Under an ice-blue sky, my horse, Tesoro, embraced the cold. For a warmup, I rode him on a path around the property and glanced up to see what he was looking at—a man and his dog walking towards us on a public path just outside the fence line. My reins stayed loose with fingers firm, keeping a hold just in case. Tesoro carried his ears forward, eyes up, senses tuned to me and the man and dog just across the fence, curious about all of it, poised for flight if I asked for it.
Ride the horse you have today, an instructor told me once, meaning try a new move when he has the energy, the aptitude, the interest. Her advice meant capitalizing on the momentum of a good day or keeping a ride to basics if a horse felt stiff or unresponsive, just like my own nights of insomnia or days of feeling slower than usual.
The walk Tesoro offered that day was forward, soft snorts showing his interest in everything around him—the woods, the soft sky, the frosty path. “Nice day for a walk,” I said to the man, not only to be polite, but also because it eased Tesoro to hear a human speak, to match a sudden sight with a familiar sound.
“That’s a nice-looking horse,” the man answered, maybe trying to figure Tesoro out. Tall for a Quarter Horse, Tesoro’s reddish coat was outlined in black and his oversized eyes took in everything.
But my horse stayed focused, not shying even though I wouldn’t have blamed him in the chilled air. His energy carried over into the outdoor arena we eased toward afterward with a crisp trot around the perimeter. I followed Tesoro’s motion with my seat, lengthening his stride then bringing it in, the horse floating around the arena.
Some writing days start like that, too—a cold afternoon, snow on the mountain, a mug of hot tea within reach, a dog at my feet or a cat in my lap. Words spill across the screen, the virtual page—not all of them worth keeping, but enough for a start, enough to be happy with. If I find a writing stride that works, I’ll follow the momentum, seeing where it carries me.
Not every ride with Tesoro begins with a spark. On a warm day, for instance, Tesoro might start out slow until we find our stride. Front hooves dragging in the sand and rubber footing, his walk might be meandering rather than forward. On those days, I coax Tesoro to reach a little farther, throwing in a lateral movement or two to pique his interest. If his gaits feel stiff, we’ll stick to simple transitions for the rest of the ride, showing up for the effort good enough.
On slower writing days, I’ll assign myself a free write, submit an essay to a few journals. I remember working on a book about Texas dance halls, rotating between the research at its foundation, the narrative at its heart. Deadlines helped, like an editor waiting for manuscript chapters or a publicist needing jacket copy. As I kept moving, coaxing the words into motion, they came easier, coalescing into something I could connect to from the day before, the week before. Not all those words would be music, but there were enough to keep, enough to build on.
Tesoro and I finished our ride, the sun already dipping though it was midafternoon. He swung his strides in our cool-out walk, stretching his neck around to take the mint I offered. I smelled the peppermint all the way back to the barn, its warm sweetness mixing with alfalfa. After brushing Tesoro and putting on his blanket, I returned him to a pasture of frosted grass, the red horse searching for a carrot and ready for dinner, embracing what came next.
Uh-oh, I thought, when my riding instructor, Liz, announced which horse I’d be paired with for a lesson in February 2019. The pairing wasn’t unusual, but the lesson would be. The temperature in River Falls, Wisconsin, had dipped to -27 that week, the air winnowed to blades that glinted beneath pallid sunlight. By lesson time, the blades had dulled to -5, but the arena’s space heaters couldn’t soften the ground enough to prevent the horses from slipping, so instead of riding, I’d huddle in the barn, learning bodywork designed to strengthen my connection with the horses. I’d start with my frenemy: Penny.
I greeted Penny with the same enthusiasm I showed all of Seventh Farm’s horses, but her large, black eyes, as glossy as wet paint, glared when they met mine through the stall bars. I rolled open her door, inhaling the scent of pine shavings on her stall floor, and stroked her shoulder. She snapped her teeth near my face.
Though barely bigger than the school’s pony, Penny embodied a haughty fierceness that kept even the stoutest geldings at a distance. Her lustrous, ebony mane and tail made her a dazzling show horse; her unique balance of power and grace made her a champion fence-jumper. She was special, and she knew it. She expected others—horse and human alike—to rise to her level, and she disdained those who couldn’t. In the arena, she and I brought out the best in each other, but beyond its metal walls and wood rail, she hated me, and I resented her for it.
