As I steered the car into my designated parking spot in my apartment complex, my cell phone rang. My whole body was smiling as the name Anne Palenske, my dear childhood friend, flashed on my dashboard screen. We don’t talk often, however, when we do speak our conversations are lively, full of laughter, and great memories. As I reached to press the button on my steering wheel to accept the call, I was transported to an earlier memory of Anne.
Anne and I share a love of horses. In fact, it was she who introduced me to horses when I was 10 years old. It was she who initiated me into the Tribe of Young Girls Who Love Horses. I had no clue as to my true tribal identity when I accepted her invitation to join her for a trip to Holdorf’s stable and visit her horse Trigger. Unlike the pungent, wet, nose-holding smell of cow pies, the earthy, but not unpleasant, smell of horse manure filled my nose as she slid the barred door to the side revealing a massive palomino horse that immediately lowered his head to nuzzle Anne’s chest. She gave me a brush and together we caressed his sides with slow strokes. Anne then put a rectangular blue and white woven blanket on his back and I recall being most impressed when she was able to swing a huge western saddle on top of the blanket. I wondered how she was able to even lift this massive carved leather piece much less get it to land with a satisfying thump so perfectly on the blanket. Once more Trigger lowered his head and opened his mouth, showing his enormous teeth as she slipped the bit into it and affixed the leather straps behind his ears. Anne had a practiced hand with what was a brand-new ritual for me.
Obediently Trigger followed her as she led him to an indoor arena. For some reason, beyond my young comprehension, I was not the least bit afraid as she then hoisted me up into the saddle. My short legs didn’t come close to fitting into the stirrups but that didn’t matter to me as she began to lead him around the arena. I was at one with the squeaking leather, the back and forth swaying motion, and the soft noise of the hooves as they bumpety, bumped around the arena.
Afterwards Anne gave me a carrot to feed to him. I had not yet been taught the proper way to feed carrots to horses, which is to offer it on the flat of your hand. I held the carrot up in my fingers like one might hold car keys sticking out from their tips. Trigger nibbled at the carrot delicately trying to avoid biting my fingers. But I didn’t care if he took off my whole hand because I was, by then, thunderstruck and blindly and helplessly in love with this huge and gentle beast. That love has lasted me a lifetime.
At the cheerful and familiar sound of Anne’s enthusiastic hello, I was instantly brought out of my reverie and I asked her if she saw the YouTube video of the therapy horse that, with its trainer, would clip-clop down the halls of nursing homes and nuzzle the chests of bedridden patients. Anne said, yes, she had seen it and loved it like I did. Then she said, “Let me tell you my own story.” She mesmerized me with an even more wonderful tale of a time when she and her boyfriend loaded their horses in a trailer to go for a trail ride. On coming home from the ride her companion suggested they stop at a bar for a quick beer.
They parked the truck and trailer and moseyed into the bar. Their eyes needed a moment to adjust from the bright sunlit afternoon to the dim light of the bar and heads turned to see who had just entered when their boots made sharp clonking thuds on the wooden floor. A TV was broadcasting the afternoon baseball game between the LA Angels and the Oakland A’s.
Anne and her friend eased on to some available barstools with Anne ending up sitting next to a middle-aged man who had a slight beer belly and was wearing an Angels’ baseball cap. He was leaning on his elbows, nursing a beer as he watched with bored attention the slow progress of the MLB game. As Anne shifted her hips to get situated on the stool, he turned his gaze from the game, swiveled in his seat toward Anne and asked, “Have you been riding horses?” Anne was delighted by the question and flashed her famous marquee smile that would light up a room and affirmed that yes, they had been riding. Her smile quickly faded when he followed up by telling her how much he hated horses. Not one to be discouraged by such a blasphemous statement and calling on her inherent curious nature, she asked him why. He replied simply because they are big and dumb. Not daunted by this reply, she then boldly asked him if he had ever met a horse.
By now I was completely caught up in her tale and was impressed with her ability to engage in such a conversation rather than just brushing him off as some sort of uninformed lost soul.
When he replied no, without a moment’s hesitation, she pivoted off her barstool, went outside, unloaded her beautiful chestnut quarter horse, named Profit, and proceeded to lead him through the back door into the darkened bar. Anne had not a shred of doubt in the ability of this most kind and gentle horse to observe the rules of the establishment. Of course, all the people present were stunned and amazed as this four-legged beasty sidled up to the bar.
Anne did not hesitate to lead him right up to the man and asked him to look into the Bette Davis-like eyes of this splendid equine. Then she asked him to kiss that very, very special, slightly pink, soft, and velvety place just above the nostrils. Surprisingly, he complied and, just like me when I was 10, he fell in love instantly. Where words fail, this most intimate and tender touch with this docile presence opened and melted his heart. She then had him lead Profit out of the bar. In the time it took him to meet Profit and accompany this lovely horse to the trailer, he was a convert and life-long initiate to the Horse Loving Tribe.
Anne knows that it’s impossible to convince someone to drop their biases and preconceived notions of others by arguing and debating with them. She told me that the only effective way to change someone’s mind and heart is for them to have a positive experience of “otherness.” I thought this was a wonderful example of a most creative way to de-escalate hate and prejudice in these polarizing times. The whole experience gave the man a visceral contact with what he thought he hated. I don’t know how we can help one another get over our prejudices except for us to find gentle and creative ways to be of help to one another rather than blaming and judging. This moment of sharing was sweet, direct, and effective.
Thank you Anne and Profit!