Sarah & the Painted River: My Story

    I was first introduced to horses at a young age, 8 years old, when my brain was still ripe enough to be easily molded. My older sister started riding lessons first at a local schooling barn a year ahead of me, which would later prove to be one of my many obstacles. From the start I was fascinated with the creatures. Such power, and such energy, contained in such a subtle frame that made everything look as though they rolled off of each curve. I knew from the very start that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted others to look upon me in awe that not only could I control such a beast, but that we could become one as a team. But what I learned along the way was how understanding them, ended up helping me better understand myself.

     I began taking lessons in hunter/jumpers alongside my sister, as well as many other girls relatively close to my age. Every horse or pony taught us something different and I learned that they were more than just horses and school ponies, animals. But individuals. Each one had such a different light about them. Something different they had to teach you. If you only let them that is. As I aged and the days of pony shows and 4th place ribbons seemed like a thing of the past, I had already had my moment in the ring. I’d won countless blue ribbons and even a grand champion and I thought I was the bee’s knees. But things back home had started to crumble. My grandmother fell ill and shortly passed, while my mother’s mental health began to disintegrate. It was a hard blow for her, she was the glue in our family, and when she could no longer hold it together everything fell to pieces.


I was 12 years old when my mother had her first suicide attempt. I don’t remember much, other than my sister found her with a note in the bathroom. She had gotten into her antidepressants and took too many. She didn’t feel like she was strong enough to be the mother that her 3 children needed, or a good enough wife to her husband. Soon following my Mother had been in and out of the hospital ever since, and it became something of a norm to me. I didn’t know how I felt about it, all I knew is there wasn’t anything I could do about it.

534949_10150717313338409_272991079_nBut that’s where horses where always there. They never knew what you had going on, they only knew what you put right in front of them. An outstretched hand, or a carrot in your pocket. A shaky stance or a frightened glance. But you could forget about everything and get lost in them. All you have to do is focus on the horse. They always need you, they come first.
  My mother and father’s divorce was a shock, but I can’t say it wasn’t expected. They’d been sleeping in different rooms for weeks. Once my Dad moved out it was just my Mom and us kids. My older sister, and younger brother. I was the in the middle. By then we’d moved barns. My mother even during her darkest hours always wanted us to do what we loved, be with horses. She herself owned one and knew of their power to motivate people. We started working at a barn further into the country from us in exchange for riding lessons. There were a lot more advanced horses and experienced riders in this stables training program and my sister and I had our chance to progress from horse to horse with each its own particular set of skills. It was a time I will never forget.


   It was there that I met him, Mr. Spooky, Mr. Misunderstood, Mr. Unrideable. But everyone at the barn knew him fondly by Rio. River. He was a spunky little Arabian cross, no papers on this one. By the looks of his high head set, as well as his elongated nose (he did not have the traditional “dish” in his face as most Arabians do) we guessed Saddlebred. But one thing was certain, his hot temperament and high set tail screamed Arabian. And he was flashy. Black and white pinto. Extremely talented jumper, but he was known around the barn for refusing fences if you weren’t sure of yourself. And spooking at anything and everything in site. But it wasn’t his fault, my trainer bought him off someone who rescued him from a bad situation. He was raised for show jumping but abused at a young age. They yanked on his mouth so much he falls under the category of “hard mouthed”, and whipped him when he didn’t preform. They said he was unrideable… but obviously that was complete “horse pucky”! Since years later Rio went on to compete and win in countless shows including Eventing.


 As a timid 13 year old I looked up at the lesson board to see my name next his that day I was instantly anxious. I could feel his anxiety bouncing off of mine as I brushed down his deep drown patches. He was small, 14’3h, but hardy with a springy jump once compared to a jackrabbit. And soon we were in the arena, my trainer had me start with double reins for more control, but then we took them off and moved up to jumping. So far so good. Then it happened. Rushing to the first fence, Rio’s stride a quick, almost frantic pace, hungrily tearing at the sand leading up to the jump. And then it was over, like a feather we glided to touch down on the other side and I knew it. I knew he was mine.

