A Horse’s Healing Influence

She learned a lesson in trust from a wild horse and saw her marriage restored in the process.

Posted in , May 9, 2014

Cheryle McConnaughey with her husband, Rick

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.

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.

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.

Actually, I did more than wonder. I scoured our bank statements looking for unusual charges. I inspected receipts for the meals he ate–made sure he wasn’t spending more money than I knew about. It was paranoid, I know. But I couldn’t help it. Even after 20 years, I hadn’t gotten past the trust thing.

And Rick hated it. We got into a shouting match every time he came home. It reached the point where something as mundane as making a grocery list sparked a fight. Finally we just stopped talking.

I ventured back into the kitchen. Rick had eaten and returned to the out of the room and stood at the front bedroom. I made myself a quick lunch and took it outside.

I watched Armani pace his corral. Thank God I had my horses. They were my last hope. Since I was a little girl I’d always found ways to ride or work with horses, even when I had next to nothing. If I could just get this business going before Rick–I didn’t let myself finish that thought.

And yet there was no denying that I was 50 years old and the kids were grown and gone. Nothing kept Rick here. He could drive away in his truck and never look back.

I walked to the pen and picked up the rope and halter. Now it seemed I couldn’t even gentle Armani.

Usually after several days of patiently approaching a horse I’d manage to get a hand on its shoulder. That’s all it took. A reassuring touch so the animal knew I meant no harm. Then I could start with the halter and begin to lead the horse around the pen.

I stepped inside the corral. Armani got as far away from me as he could, big dark eyes wary.

Was it me? Could Armani sense my anxiety and that’s what made him skittish? I was still on edge after a phone call with Rick the other day.

I’d been out shopping and I didn’t hear my cell phone ring. When I finally saw Rick’s message and called him back, he was furious. “You’d never let me get away with not answering like that,” he fumed.

The argument escalated until I blurted, “Well, why don’t you just move out?” Rick was silent. I felt my throat constrict.

“We need help,” was all he said. As if anyone could really help our marriage now.

I took a step toward Armani. He pressed against the side of the corral. I heard the wood creak. How could I show him I meant no harm?

“Trust me,” I whispered.

I looked straight into his eyes. Maybe he’d see something reassuring in my expression and give me a chance. We stared at each other, neither of us moving. And then, all of a sudden, in the black liquid pool of Armani’s gaze, I understood why he was so afraid.

I knew because I was scared too.

I was scared Rick didn’t love me. I was scared he’d never loved me and he’d leave, just as my dad and every other man in my life had done. I was scared my business would flounder and I’d end up alone and miserable.

Mostly I was scared to let go and let God. He hadn’t protected me before. Why should I trust him now?

Armani and I stood there facing off. If only he could understand what I meant!

It made me wonder. Was I misunderstanding things too? I had to admit that, after 20 years, Rick was still here. Surely a man who wanted to leave would have bolted the minute I started checking over his restaurant receipts! And he’d said we needed help...could that mean he thought our marriage was worth saving?

What other signs of his faithfulness had I been missing? What other signs of God’s support had I been ignoring?

It was almost as if I heard a voice speaking in that corral, a voice that had been trying to speak to me for a long time. It was saying just two simple words, the same words I’d said to Armani moments before.

Trust me.

I took another step toward the horse. And another.

“Trust me,” I said again. I could hear the change in my voice, a softer, gentler, more relaxed tone. Maybe Armani sensed it too. A moment later I was beside him. I raised my hand and put it on his shoulder. He didn’t move.

It was a start. At that moment, I knew I could gentle this horse. Armani had taken the first scary step: He trusted me.

I needed gentling too if I wanted to make our marriage work.

Rick had been serious when he told me we needed help. We agreed to meet with our pastor for marriage counseling. Our pastor also recommended that we attend a marriage-themed Bible study. What a difference these things made! Not immediately, of course, but within months Rick and I were in a whole different place.

Love is indeed patient. It takes time to heal a broken marriage. And love is kind. It’s hard to mistrust someone when he keeps doing things–hugs, kisses, chores, gifts of time–that you only do for love.

That summer, Rick went with me to a mustang horse meetup, a first. We had a blast! He helped me with everything, laughing and joking and carting my stuff all over the meetup. At one point I was talking to some old clients.

“Lucky you,” they said. “We were just talking to your husband. He sure thinks the world of you! Couldn’t stop telling us how great you are. If only all marriages were like that.”

I gazed over at Rick, hoisting some of my equipment into the truck. For an instant I flashed back to the beginning of our life together, when we couldn’t stop talking. I remembered how strange and wonderful it felt to meet someone who loved me for me.

It felt just as strange and wonderful now. Trust me.


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