I led Penny into the barn aisle and asked her to stand still. She fidgeted, metal shoes tick-tocking on the concrete. When I ran the curry comb’s zigzagged metal teeth through her coat, which had thickened to a winter pelt as dark, rich, and warm as coffee, she stomped a foot and yanked her head up, throwing me off-balance. I sighed, not surprised but frustrated all the same.
With Liz’s coaching, I practiced manifesting an energy connection with Penny. I sensed it like a gold cord stretching from my core to her chest. As long as I poured effort into maintaining the connection, Penny tolerated my hand running over her hock and withers, my knuckles loosening knots in the muscles framing her spine, but the second I lost focus, the cord snapped, the energy dissipated, and Penny dodged my touch.
“That’s her sensitive spot,” Liz explained, when Penny met my effort to stroke her neck with nods of irritation. “She associates it with trauma because her former owners used huge needles to inject that spot repeatedly.”
A bulb lit in my head: When I groomed horses in the crossties, I started with their neck for each of three rounds, graduating from curry comb to stiff- and soft-bristle brushes. For Penny, that was like an acquaintance backed her into a corner, inquired about her most painful experience, and asked follow-up questions when she tried to evade. No wonder she hates me!
“Don’t back off, though,” Liz cautioned. “You have to work through trauma to build trust. Go slowly. Move away from the tough spots to give her a break; then return to them until she stops reacting. See?”
Liz demonstrated. Penny eased from leaning away, to flinching, to twitching, to tensing a muscle. Then she nickered, lowered her head, and sighed contentedly.
“It’s easier for me because Penny’s my horse and she sees me every day, but you can do it. Just don’t be surprised when you have to start over at square one next week. If you work on tough spots consistently, you’ll start at square two, then square three . . .”
Liz was right. Penny warmed toward me. Though I started at square one the following week, little by little, I honed my energy. Our connection improved, and so did our fence-jumping.
Penny taught me how to work through writing’s tough spots, too. Tempted to avoid difficult passages while I wrote my first book, I remembered Penny’s neck beneath my palm and eased into paragraphs, moving away and then returning until they yielded. Along with knotty passages, trauma I was writing about loosened its grip every time I dug in and massaged the material.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that Penny taught me about working through connection’s tough spots. More than any horse, she taught me about working through riding’s tough spots, too. Her reactivity and high standards forced me to stay calm and keep trying a new maneuver; she wouldn’t accommodate or acquiesce until my signal was precise. Once I got it right, she shined.
Similarly, each agent’s rejection of my book meant I started at square one. I applied Penny’s lesson without success until I paired it with insight sparked by another horse.
On a trail ride with Dewey, I followed his ears, his eyes. The sun warmed the hill we climbed, its sides spotted with Texas scrub oak and topped with a blue, stretched-out sky. Dewey stared toward a fence post, following a train of thought I couldn’t see.
“He’s a Wildlife Spotter,” said my friend Saralee, who owned Dewey, a Thoroughbred/Warmblood cross bred for jumping, and often shared him for rides. And while Dewey was a blast to ride in structured settings, his trot like a dancer, he was just as fun to take on the trails.
I followed his fox ears, his wide vision, to see what he was trying to show me until I saw it perched on a fence post—a bird, its unbelievable colors popping against the juniper trees. From a bright blue head to a red breast and lime-green wings, I’d never seen anything like it, wouldn’t have seen the bird at all if Dewey hadn’t slowed me down to look.
Both inside and outside the arena, Dewey reminded me to use my senses: sight, sound, smell, and touch—to experience the outdoors using a naturalist’s eyes and ears. The knocking against a tree leading to a Pileated woodpecker, rustling brush revealing a deer camouflaged in shadows, the sighing cedars of a coming rainstorm.
In writing about the natural world, horseback riding was also a way of borrowing Dewey’s perspective for 45 minutes or so in the saddle. Riding Dewey, or any horse, returned me to the role of prey: careful, watchful, and ready to move at a moment’s notice. And while seeing through equine eyes meant flight—a horse’s number-one defense—was always an option, it also meant other animals weren’t as frightened of us, wildlife reacting with watchfulness rather than alarm to a horse under saddle.