Sad to say a short month or two later that barn’s business fell under. The horses were up for sale and it was our chance to buy the horses that my sister and I fell in love with. Or see them go off and be gone forever. My mother, as ill as she was, made it happened. We moved to a horse property nearby and moved the horses over. I thought all of my wildest dreams were finally becoming a reality. But it was indeed too good to be true, and my mother’s depression got the best of her.

393745_10150404287278409_447498363_n She continued to have multiple suicide attempts sporadically over the years that I was in high school. Not long after having the horse property my Mother lost custody of us 3 kids, and we moved back into our old home with my Father and his new girlfriend. Becoming so sick, my mother could no longer care for the horses and a property of that size alone. And had to sell it along with the horses.
       Feeling the loss of my horse, and what felt like my Mother too I soon fell into a deep depression. I’d lost my one outlet from all the negativity in my family. I’d lost the thing that could never hurt me, it I didn’t allow it to. All I could see was what was happening right in front of me. My mother becoming someone that I no longer recognize. My sister constantly trying to get away and moving out by the time she was 18. My brother taking out all his aggression on his drum set and not caring about anything else. And I saw myself, and I saw nothing. A shell.

Self-harm was a coping mechanism. I wanted to feel something, anything, other then what I was feeling. Depression and anxiety surfaced by the time I was a freshman in high school. And dealing with the other kids at school was unbearable at times. They saw what they wanted to see in you, not what was there. I took up skipping as a hobby, if I wasn’t at the nurse’s office. I’d also taken up napping in class. It was a great way to catch up on the extra hour or two of sleep I wasn’t getting at home, even though I’d go directly to bed after school.

But with help of therapy as well as a good support system of friends and family members I was able to push through. I was way too stubborn too let my Dad stop me from horses just like that, even if his heart was in the right place. And by this time, my Mother was almost a thing of the past. Against my Father’s better judgement my sister and I continued with horses through an old friend, and with her help we made the impossible happen. We tracked down the new property owner in hopes maybe by some miracle he held on to our two boys. And he did. He was willing to sell them back to us for a fair price hearing our story. And it was then I got it back. I got my motivation.

11200813_10153322492003409_6965816459593639754_n But, the horses were not in the same condition they were in before. They’d gained some weight, lost some muscle. They were ridden lightly by the new owners but coming from regular exercise to the almost extreme at times in preparation for showing, it was nothing like they were used to. After school every day you could find me at the barn, shoveling manure to get money off my horse’s boarding. What did you think my Dad was going to pay for it? Then on the weekends I got a job at the local movie theatre. It was easy money, easy hours. Worked around my school and around Rio. But it took a long time to get Rio back. I wasn’t as experienced and the first horse I bought became a problem horse. Almost like he reverted back to his old mentality after I’d left. I felt like he thought I abandoned him. It killed me… But after moving barns a handful of times, countless hours of training and patience, and many tears, Rio and I were a team again.

376354_10150404286918409_789827649_nBut a lot had changed since the last time we were a team. My mother lost her residence and became homeless. She remained so for the next 5 years while using heroin, and although she is clean she is still homeless to this day. I graduated high school and went on to work full time. My Father retired and moved to his home state to settle down with his girlfriend. And I had moved out to my own place, to start my life as an independent woman. 
They say your 20s is the time you find yourself, and they are right. But when you’ve seen so much already, it’s hard to know how to react when things start to change. Which path to take. How to cope with the issues you’ve picked up along the way. But if there’s one thing I’ve picked up along the way, it’s Rio. He’s taught me that I am my own motivation. That sometimes the right path isn’t the easiest path. In the 10 years I’ve been riding horses I’ve gained such a knowledge and passion for them and the miracles they can bring people, and I want to use that knowledge to help others who struggle through the same issues that as I was and I am still to this day. To know that there is hope, and that you are not alone. So if anyone feels the same way please read, each post will address a specific issue with horses or people, and how they can help each other. I hope that in some way my experiences can help others.

I keep Rio a short 10 minutes away from where I live at a private retirement facility where he is kept with my sisters’ horse Tonka. Although Rio and I are 23 now 10 years later and we are definitely not 13 anymore, the lessons we’ve learned together along the way will last us forever. And it’s time for us to share them with others.


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