Over the course of my life I have been blessed with the friendship and the love of many wonderful beings, both two-legged and four-legged. One of the great loves of my life was Nardo, my seventeen hand Hanoverian Grand Prix dressage horse. I’ll never forget the first time we met. My riding coach had been looking in Europe for a horse for me. One day he called me up and said, your horse just became available. Meet me in Massachusetts to look at him. So, off we went. When we arrived at the facility, my coach was standing next to the most imposing being I had ever seen. Jet black, huge, with eyes like an eagle. Fierce expression. Kind of scary, actually. I trusted my coach, so we tacked him up, and they brought him into the indoor arena, and I got on. Well. I had ridden a number of horses in my life, including my thoroughbred. I had been on a number of trained dressage horses. This horse made all of them feel like going from a jeep with four flat tires to a Rolls Royce. I had never experienced anything remotely like him. The sheer power of him, the grace, was unbelievable. He was an internationally famous competition horse, having been competed by the German Silver Medalist, winning 72 Grand Prix competitions in Germany. That’s a lot. There was no doubt in my mind that this was my horse. We bought him. That began the most incredible love affair of my life.
Dressage is an enormously demanding sport, the training of both the horse and rider is arduous. I worked out, and did weight training to strengthen my body. Horses are big animals, about 1500 lbs. Riding a horse is not like riding a bicycle. A bicycle can’t decide to take off with its rider. Bucking. Riding at this level was a huge commitment of time, energy, and money. One I was prepared to make. Even though I was working in the restaurant business seven days a week, I could get to the barn at 10 every day to ride.
What very few people knew about at that time in my life was what was happening to me in my marriage. I have shared openly that I am a survivor of domestic violence. I want to be careful about how much I share in terms of details, to avoid triggering anyone reading my posts who may still have unhealed trauma. Suffice it to say that it is a miracle that I am still on the planet. The abuse was both physical and emotional. Going to the barn every day was my sanctuary, my safe place.
When I first got Nardo, I sent him up to Maine, to my coach, until I could take ten days off to go up to learn how to ride him. When I arrived, my coach sat me down for a talk. He told me that Nardo, while being very well trained, was also, in his opinion, extremely dangerous. He told me not to go into his stall without a whip, because he was likely to attack me. Whoa. Oh boy. Even my vet felt that way. During the pre-purchase exam, he called me, and asked me if I was sure I wanted to buy Nardo. He said he didn’t want to get too close to him, but would X-Ray his feet as long as two grooms were holding him.
Now, as a battered woman, there was no way in hell I was bringing a whip into a stall with a horse. Not happening. On the other hand, I’m not stupid. Big horse, lots of teeth, big hooves, equals serious injuries or worse. My solution: Food. When it came time to groom him, I brought a big leather satchel in with me, full of grooming supplies, plus carrots, apples, peppermints and sugar cubes. That first day, we sized each other up, him glaring at me suspiciously, me inching my way into the stall. He bared his teeth at me and lunged. I was ready. I shoved a carrot into his mouth. He stood there with the carrot sticking out of his mouth like a cigar, blinking. I could hear him thinking. ” This is not how it goes. I bite you, you hit me, it’s war.” Me: ” Dude. Sorry. I’m not doing that. Want a mint?” He was puzzled, but ate the carrot. I gave him an apple, next. Then I put the open satchel on the floor next to him. He stuck his head in it, and I proceeded to groom him. By the third day, I could walk in and put the satchel down, and he went right for it, stuffing his face.
As time went on, it got better. He stopped threatening me, but didn’t fully trust me not to hit him or hurt him. Then he got sick. He impacted. ( Think very serious, painful constipation bordering on obstruction, sometimes necessitating surgery). The vet was called, he was hooked up to an I.V., to hydrate him, plus some pain medications were given. I would not leave him. I sat outside his stall on a milk crate for about six hours. The door was open. Then it happened. He eased forward, grabbing my sweater over my shoulder, and held on. He leaned his head on me, and sighed. He completely relaxed. He got it. He had a mom. Someone who loved him. Someone who would never betray his trust. Ever. We stayed like that, just the two of us, alone in the barn. It was a turning point for him. He let me in. This fierce being, who had never been able to trust humans, trusted ME. I was humbled.
From that point on, when I arrived at the barn he would make that soft nicker that they do. The only way he could show his affection was to head-butt me across the stall. I could hug him, and he would grudgingly tolerate it. To a point. If I held on for too long, I would hear him say, ” Okay. That’s enough. Let go. Show a little dignity, already”.
By that time, I had gotten a divorce. I was in therapy, processing a lot. I had serous PTSD from the abuse. I cried a lot, had flashbacks and nightmares. And every day I went to the barn. And every day he was waiting for me. And slowly, a little at a time, he rebuilt me. He gave me back my self-respect. He helped me find my warrior woman again. I realized I didn’t need a softer, sweeter horse. The warrior in him pushed the warrior in me to come alive. He was my best friend. I could tell him everything. I could lean on him and cry, if I needed to. Or I could get up on him, and together we could fly. The power under me was phenomenal. He was thunder. He was lightning. He was a dragon in the body of a horse, and I became a dragon rider, because of him.
He was never tame. He was trained, yes, but his spirit remained wild. He helped me to reclaim my wildness. I realized that like him, I had been beaten, but not broken. That, like him, my spirit was still wild. Like him, I was the thunder, the Lightning, the storm. The dragon.
Nardo lived to be 30 years old. We had 16 years together. 16 years of joy, laughter, and love. He is always with me, every day of my life. I miss you, dude. I love you. Thank you for saving me.