Anybody who has spent time around horses knows what great solace and therapy they can be. In fact, time and again I hear people say things, "my husband puts up with the horses because it's cheaper than a mental institution" or "I'm headed to the barn for my weekly dose of equine therapy." Certainly horses can provide a powerful grounding anchor in the world - their needs and personality demands it. They can also, like any animal or pet, provide a supportive, non-judgmental ear to pour out your problems to. And sometimes, they can also provide a needed escape.
At the time I write this, we, as a country, have just celebrated the second anniversary of September 11th. In a way this was like a first anniversary for me, because I was out of the country at the World Equestrian Games in Spain for last year’s anniversary, and so missed the myriad tributes, television shows, documentaries, news broadcasts, candle lightings, and other commemorative activities. Speeches by talking heads and political types don’t do much for me, but I was moved and horrified, all over again by a powerful BBC documentary about two groups of people – one inside each of the towers – which led me back to remembering that day and where I was when it happened.
As there often is, there is a decidedly horsie slant to my memories. On the evening of September 10th, two of my oldest and dearest friends, and my lifelong mentors, flew in to Reagan National Airport in Washington DC. They are professional trainers and coaches, and had been my trainers for close to 15 years before I moved back east. Two teenage students accompanied them – they had come on a horse shopping expedition. I had taken a few days off work to visit with them, and the plan for the morning of September 11th was that I would meet them at an acquaintance’s farm – the first stop on their shopping trip.
I was sitting in my house, having just finished all my barn chores and riding my own horses. I was having a bite of breakfast, and was watching the end of the Today show – the plan was that I would meet them at 9:30. I was about to switch the TV off, when suddenly Matt Lauer cut in that they were getting preliminary reports of a fire at the World Trade Center. Within a few moments, the fire turned in to a place crash, though as I’m sure everyone remembers the initial reports said it was a small plane – a Cessna.
I’ll admit my interest was piqued, so I sat back down to watch. As I was watching the footage, I’ll never forget my eye being caught by a flicker of movement off the corner of my screen. It was the second plane roaring in. And in that moment, everything changed.
Realizing we had something very serious going on, I tried to call my friends on their cell phone – and already the circuits were almost completely locked up. After about 15 tries, I was able to leave a voice mail. I remember saying “I’m watching TV, and something really bad is happening. I think we might be under some sort of terrorist attack. I’m going to stay here a bit longer and watch and see what happens. Call me.”
It wasn’t too much longer after that that a plane struck the Pentagon. Now all of the local circuits – cell and landline, completely locked up. So, I just drove over to the farm and found my friends. Everyone was trying to conduct the business at hand – but it was pretty clear that everyone knew the world was spinning crazily at that moment. My friends had been staying with the aunt of one of their students – in DC. It soon became clear getting back in to the city was not going to be an option, so we decided they would all come home with me.
I remember sitting at lunch in the town of Middleburg, watching cars streaming past as the mass exodus of DC took place. Horse shopping plans had to be radically altered – as people could neither bring their horses in to the area to be looked at, nor could my friends get out of the area. Not to mention the fact that nobody felt particularly like shopping at the moment. The two teenagers were quiet, nervous, and sad – a shopping trip like this was supposed to be a great adventure – and now all they wanted to do was go home. And, as I’m sure you remember, the initial reports were so chaotic and confusing, we weren’t 100% sure if we shouldn’t all be speeding back to my house to hole up in the basement. After lunch we stopped in at my husband’s office, and glanced at their lunchroom television. It was the first time my friends and their students had seen the pictures – and I’ll never forget the looks on their faces.
So, we went back to my house, and after watching more CNN for a while, I told my impromptu guests that I had chores to do – stalls to clean and horses to care for. To my surprise, both kids jumped to their feet and offered to come and help. I went outside with them, and was able to find a smile as they ooohed and aahhhed over my little mini Munchkin. Then all of a sudden, my friends were outside too, grabbing a pitchfork and helping to clean stalls. Now these are professionals at a stage of their career where stall cleaning is no longer a common activity for them, but there they were, cleaning, grooming, sweeping, and lugging water buckets.
In that moment I realized they weren’t just being good houseguests, they were taking comfort in the place where we horse people always find it – in the peace and work and routine of the barn and our equine friends. The rhythmic chewing of a horse grinding down his hay could almost drown out the roar of the collapsing towers. In the sweat of that wheelbarrow load of manure was something else to think about. I almost felt bad we’ve only got four here – there as barely enough horse solace to go around, and the barn was down in a very few minutes.
As I turned the critters out for the night, the five of us gathered on the fence line to watch the horses strolling among the trees, grazing on the fall grass as the sun warmed their backs (it was, as you’ll recall, an incredibly warm and beautiful day on September 11th). Nobody spoke. In that moment the world was only the buzzing of insects, the grazing of horses, that late day sunshine. In their own quiet way, the horses had made the horror go away, just for a few minutes.
And for that I’ll always be grateful.