Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
Good as Gold by Patti Rutka
On a fresh, dewy day in May, where the woods of Maine approach the coast, I stood in the riding ring at Bush Brook Stable, home of Ever After Mustang Rescue, feeling like an idiot while I waved around a carrot. I was trying to get the dang horse to let me pat his neck. Patting, so normal for ninety-eight percent of horses, was utterly out of the question for Good as Gold. He nearly jumped out of his horsey skin the first time I made a light slapping noise on his neck. His fear was large, as was mine, although for completely different reasons. Or so I thought at the time.
I had met Mona Jerome, owner of Bush Brook Stable, at a Biddeford Chamber of Commerce social gathering after I'd sent out letters to area businesses in order to expand my massage therapy practice.
"Ayuh! I remembah your lettah," the short, white-haired Mainer smiled at me. "I would love to have a massage therapist come in, but we have so many husses, so little money, you see, being a non-profit....I thought about it, though, when I got your lettah, because I have this huss that won't lower his head down." She demonstrated with work calloused hands. "and I wondah, I just wondah, if a deep massage might help relax him. His name is Gold, and he's such a nice huss..." she trailed off, head tilted and one hip cocked, horse-like herself. I was so taken with Mona that I offered to come out to see Gold free of charge the next week.
Bush Brook, an old, wheezy, winding-down-clock of a farm, provided refuge for thirty horses, most of them mustangs. At fifteen hands, or 60 inches high, Good as Gold was a short little model. Bright and beautiful-eyed, he was decked in a wheat coat with platinum blonde mane, tail, and eyelashes. Palomino - the sonorous name suited his coloration.
A freeze mark under his mane indicated that he had come from Wild West country, captured under the big sky out of some canyon, tagged and tracked by the federal government's Bureau of Land Management which catalogued the existing mustang herd. He looked knock-kneed with hooves atrociously curled up. Because he was so averse to human touch, Mona realized she'd have to have the blacksmith sedate him in order to trim his hooves, but she didn't have the money.
After acquiring Gold at a sale in New Hampshire, Mona trusted her gentle training style could rehabilitate him, despite claims by his previous owners that he was too frightened to be ridden. If his innate trusting nature could not be restored, he would have a safe haven at Bush Brook for as long as Mona could keep the farm propped up and running. Mona, however, believed Gold held more promise.
Horse barns exude some of the most wonderful fragrances in the natural world. Grassy, earthy horse manure combines with saddle leather and bridles, hay bales and molasses-coated bran. Mingle in the odors of bunnies in cages and barn cats atop stall doors, swallows, horse hoof-shavings, rain water, and breezes wafting through creaky wooden barn doors, and the smell has a body of its own. Once I entered, I knew Gold and I had found a healing work space that would suit both of us.
My epilepsy was likely born from head trauma the day I was thrown from a pony. I was twelve, and Perrywinkle was trouble. He had a startle streak, enough to tweak him to jump-start one day at something that frightened him as I was riding across an asphalt parking lot. He lit off so fast that his feet slipped out from under him. He fell to his left and crashed down on top of me.
The trauma likely caused the disturbance in my brain waves which delayed their development into grand mal epilepsy, or generalized tonic-clonic, until I was twenty-two.
I can't remember my first seizure at all. One minute I was sitting alone in a back reading room at the library, and the next the librarian found me passed out on the floor. My second major seizure happened with neurological fireworks. In front of an entire university cafeteria crowd, my vision turned psychedelic as people's faces danced before my eyes. I cried out. People told me later that I convulsed and my mouth foamed- though I don't remember. By a saving grace I didn't bite through my lips or eject bodily waste, as would happen in future seizures. My doctors slapped me on medication as fast as Perrywinkle had taken off, and the meds steadied my brain - but not my shaken confidence.
Anticonvulsant medications, when they work, do so by inhibiting the excitation of the brain's nerve cells. Through very low dosage anti-seizure meds I had complete control for twenty years after the first two seizures, stumping every neurologist I'd ever met. No one knew why the drugs worked as well as they did, but in two supervised attempts to come off the meds, my brain had revolted and I'd been put right back on them. My resentment grew at doctors who could give me no answers, and so I pursued alternative explanations in my efforts to understand why such a low dosage paradoxically worked, and how I might be free of a lifetime of drugs.
Recently I'd found an epilepsy program in California that was willing to help me try coming off the meds altogether, and while I was enthusiastic, I was also scared.
Because there are no coincidences, and because all of the events, people, and experiences we encounter in life are simply one big mirror of what we need to learn, I met Gold at the same time I was considering reducing the anticonvulsant medication I'd been taking since my initial seizure in 1983. I had tried twice, unsuccessfully, in the previous twelve years to reduce the drugs under medical guidance, so I felt considerable fear about making a third attempt. I was no more certain I could succeed than I was confident Gold was all Mona thought he could be.
