“Spur, spur, spur! Goddammit, Holly! Run him into the Goddamned fence!”
“He’s trying as hard as he can! He’s scared and confused. Can’t you see?” I scream (in my head).
“Spur him!” Yells my horse trainer, Ray.
“I can’t do this! If I keep pushing him he is going to run us into the fence.”
It’s 1989. The “us” as in “run us into the fence” to which I am referring is my champion stock horse, “Chances One” and I. It is 1989. I am 16 years old and we are at a nationally ranked horse show in Northern California. One of the horse shows I dreamed of competing in when I was a little girl; with three arenas and stadium the size of a professional football stadium. The kind that are a week long and attended by the rich and careless. Except for me and my parents. We don’t belong here.
Well, we do belong here because I am the top rider in the state of California and have been since I was fourteen. I should say that I have actually carried the titles of the #1 rider and #1 horse and rider combination in the state of California since I was fourteen; I have been the best rider forever. Strange statement I know. Full of gloat and out of control ego, right? Not from where I stand. It’s just true. It’s a knowing thing. And not just an intellectual understanding that I have the sensitivity, technical skills to communicate with a horse to encourage him to do what I want him to do. I have always known it, felt it and communicated it to the horses I have known; clearly evidenced by the description above of my spurring into Chance’s sweating and trembling sides.
Sarcasm is my friend. It steps in when traumatic memories come up in detail. It protects me from the helpless hole of grief and regret and helps me to get it out of my memory and into my computer’s.
Slam! Chance’s nose hits the fence; I feel his head and neck absorb the energy as the weight of his powerful body folds underneath me. I feel the saddle lift up behind me as his hindquarters slide under him and his back curves up. I hear the breath being forced from his lungs—or is it mine? My legs fly forward with my feet in perfect position in my beautiful, solid sliver-plated stirrups. Even my saddle seems to cry out as the leather squeaks from being torqued in ways it’s never been before. I can feel my heart breaking and I can feel Chance breaking. We are now broken. The we, the us, the him the me.
The sound is unimaginable. A sound that literally brings the entire stadium to a standstill. Horse people know this shit. If you here a sound like that, someone is hurt. Horses are powerful, fragile animals and people are fucked-up enough to exploit it. When a horse panics or loses control or has finally has enough and fights back out of self-protection, it sounds like this.
Chance is frozen underneath me. Trembling but I can feel his feet rooted to the ground. We are about four feet from the gate because we have literally bounced off it.
I am numb.
“Am I shaking or is that him shaking both of us?”
My mind is spinning and my thoughts feel like they are racing but in slow motion. Does that make sense? Almost like I have two minds; two parallel thought processes. One which is in control, takes over and manages everything and the other one-the real me-which is a confusing mass of pain, emotion, and confusion. There is a roar in my ears. I can feel everyone in the stadium looking at me.
My trainer is dumbfounded; at least he has stopped yelling at us. I am crying and can’t help it. Tears are streaming down my face as I just sit there feeling my “Sweet Boy” tremble underneath me.
I gave him the nickname Sweet Boy the first time he stuck his tongue out of the side of his mouth while I was brushing him. He stuck his tongue out and I grabbed it playfully and said “silly.” He quickly pulled back into his mouth and jerked his head up and away a little. I giggled and continued to brush him. His ears flicker and, blip, out it came again. I grabbed it again and wiggled it side to side and giggled and we were on. It was one of many playful and silly games he played with me in such a sweet and innocent way. It’s difficult to describe him with words—Sweet boy just seemed to capture it. Sweet, innocent, open, young and playful because he had never been abused—until I abused him.
My mind is trying to function but I can’t think. I realize that I am frozen too. What have I done? I am screaming in my head so loudly that the sound is deafening. The tears have stopped and now I am feeling anger well up inside me.
“I am done! I quit! Fuck this! I quit! I am not doing this anymore!”
I look down and see that Chance is shaking so hard that his front legs are buckling at the knees. The shock of realizing that he may collapse breaks me out of my self-absorbed, mental temper tantrum.
My trainer has saunters over trying very hard not to let show how emotionally shaken he really is.
