I don’t think you ever get over falling in love with a horse.
That first love is all absorbing. It awakens every sensation. Sense of smell, taste, touch, hearing –– all vibrate. It is all consuming, and never forgotten. It usually happens when you are pre-pubescent but hits you with all the force of an adult passion.
My first love was a Shetland pony named Lance. He was the perfect size for my eight-year-old self. His flowing blonde mane matched my flowing blond hair. I might have shared him with a whole camp full of other children, but I knew in my heart that he was mine. He was special to me, and I was special to him.
Almost sixty years later, I can close my eyes and fill my head with the tangy, dusty smell. The backs of my hands are greasy from where my hands rest under his mane. My fingers feel his ears twitch as I pull the top of the bridle over them. I hear his teeth chew the bit as he takes it. I feel his neck against my back as I lift my foot into the stirrup. I press my calves onto his barrel stomach.
It takes very little for this love to be requited. A carrot in the pocket and Lance was devoted to me.
Lance came into my life at a time of great family upheaval, a time when I needed to feel loved and seen. Perhaps that is true of all great loves – the lover has a huge need to love, as much as to be loved.
By the next summer Lance was gone, but I discovered Bonanza, a Welsh Palomino. I only saw him in the summers, but I marked my growth, both physically and emotionally, by my relationship to him. Bonanza and I went through my pubescence –– he was there for me through all of the disappointments of lesser, human boy-loves.
When I was 17, I needed to get a full-time job and the first job I got –– the only one I applied to –– was at a prestigious horse stable. I shovelled manure at 6:00 in the morning; I fed, watered and exercised horses all day long; I held “twitches” (a horrible, arcane torture practice, long since abandoned) so that tubes could be routed through nostrils to stomachs to dispense medicine; I curried and brushed; trimmed hooves and cleaned frogs; washed and repaired saddles. I spent long, long days happily coating myself in the grime and smells of a barn. I had fleas and was in love.
Beau (a mix of Belgian, Quarter horse and Arabian) nickered (and what a perfect word that is!) whenever I entered the barn. I brought him beautiful big bunches of carrots with the tops on. I still feel the warmth of his muzzle and the softness of his lips as he took the carrots from my outstretched hand. I saw him every day and went crazy wanting to buy him, own him, possess him. But his owners had other ideas. Like jealous lovers, they moved him to another barn. Leaving me heartbroken.
I’d been working in the horse world for a year when Beau left. I was 18 and it was time, perhaps, to think about going to school. It had been hard for my mother to watch my physical transformation –– the muscles of my hands so large that I couldn’t wear rings, my smell so strong it permeated the house. We are both from small, delicate, high-cheekboned stock, and my appearance was entirely at odds with our urban, literate lifestyle.
I debated an advanced degree in horsemanship. But my heart wasn’t in it. I felt the way one does after losing a love. Not ready to get back in the saddle again.
It was one of those big forks in the road. A choice that set my life in motion. The other passion in my young life was the theatre and I reasoned that I had given horses a good solid year, now I would give theatre a year. Then I could decide.
That one year gave way to almost 50. I’ve spent my life working in theatre and in the arts. I’ve ridden from time to time, but never went back into the horse world. I miss it, but am content to leave Beau, Bonanza and Lance in their honoured places of first loves.
What does all of this have to do with writing? Well, that first love is a repository for more sense memory than just about any other experience. It is a rich vein to mine as a writer. Even if I am not writing about riding or horses, simply touching into that time is like my writer's morning cup of coffee. Writing the world from the perspective of a young person, I need to have always have those sense memory banks alive.
I close my eyes and gallop across the page.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Amanda West Lewis is the author of seven books for young readers, including September 17, which was nominated for the Silver Birch Award, the Red Cedar Award and the Violet Downey IODE Award. Her new novel, These Are Not the Words, is available from Groundwood Books. She is a writer, theatre director, calligrapher, and drama teacher. She is the founder of the Ottawa Children’s Theatre, and she has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Born in New York City, she now lives in Brooke Valley, Ontario, with her husband, writer Tim Wynne-Jones.