Working with Gold provided me the perfect opportunity to reflect on how to become whole again. Something was missing, and we both needed to function better in the world in which we found ourselves. Everything in life is a metaphor for something else; we find the teachers we are meant to. While I didn't recognize the significance of the horse in my life from our first meeting, our connection unfolded as an improvisational dance.
Both Gold and I had to listen to what was required of us in order to become whole. As I taught trust I learned trust. As I scrutinized and slept with my fears of potential seizure during the medication reduction, I began teaching the horse tolerance for his own fears of being touched so that one day he could have a sociable life.
Born under sun and clouds, Gold also had fears that had been impressed upon him. He came from the Fish Creek area of Nebraska, and was probably caught the way most mustangs are--snared by the Bureau of Land Management. He would have been herded with helicopters, then trucked to a holding area. In our work with him, it was clear that Gold had been mishandled by humans at some point along the way.
I was too afraid to ride after the incident with Perrywinkle, but as a massage therapist I'd discovered that I was comfortable working with horses - so long as I stayed on the ground. Horses could kill people, I knew, just like seizures. Balancing respect with vigilance, while eliminating fear, was the alchemical equation I sought, for myself and the horse.
I employed Mona's gentle Horse Whisperer style of training with Gold. Over the first four months he had begun letting me catch him and clip his halter. He let me play with his lips, massaging his jaw and ears. He even let me pass my hand over his hindquarters, though usually he would fire a kick into the corner of the stall. One day, I began working on his neck. He accepted it, but he didn't want to be touched on his back and hindquarters. He became prancey and dancey, scooting away from my hands. He reminded me of one of those Halloween-costume horses, with a head and a butt operator who can't get coordinated, the middle wiggling when the horse tries to move forward.
We had been working together for six months and frustration had been creeping up on me. I didn't know whether Gold was going to be a stuck soul, or if an urge to be the most he could be as a horse would surface. I could only communicate with my hands and body language the vision I held for him.
Mona's vision was clear: "Horses will teach a person patience, that's for shuah," she reiterated for me. "The trouble is, they're just like kids who've been traumatized or abused. They let you go so far, then they get to a plateau, a certain point, and they think, 'Why should I trust you? How do I know you won't hurt me?' and they keep testing you to see if you're safe." Yet she consistently said she believed that one day there would be a huge shift. I bound myself fast to her belief in Gold's success.
Gold's resistance didn't let up. Winter came, and as I crested the hill that overlooked the Saco River one morning, I was struck by the beauty of the icing on the trees, white New England houses and churches nestled in the town along the river which had first been sailed in 1603 by Englishmen looking for sassafras. I wound my way out and away from the river, into the woods toward Bush Brook.
Arriving at the barn, I crunched my way over the frozen, snow-covered mud ruts, laughing at Mona's calico cat because it looked like someone had plugged it into an electric socket. In the barn, horse nostrils snorted steam, warming the air, creating a fragrant bakery tinged with the scent of hay. This morning they all nickered their greetings to me over the calming rendition of the Pachelbel Cannon playing on Mona's radio.
The horses were still in their stalls, so there could be no mucking out. I walked through the barn and patted short little Max, a stocky white mustang, and rubbed the powerful neck of Braveheart, the huge, rambunctious prince who was the barn's trouble-maker, then Chalupa, the burro who was so short he couldn't reach his head over the stall door. His oversized ears always pointed skyward as he tried to poke his nose over the door for any incoming treats, or just a welcoming caress.
It was a furry nose day, with a cheeriness in Gold's eye upon sighting me, and he let me play with his muzzle. Despite my building frustration, I encountered a tentative but willing horse. That day Gold let me brush his entire body.
All of us at the barn knew Gold had trust issues, and we had good reason to suspect he'd been mistreated or at least handled by someone unfamiliar with wild horses. In fact, my husband had a vision that Gold had been hit with a shovel by a drunk. What surprised me that morning was that I hadn't seen Gold's residual fear as a reflection of my own. It was no accident that I was working with this particular horse; my fear about getting off the medication was at least as large as the horse himself.
The metaphor jumped out of the proverbial mirror at me a few days later. Mona worked on her own, mucking out the first and third stalls, sandwiching Gold's. I was mildly put out by this. Her movement, slight as it was, was inclined to keep Gold from settling into the quiet sanctum we had so recently found with each other.
Mona chatted, but I barely responded in order to discourage conversation. Gold was reticent, inching away from me whenever I moved towards him with the brush. I stood near the front of the stall while he pressed up against the back wall, paralleling the stall door, lipping up loose strands of hay from the floor. Feeling emboldened by our recent progress, I came into the stall and moved gradually into Gold's space. I was aware that I was pushing into his zone, but I sensed he was managing it. He stopped eating and watched me. He didn't threaten to spin, didn't back away at all--he just wouldn't let me clip his halter. I pressed forward toward his head. Coming closer to the back of the stall, I fished for the D-ring on his halter, listening to him puffing through his nostrils. He ducked his head again just as I leaned in with the clip, so, unbalanced, I stepped back, irritated but intent on keeping my humor. Again I reached.