The rainbow bird waited on the fence post, its sunlit colors frozen in place. Dewey didn’t move, either, maybe sensing my inertia and lack of direction, content to stay in the moment. After a few more seconds, the bird drifted away on a velvet breeze, the horse and I transfixed before resuming our ride.
After unsaddling Dewey and putting him in the barn for his dinner, I drove home and emailed Saralee about what I’d seen, telling her Dewey had helped me spot a multicolored bird, vibrant beyond anything I’d seen. She wrote back right away with very little text, or no words I remember. What stuck out was the image she sent instead. On my screen was an image of a painted bunting, a songbird native to central Texas and the southeast whose population is decreasing, our sighting rare in more ways than one.
The next time I rode Dewey, I brushed his copper-penny coat until it gleamed, barn dust glittering in the sunlight. Dewey’s eyes and nostrils opened wide, his senses ready for grooming, saddling up, the route we’d take, inhaling the everyday. I slowed my steps, trying to do the same.
“Wait . . . Wait . . .,” Liz coached, as my horse cantered toward a fence.
My body rolled with his gait’s swells until we launched, but our landing compressed my lungs and pushed out a grunt. My breath trailed us like a scarf as ephemeral as October’s crisp, colorful backdrop.
“Nope!” Liz said. “Jump the fence again, but slow down and wait.”
“Slow down and wait” became my lessons’ recurring theme. A Type-A personality gifted me with laser-like focus on achieving my next goal, but it also burdened me with impatience. I craved speed, hungered for tangible indicators of progress. I longed to jump higher fences every week, but those desires weren’t conducive to success. Jumping depends on rhythm, precision, patience, and energy synchronized between horse and rider. So Liz paired me with Charlie.
Blessed with a Thoroughbred’s lanky legs and a Quarter Horse’s bulky muscle, Charlie sprang from haunches rounded with enough power to stretch his hide taut, make it flash like copper as he left the sand. He was sweet and willing enough to calm first-time riders one day and win ribbons for advanced jumpers the next, but he required more time and strides to arrive at a fence than I liked, so I anticipated, leaning forward when I thought his front feet would leave the ground. That meant I “jumped ahead”—a habit that would send me sailing over his ears if something went wrong.
The solution to jumping ahead was patience—staying present, enjoying the journey to the fence as much as the thrill of leaping it. When I focused on process instead of product, I matched Charlie’s trajectory, and we floated through landings.
I had to learn patience in writing, too. My book required more time and steps to arrive at publication than I liked, but being forced to match publishers’ glacial pace proved invaluable. Modifying my proposal for the next submission while waiting for a response to the previous one revealed flaws in the manuscript that I’d sailed past in my rush to publish.
After rejections from several agents I thought a perfect match, I went back to square one, broke chapters into their components and moved them around to find the best fit. I left the process open-ended, determined to slow down and wait until the manuscript “lifted off.” I watched sections come together like magnets attracted by natural energy instead of cogs pounded into place by my will.
Attending to process was its own reward, but it also granted me a publisher whose mission and vision matched what I’d dreamed as my book’s trajectory. Our synchronized energy conjured images of a gold cord and inspired the book’s cover image: horse and rider silhouetted in mid-leap, present for each moment of the process while reaching for their next goal.
About the Authors
Gail Folkins often writes about her deep roots in the American West. She is the author of Light in the Trees, a 2016 Foreword INDIES nature category finalist, and Texas Dance Halls: A Two-Step Circuit. Her essay “A Palouse Horse” was a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2010.
Lisa Whalen is a writer whose debut book, Stable Weight: A Memoir of Hunger, Horses, and Hope, was published by Hopewell Publications in 2021. Her writing has also appeared in An Introvert in an Extrovert World; The Simpsons’ Beloved Springfield; Introvert, Dear; and Adanna, among other publications. Whalen has a Ph.D. in postsecondary and adult education and an M.A. in creative and critical writing. She teaches composition, creative writing, literature, and journalism at North Hennepin Community College, where she was selected Minnesota College Faculty Association Educator of the Year in 2019. In her spare time, she is an equestrian and volunteer for the Animal Humane Society. Learn more at her website and follow her on social media @LisaIrishWhalen.