Only Fools and Horses: How One Woman Dealt With a Marriage Breakdown

When SUSAN E CONLEY‘s marriage failed, she took up riding. She didn’t expect to love it so much, or to find herself buying a horse …

Photograph by Kieran Harnett

In late July of 2009, I took the train to Tullamore to look at a horse with a view to buy. The horse was 15 years old, 14.3 hands high, named Herman, and blind in one eye.

His owner was a recently made friend, and after only three years horseriding, it seemed safe to start the process of looking for a horse with someone I knew. I hadn’t told anyone else I was making the journey, as the entire undertaking seemed crazy, because who the hell was I to be looking for a horse?

Horse people were wealthy, and slim, and before they could walk had been put on the backs of faithful family ponies – they were not financially-challenged, robust, nearly-divorced middle-aged ladies who suddenly took a notion and started riding. Faced with a large amount of time returned to me, time I had spent worrying, raging, weeping and finally deciding to leave my marriage, I wanted to do something good with it. My soon-to-be ex was a substance misuser; I’d spent every waking minute on the edge of something precarious and it made a sort of terrible sense to engage in an activity that was equally precarious, but different, in that I might actually learn how to control a horse when I had failed so miserably at controlling someone else’s addiction.

So I took up horses and fell in love with them. I started with one group lesson on Saturdays, added a mid-week evening session, then began taking two private lessons in addition. When you are taking four lessons a week, horse people start telling you to get a horse of your own. This idea seemed as demented to me as the notion that I’d ever had a hope of beating addiction for a loved one, but again … it was actually doable in reality.

When my new pal told me about Herman I thought, how easy! I’ll inherit someone else’s mount – though he was probably not big enough, despite being sight-impaired – and that would be that.

Here’s how I thought it would go: we would drive to Herman’s lodgings. I’d see Herman and have a feeling about him straight off, either way. Meaning: I’d know by looking at him whether or not he was right for me. At the very least I’d know at first glance if he was too small – or too blind.

Then, I’d get up there and ride him. I would walk, trot, and canter on both reins, making sure to avoid doing all the things my instructors still corrected me about: I would keep my hands and heels down, I would sit deep in the saddle, I would look where I was going.
I would not jump him … probably. Can a half-blind horse jump? Maybe only on his sighted rein? I felt like I ought to have asked this question before I’d got as far as taking a train to the midlands.

After however many minutes, I’d get off, talk about him to my friend, ask a million questions (feed? veterinarians? farriers?), and then I would not take him. It would be over, and we’d go have a cup of tea. I would have looked at my first horse. I would have rejected my first horse. Deep down, I fretted: how in the world was I not going to fall in love with a horse called Herman?

All the way from Dublin to Offaly, I spun stories in my head: that Herman would come running as soon as he saw me; that magically, he wasn’t entirely blind in that eye; that I managed him flawlessly; that he was the horse for me. Up until my bum hit the passenger seat of my friend’s van, I was weaving a variety of daydreams and I was eager to see which one of them would be the goer. Answer: none of them.

I arrived, and my pal said she’d been talking to a guy about looking for someone to take Herman; he had found someone to take Herman, and she had to go help load him up.

I was stunned. Had the whole trip been a waste of time? I really didn’t know what to do, and then realised there wasn’t anything to do, and that I was off the hook and didn’t have to buy a horse that day.

Herman was being kept in someone’s field to which we drove; the guy was holding the lead rope of a grey who didn’t really look all that small, but who, when I went up on his left to stroke his neck, was definitely not seeing much of the world from that side. Nevertheless, when I saw the horse, my belly did a funny little flop, or was it a twist? Both, maybe: as I looked him over, I thought, “Dammit, he’s not bad.”

There was no time for regrets. The usual chaos of loading ensued, with tears on my friend’s part, and then on mine, too, because how sad is it, to have to give up the creature you’ve loved for ten years? The horse box pulled away, Herman’s tail swished as they went around a curve and then they were gone.

Later, on the train home, I felt I had in fact accomplished several things. I’d gone and looked at a horse (in the most literal sense.) I’d realised that, nope, I really didn’t want a 50 per cent blind animal for my first; that I was tired of settling for what was in front of me; that I deserved the very best, most suitable mount.

I decided that even though horse people knew a lot I didn’t know, I wasn’t going to just go and buy a horse because they said I should. Only I would know when I’d be ready to take on my first mount. There was no rush; there was plenty of time.

Many Brave Fools: A Story of Addiction, Dysfunction, Codependency … and Horses, by Susan E Conley, released March 21 is available to order from www.quillerpublishing.com. Follow Susan on Twitter and Instagram @manybravefools.

Susan Conley

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