With a firecracker bang against the wall, he jumped and spun. Instantly, I was in the back corner where his hind end had been. Gold was now facing the front of the stall, and I was cut off from escape.
My heart flapped in my chest; my limbic survival brain sharpened. This was the exact wrong place to be. In the back corner of a stall with a startled horse, his butt pointed at me, was not conducive to my coming out of the stall unbloodied.
Fear rose from my gut to my throat. Sweating, honest fear, the fear that was designed into humans as animal, the fear which keeps us alive, the I-could-get-the-bejeezus-kicked-out-of-me fear--fear inspired by a half ton of hooves poised for my next wrong move.
I could see Gold's skin twitching, and realized he was also trapped and frozen by our positions, waiting on my next action. Then a whisper of a shift made all the difference within the shrunken stall. I became aware of my fear. I noticed my body and where it was in space. My heart and sweat and breath tapped out information to my soul. I made my choice to step outside and above my fear, not identifying with it, even though I couldn't physically step anywhere else. I felt the charged atmosphere in the dark corner dissipate with my change in focus.
The same choice could diffuse potential seizures for me, I would later come to realize. In that critical instant, I chose peace over fear. The decision immediately tipped the balance in my favor. I stood quietly alongside the wall, keeping my eye on Gold, fighting the tightening in my throat just enough to speak to Mona who, like my guardian angel, was still shoveling shit in the adjacent stall.
"Um, Mona, I think I need your help, but ... I'm not sure how," I said with a level voice.
She rested her manure cleaning fork up against the wall and came to stand outside Gold's stall. "Okay, I'll open the door," she began in a quiet, calm undertone, "and you get as close as you can to the wall." It wasn't the first time Mona had seen danger of crushing, staving or trampling from a frightened and uncertain horse.
I had conscious control of my fear now, and made every effort to suspend my position from my mind. I concentrated on sidling along the wall quietly, gently, making myself small, out of the range of Gold's hind quarters, around to the stall door. Gently, gently, left foot in front of right, hand on the wall for balance, shoulders hunched, eyes on him, I wanted to call out "safe!" as I dove out the door.
"You okay?" Mona asked as I took my position at Gold's head at the front of the stall again. With me up front he backed a few steps toward the corner. He breathed normally now and seemed calm.
"Yes, fine, just a little shaken," I blathered.
"These things happen, and it's a good lesson usually, because you know you won't do that again."
I beamed. A woman from Massachusetts who was interested in buying Gold to keep her other mustang company had called Mona to ask if she could take him for a trial period of three months. While I would be sad to stop working with him, I knew although we had made definitive progress, he needed more attention than either I or Mona could give him.
I, too, had made definitive progress, getting more control of my brain waves over time. Ultimately, I did go back on medication because I discovered I was able to have control during the day, but not at night when I slept, so I learned to surrender to help in the form of medication. This was what I hoped for Gold as well - that he be able to surrender to attention and help coming his way, to see humans as offering care, rather than hurt. In the end, the treasure this little horse gave was to show me the honest grit of my own fear and how to work with it.
Gold left at the end of February, just before mud season. My husband and I were on our way over to the house of some friends who happened to live a quarter mile down the road from Bush Brook the night before he was to leave, and I managed to convince my husband to continue down to the stable. I wanted one last glimpse of my teacher.
The barn's door was shut--only a yard light and stars illuminated the dark winter sky. I knew as I cracked open the outer door that I wouldn't be able to fully see Gold. Munching stopped as I stuck my head in and breathed in the sweaty warmth from horses tucked in for the night. I could just make out Gold's outline in the second stall. I felt him looking at me.
"Thank you for being in my life," I whispered.
After he'd left, Mona reported that she had hooked Gold up, driven him to Massachusetts, and delivered him to the pasture of his new owner. "He's doing excellent," Mona told me, "with lots of husses to boss him around. His new owner plans to ride and drive him, in his own time. She's being very patient."
I smiled as she said this. Perhaps I contributed to his progress more than I had realized.
Several weeks later, I dreamt of Gold running in canyons, the dry sun-baked heated flats of Nevada. He flew free, wind in his mane, body rhythm in perfect sync - he ran fearless and free for both of us.
Patti Rutka is a massage therapist, hypnotherapist, and graduate student in theology at Bangor Theological School in Portland, Maine. She is currently seeking an agent for her debut historical fiction novel, Jairus's Daughter, and is working on her next novel, Salomé, which tells from a feminist perspective the story of the sensuous young woman who danced for Herod then demanded John the Baptist's head on a platter. Patti lives in Saco, Maine with her husband and recycled (shelter-special) cat. You can visit her website at www.ahealingtouch.maine.
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