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  • crissimcdonald

Sanity in a Wheelbarrow

I confess: cleaning stalls, scrubbing water troughs, and slinging hay have been my lifelines to sanity this year. Add in horsehair in my mouth as I groom the summer coat from our horse’s bodies, and I can almost forget this is 2020. The barn, the horses, and all the chores that aren’t really chores are places where life, if only for an hour, can feel normal.

I’ve never been one for hope, thinking it an ineffective form of wishful thinking, but these times at the barn, I can almost feel the deeper meaning of hope. It is carrying on doing the best we can, practicing fortitude while knowing that when the times change once again, we can worry less and breathe more. Or maybe hope is closer to faith; faith in my own resilience, faith that there are many more good people in this world than not, faith that whatever happens, we will find out way through the next set of changes some kind of way.

Between the fires, the smoke, the ash on our cars, my worry about the air the horses are breathing and oh-the pandemic, (and oh! Politics!) I pretty much feel like a wrung-out dishtowel. Everyone I know expresses the same feelings; more anxiety, less peace of mind. We are all bracing ourselves for the next tragedy.

But once Mark and I jump the dogs into the truck and start our drive over to the barn, I feel my breathing slow down. I get to admire the Rocky Mountains and the changing leaves. I look for our horses as soon as we top the small rise before our turn. I think these slices of normality are good. They remind me that what is good can still feel good, and that not all of my waking hours have to be so fraught. Aren’t we all lucky to have horses?

Today we hauled our herd of six down to the pasture where they will spend the winter. At this time of year, it’s 35 acres of lush green grass, with a creek on both sides and big shade trees in a corner. This is where they shelter from sun, wind, and when it is deep into winter, snow. All six horses were so joyful, they didn’t know whether to roll, stuff their mouths with grass, or run. They did all three within a few minutes.

Watching them buck, throw their heads, and rear, I felt a similar sense of joy. The sun was warm on my arms, the grass a green I’ve missed all this drought struck summer. The sight of running horses set me free from myself for a moment, and what a gift to be released, to enjoy the thrill of a gallop of horses across a smooth expanse of pasture.

This is mindfulness for me. Perhaps it’s the lazy version, only paying attention to things that are easy to bring my attention to. Pema Chodron talks a lot about pausing whenever we are overcome with anger, or grief, or sadness. She talks about making friends with these difficult guests as a way to not only be mindful, but gentler with ourselves.

I’m all for this brand of gentleness. If we can be gentler with ourselves, perhaps treating who we are with as much care as we lavish on our horses, maybe these times would feel less messy. Maybe we wouldn’t go through our days trying to untangle knots that haven’t any end. And maybe right now putting our full attention on the parts of life that allow us some relief is the kind of gentleness we need.

My horse Rusty reminded me of the practice of being gentle. As the rest of the herd trotted away to roll, he stood by me after I’d removed his halter and turned toward me, closed his eyes, and placed his head against my chest. I whispered to him that I loved him, that I would see him soon. He ambled away from me, lifting into a trot before dropping to the grass and rolling his belly toward the sun. A gallop and a fart later, Rusty was stretching his legs for all he was worth. It wasn’t long before all of our horses were dark dots against the green grass.

Our herd was happy at that moment, and so was I. The gift of that experience is that I can recall it anytime I want to ease off the pressure that life shows up with. To feel the gratitude that we are able to have horses, and a pasture they can go to for the winter. This kind of purposeful willingness to balance out all this chaos with the beauty that life also gives us isn’t always easy. And there are days I can’t always get there. But with a small effort, I feel big shifts. The kind of shift that going from a dirt paddock to a large green field must feel like to our herd.

The complexity of these times can often fool me into thinking that I need a complex solution. More often than not, the solution to feeling better is simple. A walk with the dogs. Looking into my horse’s soft eye. A hot cup of tea. A reminder that where ever I am, gentleness is an option and sanity just a manure-laden wheelbarrow away.