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Happiness Is Dropping the Reins

When nothing in her life made sense, one woman decided to follow a whim.

Happiness on horseback

Now that my marriage was over, there were a hundred things I needed to do to rebuild my life.

Riding lessons was not one of them. Yet here I was on a Saturday morning in sneakers and leggings, listening carefully to a woman in a cowboy hat. If I needed proof that my life had gone off the rails, this was it.

“Follow me into the barn,” said Mandy, the instructor. I trailed along at the end of the line of students, thinking back to the morning a couple of days before when I passed a handmade sign on the road advertising riding lessons. I’d stopped on a whim and whims were not my style. I did things for a reason, because they made sense. Not because they just felt right at the time.

Like when I got married. That was no whim. Marriage was the first step to the home and family I wanted. But it had all led to nothing. Now nothing in my life made sense anymore.

The scent of fresh hay and saddle leather filled the inside of the barn. I heard the sound of nickering and horses pawing the dirt. The other students were led to stalls.

Mandy took me out to the corral where my horse Meg was waiting, chewing on a wooden gate. She was sleek and black with white socks on her ankles and a blaze down the center of her face.

“Grab the saddle horn,” said Mandy. “Put your left foot in the stirrup, and swing your right leg over.”

Somehow I did it, and Mandy led us back to the group. I had no experience controlling a horse, so I let Mandy take the reins. I wished I had someone to guide me this firmly through the next phase of my life. But I would just have to struggle to get myself back on track.

Mandy brought us into an indoor arena. We learned to sit properly in the saddle, hold the reins and walk around a ring. When the lesson was over I couldn’t wait to come back.

Back home I sat around the empty house, ate dinner alone in front of the TV and aimlessly surfed the internet. Get it together, Stephanie, I told myself after another night of take-out and talk shows. You need to figure out where to go from here. Get started on your future! I thought about praying, but I didn’t know what to pray for.

The only time I felt driven to do anything was when my alarm went off on Saturday morning and I jumped out of bed, eager to get to the stable. Before long I was saddling Meg and hoisting myself onto her back on my own. Maybe there was no practical reason for spending time at the stables, but it felt right to be there. More right than anything else in my life.

I started staying late after class to help out with Meg’s grooming. Scrubbing the mare’s back and sides I felt more content than I had in months. When I rubbed Meg’s belly with a sponge and she bobbed her head like a child being tickled, I didn’t worry about the future. I just enjoyed the here and now.

One Saturday, after a brisk trot in the ring, I took hold of Meg’s lead rope. “Time to go back to the corral,” I said. She didn’t move. I yanked on her halter. She stepped to the side instead of turning around. I tried pushing her from behind. She just looked confused. “C’mon, Meg,” I said, pulling the halter again. I stamped my foot in frustration. Meg wanted to get back to the corral as much as I did. Why didn’t she just follow me there? I leaned against the rope with all my might.

“Whoa! What are you doing?” asked Mandy.

“I’m trying to get her back in the corral, but she won’t go,” I said.

“Watch me,” said Mandy, taking hold of Meg’s halter. “You can’t pull a thousand-pound horse anywhere. Meg has to follow you.” With barely a touch Mandy had the horse walking the right way. “Horses are very sensitive,” she said. “Pushing and pulling just confuses her. If you give her a gentle tug, she won’t fight you. She trusts you to take her where she needs to be.”

Mandy led Meg easily into the corral. I followed, thinking hard. I rarely did anything unless I understood the where, why and how of it. Meg trusted a gentle tug on her lead rope. She responded to a nudge.

That night as I got ready for bed, I thought back to the hand-painted sign that had stopped me for no reason I could discern. I’d felt a gentle push and I’d responded. It was trust that brought me to the stables, and now the stables were the place where I felt best.

Now I knew what to pray for. “Lead me in the right direction. And help me follow your lead.”

I woke up the next morning ready to be open to God’s will. If he gave me a nudge, I didn’t want to miss it.

Over the next few months, I tried to live in the here and now even when I wasn’t at the stables. I joined a civic club to make friends, found a roommate who could share mortgage payments and volunteered with an organization that helped children. When my head told me none of these things would get me closer to the marriage and family I still hoped for, I prayed for help listening to my heart instead.

One afternoon one of my new friends mentioned that her husband worked at a ranch. “They’ve got a few horses,” she said. “Do you ride?”
“I sure do,” I said.

We drove out to the country. I’d never been on a trail ride before, but I saddled my horse like the practiced cowgirl I now was.

“Nicely done,” a dark-haired ranch hand said. He offered his hand. “My name’s Michael.” Michael gave me the rundown on the trail we’d follow. But I was paying more attention to Michael than to what he was saying. There was something about him, the way he talked, something in his eyes. When he walked away I felt a gentle tug on my heart.

Ten months after we met, Michael and I married in a simple ceremony. Just two months after that, I was pregnant. I thought I’d been following a whim that day when I signed up at the stable. I didn’t realize God was leading me there for reasons I couldn’t understand.

But now I know that when I trust God to show me the way, he always leads me home.

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