I am by no means a horsewoman. I am a regular person lucky enough to have had an extraordinary experience with a horse.
My daughter asked to ride horses from the time she could talk. Having no horse experience myself, in the fall of 2019, I found a barn willing to give pony lessons to a small child. There was something waiting for me at the barn too . . . I just didn’t know it yet.
I can’t remember when Chadwick started watching us from the fence. One day he was just there . . . and every day after. I know it was cold—I can still picture his breath in the air and his big nostrils. He seemed standoffish just standing there, and not tame, but he also drew me in. I remember my daughter toddling around on her pony and glancing over my shoulder. I could feel him staring at us, even from far away.
Those early weeks and months at the barn, I offered Chadwick a few awkward smiles.
Crunching along in the snow behind my daughter on her pony I’d say hello. I worked up the courage to sneak a pet here and there. Tentatively walking to the fence and feeling like I was somehow breaking the rules.
He wasn’t unapproachable like I thought. He actually seemed happy to see me, his nose was velvety, and l loved how he smelled. There was an anxious but goofy energy about him that reminded me of my first dog. I would eventually slip him a carrot or two. In a strange way, he felt like home.
Spending time with Chadwick became my favorite thing to do. I made it a priority. Once a week became most days. I felt so proud to watch him come running whenever he saw me. In those moments I never realized he was changing me.
In 2015, my oldest child had been diagnosed with autism.
The years that followed were a lot of work but not as hard as his first three years. I always felt like I rose to the occasion, took the punches, and in the end, showed up and advocated for my son. He was never the hard part; the outside world’s definition of him was the hard part. I saw the growth that came from our struggles and felt so blessed by the true kindness in the people who helped us.
But, beneath that positive outlook, there was a brokenness inside me I didn’t want to see. An invisible weight on my heart. A quiet defeat that came from the silent rides home from preschool, a hollow feeling in my chest, wishing he had the ability to tell me even one thing about his day.
IEP meetings in little rooms with tiny chairs where I was told all the milestones he wasn’t meeting. The judgment I experienced when he cried at large family gatherings. The loneliness I felt the day he was born because I knew in my bones he was different, and it scared me.
The sad and difficult part of autism was never my son—the reaction to him was.
A short list of people who were hard on us. Places that should have been safe for us no longer were because he didn’t fit in. Friends I thought would always be there, weren’t. I wasn’t prepared for the isolation that came with autism, the aloneness I felt. Unkind words and unsolicited advice about this beautiful baby who I loved so deeply.
All of this played in my mind on repeat like a song you can’t stand but somehow know all the words to. My confidence as a mom was gone before I ever had the chance to find it, and my confidence, in general, fell right after, just like a domino.
In my everyday life I carried a deep sadness that I showed to no one . . . until I met Chadwick.
Little by little, I learned Chadwick’s owner left him at the barn and never came back. Rumor was he used to be called Ranger. His owner was a veteran with PTSD, and he could no longer care for Chadwick. The preteen barn girls once told me through giggles (in the kindest way possible) that Chadwick was “weird” so he was rarely used or ridden by anyone. It was nice of the barn to allow him to hang around. While the girls spoke, Chadwick stood still next to me quietly blinking his eyes.
Maybe he had a deep sadness too.
My daughter’s horse teacher offered to help me learn how to take care of Chadwick. I even started riding him, but he was too scary. I quickly decided an old pony to pet was probably more my speed. (Enter Bigfoot, my pony.)
But I kept visiting Chadwick, and as the months and years passed, I felt myself changing. The sting of memories from my sad season felt farther away. People who were hard on us faded to the background, by design. My voice didn’t shake (as much) when I spoke up for myself. I started talking about autism with friends I had never told and I was steadfastly supported. I felt the most gratitude to those who stuck by me at my lowest. I may have felt alone, but reflecting back, I wasn’t. I finally felt stronger, I felt calm . . . I felt happy.
Chadwick had started to put me back together again.
As I look back at small moments with this quirky horse that simultaneously changed my path and captured my heart.
I know we both needed each other at that particular time. All of our moments were meant to be—getting us both to where we needed to go.
Briskly walking through a dark barn alone, so I could sneak into the pasture with Chadwick at sunrise. The absolutely freezing winter afternoons we stood in the arena listening to the wind. Fall nights pressing my face into his belly just to hear his heartbeat. Laughing so hard at the look on his face when I could never get the saddle on right. Hundreds of quiet conversations in which neither of us spoke a word.
In those moments, Chadwick was doing something for me no one else could. He was bringing me back to myself. He was taking away my buried sadness. He was lifting the invisible weight from my heart.