“He’s my Heart Horse,” she says by way of introduction. A hush falls over the room. Or maybe that’s just her expectation; that all within earshot will understand that this particular horse is different, a cut above the standard elite perfection of a horse, and hearing a horse introduced as such, that we will share that owner’s same reverence.
I’m not sure when the term Heart Horse came into our vernacular, but I understand the intention. It’s the designation we give to a special horse in our lives. No, even more special than other horses, even with the understanding that, sure, all horses are special. But no, really, this horse is especially special among the special. He is special-est.
To be clear, everyone tells me that their horse is special. He’s incredibly smart. He has a way of connecting that is so different. He is so sensitive. No, they assure me, so very much deeper, sweeter, smarter… We mention Heat Horse as if it’s a breed. There is a bliss in playing favorites with horses. It’s reverence, maybe to the point of obsession. In our world, that’s a common feeling.
And a good part of the time, the Heart Horse mentioned is already dead. There, I said it. Once they’ve passed, and moved on to legend status, this horse who was spooky when he was younger with a tendency to throw his head and chew wood, acquires a halo. I love that we love them so hard.
Lately, to my perverse delight, I’ve been meeting people who hate the term, Heart Horse, too. They say the term with a sarcastic tone and a tilt of the head.
I understand that side of it. Sometimes if I’m tired and someone is telling me, as if I’m a rock, that their horse is special, I mutter something under my breath. “They all are.” For some of us, loving horses isn’t selective, our passion isn’t individualized.
Some of us believe in soulmates, too, and that’s fine. I’m relieved I don’t because I’d hate to think there’s just one special love in this world of wild change and tragic loss. I have to believe in second chances. Or as many chances as it takes.
Besides, soulmates and Heart Horses are kind of depressing if you aren’t the first one to die. Does some part of us have to die with them, like cultures who bury live wives with their dead husbands? Must we bury our love for horses with our Heart Horse? Must we lessen other horses to maintain their special memory?
Sometimes people refer to a certain horse of mine as my Heart Horse. It’s not a term I use, but it feels strangely intimate to hear his name in another’s mouth. His name wasn’t unusual at all, but it takes my breath for a moment; the common becomes sacred. Did think I alone owned that name?
And then I flip to the other side and it leaves me unsettled and defensive for my other horses. For all the horses in rescue and the horses I haven’t met yet. Unsettled for a mare I would call my Heart Horse, though I knew her only the last few days of her life. Unsettled for Heart Horses that I trained briefly on their journey. Heart Horses every bit as important to me as horses I owned for thirty years.
Why do I care about this silly term? Because to many of us give up on horses because the new horse doesn’t live up to the lost legend. Change is ridiculously hard. A new horse partnership doesn’t start off where the last one ended, so we’re confronted with all that we lost each ride. Even changing lesson horses can be an overwhelming challenge for a beginning rider.
Why does our memory of another horse matter to a new horse so much? For the exact reason your Heart Horse was special. That thing you think is magical about your Heart Horse is wonderful, but to horses, awareness is pretty ordinary. They use their senses so much better than we do; they are keen in the moment, and that prey animal awareness is so foreign to us, that it seem feel they can read our minds.
Truth. A new horse can read the messages we don’t mean to send just as loudly as what we claim we love. A new horse reads his own “wrongness” in our mourning. The reason to get over our loss is that it’s a burden a new horse has no way to bear. Your anxiety impacts him. They mirror us in a perfect way, our good bits and the bad. He can’t carry both you and your loss without taking it a little hard.
No, it isn’t your intention, but it must be a little like dating a man who’s always searching the room for someone prettier, younger, better. Looking elsewhere for a perfection he doesn’t find in you.
I honor your loss. I know what it means to say goodbye to perfection.
And sometimes I think the next one we have after our Heart Horse might be the horse who has most to offer us because of how hard it is for us to forgive a Heart Horse for dying. Or a new horse for being alive.