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A Horse’s Healing Influence

A woman who couldn’t trust meets a wild mustang who learned to, and sees her marriage restored.

By Cheryle McConnaughey, Bellingham, Washington

As appeared in

The horse was a mustang, wild and skittish. He didn’t trust me, that’s for sure. He stood on the far side of the corral, eyeing me warily. I held as still as I could, a rope and a halter dangling from my hands.

“It’s okay, buddy,” I said softly. “I’m your friend. I won’t hurt you.” I took a slow step forward.

That’s how it worked at my small startup horse-training farm. I took in wild mustangs caught on the high desert rangeland of eastern Oregon and gentled them enough to be put up for adoption. I’d been a horse lover all my life, but this was my first time trying to make a living from what I loved.

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My voice talking to Armani–he was named after Giorgio Armani (even though he was scruffy and thin, the horse had an aloof dignity)–was a lot steadier than I felt.

It’s not easy earning a living with horses. And my husband, Rick, whose trucking job basically subsidized me while I built up my business–well, things between Rick and me were pretty bad right now.

Taming a wild horse was nothing compared with fixing 20 years’ worth of marriage problems. What if Rick up and left? What would I do then?

Suddenly Armani bolted in a hail of dirt clods. He circled around and paced the edge of the corral, snorting. It had been like this all morning.

Shaking my head in defeat, I walked to the gate and slipped out of the pen. I’d gentled lots of horses in my life but never one this frightened. Armani wouldn’t even let me get close. I’d have to try again after lunch. Which meant I had to go back inside the house. Where Rick was probably up after a late-night trucking shift.

He was in the kitchen, making breakfast.

“You slept late,” I said.

As soon as the words left my mouth, I winced. I’d meant to sound glad he got some rest but it came out like an accusation.

He glared. “I worked all night, okay? Don’t start on me, Cheryle.” He turned his back. Conversation over. I slunk window, clenching and unclenching my hands.

Rick and I hadn’t hugged or kissed or said a loving thing to each other in–how long? I couldn’t remember. Some days not even a single word. Which was ironic considering that the reason I’d married Rick was that he was so easy to talk to.

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We’d met at a singles Bible study at church. Unlike the other men I’d dated over the years–too many, including my abusive ex-husband–Rick was a gentleman and he listened. He seemed to like me for me. We never ran out of things to talk about.

After one date he escorted me home and we stood at the door talking for another hour before he finally said good night.

It was a miracle he married me. I was a mess back then. They say women are drawn to men like their fathers. Unfortunately for me, my dad was an alcoholic and a womanizer. I kept getting mixed up with the wrong guys.

My first husband abused me physically and emotionally. Finally I kicked him out and got a restraining order against him. Then he did the unthinkable. He came to the house while I was out with our kids and committed suicide. The kids and I found him. That left a deep scar on my soul.

From then on, my attitude was, You’re on your own, Cheryle. Trust no one.

I kept trying to warn Rick away, but he was persistent. Gentle, polite, funny, patient but persistent. We got married and–somehow it all went wrong. Rick thought I was too permissive with the kids. I thought he didn’t appreciate what they’d been through. I thought he was too much of a spender. He thought I was controlling.

The hardest part was his trucking trips. He’d be gone overnight, sometimes for days. What was he doing out on the road? My dad used to tell my mom he was on business trips when he was really with another woman. Anytime Rick was late coming home or called to say a job had been extended a day or two, I wondered.