“What happened? Really? You made me push him too far, that’s what happened.” I just mumble something incoherent about, “I don’t know” and “sorry.”
In the distance, I hear the click of a horses hooves-the echoing sound made when a horse hits one if his feet into the other-especially when they are shod. It’s one of the myriad sounds that one only hears in certain circumstances around horses-like at a big show. But it means that the gawking has subsided and people are getting back to punishing their own horses instead of watching me abuse mine.
“I don’t know about this horse” Ray says, shaking his head. “I mean, I have never seen a horse that was stupid enough to actually run into a fence.” He laughs. I feel the rage well up inside me.
“Let’s get you out of here, Sweet boy” I say to Chance. I gently squeeze him with my legs and “ask” him to take a step. Horse people differentiate between “asking” and “making” a horse do something. When a trainer says, “ask him to…” what they really mean is to give him the least perceptible signal possible and let’s see how “trained” he is. What that means to the horse is “respond to a gentle touch or you will get pain until you do.” Not always physical pain, many time it’s manipulative and emotional pain. Remember horse are powerful but fragile. Oh, and the “run him into the fence” isn’t meant literally. What horse trainers have learned is that horses are keen, sensitive animals that learn really fast and instead of working with a horse, the whole idea of “showing” is to show who has the best “control” over his or her horse. So kicking my heals into Chance’s sides to force him to the fence was based on the premise that either he or I would pull back at the end and we wouldn’t actually hit the fence. Makes complete sense. That is, unless you have forged a relationship with your horse so that he truly trusts you not to do anything that would hurt him.
Ray reaches out to put his hand on Chance’s nose and as he does, I follow his hand with my gaze. Chance’s face is wet with sweat. There is foam sticking above his eye where he has flung it from his mouth in the chaos of our “schooling” session. His eyes are open so wide that I can see the whites of them and his nostrils are flaring with stress. He moves his head away from Ray.
I feel Chance’s recoil and fear in my gut and rage wells up from it.
my thoughts are out of control with anger.
And then…poof. The anger is gone. Just gone.
Where did all that rage go? It just evaporated-poof.
“He is hopeless, just take him back to the barn.” Says Ray.
“Okay, I will. I’m sorry.” I say.
I turn my attention back to Chance and hear myself say again, “I’m sorry, Ray” mumble, mumble-“Sorry.”
I gently squeeze Chance again because he hasn’t moved. “Come on, you’re alright.”
He tries again and what I see and feel breaks my heart. As I gently squeeze him again and encourage him to take a small step, he tries. I feel his body move forward and to the right a little. His right knee buckles and we just stop. His foot is not moving. We just hang there. Him, rooted to the ground, trying to will his foot to take a step, his knee quaking under the weight of all of this. Me hanging in this floating space as the realization of what I have just done to him sinks in-like a dripping faucet in the midst of a roaring waterfall. Those two minds. Two of me. One who is the feeling, knowing, sensitive, communicative, connected me. The me who Chance knows and trusts. The me who has somewhere along the way lost the ability to say no, to stand up for what is right, to stand up Chance. And the other me who always takes control in these circumstances and covers my weaknesses. But now that voice has become my accuser. That voice has become my abuser.
Two minds competing for access to my soul.
The quiet dwindling, dripping of me, getting smaller and weaker. Drip. Drip, “what have I done?”
And the roar of my victimized self growing stronger and gaining control over the conscious me.
Roar! “He is afraid of you!”
Drip, “I didn’t mean it. I wanted to say no but I couldn’t.”
Roar! “You ran him into a fucking fence!”
Drip, “I tried to stop. I didn’t know how to say ‘no.’”
Drip, drip, drip. “I am sorry Sweet Boy.”
Roar! “You just broke him.”
Drip, roar, I, you, I’m sorry, you, sorry, sorry , sorry…
This was the earliest clear memory I have of being a victim. It is 2016. I am 53 and through years of self-work, counseling, therapy, grief work, and a bachelors, masters and PhD in psychology, I have, finally begun to retrace my life to begin to understand where and how I learned to be a victim by being a surrogate bully.