again.
It’s sweet when life gives you second chances. And when that chance has to do with horses, well, that’s twice as sweet.
I was a horse-crazy little girl. Unfortunately, I was born into a military family, and numerous moves made riding difficult at times. However, on one of those moves we lived in Fairfax, Virginia. I took lessons at a riding stable deep in Virginia horse country, an hour away from our home, and progressed as steadily as one could while riding one day a week.
Once when I was at those stables, I saw a girl my age, around twelve, cleaning out a stall. She held a pitchfork, and a wheelbarrow was stationed across the stall door. Dickie, my favorite mount, was tied outside. I wanted to be that girl; I wanted to be holding that pitchfork, be a part of that stable, making life pleasant for horses, not just showing up once a week to ride.
Several decades later, I lived on the opposite side of the country in the California Sierra Nevada foothills. One day I signed up my kids to take riding lessons at a local equestrian center. I watched two of those lessons, then approached the owner. “Anne,” I said, “would it be okay, I mean, can I take lessons with my kids?” I tried desperately (and probably unsuccessfully) to keep the pleading tone out of my voice.
The answer was an enthusiastic, “Of course.”
Although I’d had horses several times in my life, I hadn’t owned a horse in over fifteen years. I wasn’t even sure I could get up on one. That worry ended when my mount for my first lesson was Rosie, who was 13.2 hands tall, a pony, very easy to swing up on. Months passed, and the kids and I improved our riding skills, became more educated about horses, and enjoyed being at the stables.
About a year later, a note appeared on the bulletin board – the Saturday stall cleaner needed someone to take over her duties for a couple of months while she recovered from surgery. Hmm, I wondered if I could do that. I could offset some of the money we spent on lessons. And I thought back to that day when I was twelve and longed to be the one cleaning stalls. Did I really want to clean stalls now? At my age?
I read that note for a couple of weeks before I brought the subject up to Anne. “Do you think I could cover stall cleaning duties on Saturdays?” I asked. Again, an enthusiastic, “Of course.”
So here I was, on the plus side of 50, with a job cleaning stalls, shoveling, well, you-know-what. Although there were other adults who did this, I would by far be the oldest. Also, my normal work takes place in front of a computer; I’d never before had a job where I was a laborer. And the pay, although generous by industry standards, was at a rate I’d hadn’t seen in decades. My husband thought I was going off my rocker. Maybe I was.
I showed up the first day in worn jeans, an old t-shirt, and work gloves. I found that shoveling manure and shavings into a cart was not difficult. However, getting it out was.
In the first pen, I loaded the wheelbarrow to the brim with wet shavings and manure. Then I had to muscle the full cart out of the pen, not an easy task. There was a slope up to the top of the manure pile. I got stuck half way up and had to retreat. I made a run at that pile and barely got the cart to the top. Then I tried to upend it to dump it; it wouldn’t budge. I had to turn around, squat, grab the lower edge of the cart, and, straining away, shove upwards with my legs. The cart tipped over, and finally it was empty. One stall down. After that, I learned to take half-loads.
Although I never learned to love cleaning stalls, there were parts of my job that were pure joy: hearing horses nicker in the cool of the morning when I showed up to feed, visiting with others who loved horses, learning how to wrap legs and evaluate horses’ health and wellness. And it was definitely a physical job; some days I was so tired by the end of my chores, I could barely hold it together to drive home.
But, I was spending full days at the barn, which I would have loved to have done when I was twelve and was pretty darn great at 52. I could visit with others who loved horses; I built new muscles; I watched Anne work magic with green horses; I would listen as Anne taught others, something I found particularly valuable for my own riding for the repetition of the basics. The payback for cleaning stalls was all I’d hoped for.
I can’t say I was sorry when the regular stall cleaner came back to work since my back was beginning to complain. But I felt I was able to have an experience that I had desperately wanted when I was twelve. What a sweet second chance!
Dianne Chapman McCleery lives in the Sierra Nevada Foothills. She loves all things horses and particularly enjoys learning body work techniques to help improve horses’ lives.