Renaissance: The Horse That Helped Her Embrace Middle Age

She was restless and coping with transitions in her life, when a special foal changed her attitude.

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- Posted on Aug 24, 2018

Catherina and her feisty foal named Renaissance.

"Finally, a break in the weather.” I spoke out loud, but only our two dogs were listening. “Come on, guys, let’s go for a walk.” An anemic sun was shining. It was only March, though and the trails would be soggy from weeks of rain. I pulled on my hiking boots. Nothing like a Pacific Northwest winter to give someone a serious case of cabin fever.

It wasn’t just the weather that had made me restless. My mare, Rubi, was overdue to give birth. For the past few weeks I’d been checking her methodically, day and night. I’d calculated her due date as the end of February. I had already spent more than one night in the barn watching her lie on her side, groaning in discomfort, and feeling sure she would foal by the morning.

Typically, horses are pregnant for 11 months, but Rubi was decidedly not giving birth and had been pregnant nearly a year. Why wasn’t the baby coming?

Jamming my cold hands into my pockets I walked down our long driveway toward the deserted country road that led to mountain trails. I inhaled deeply as the dogs ran laps around my legs and each other, their bodies quivering with excitement. If only I could tap into that deep-down joy.

If I were honest with myself, the frustration ran deeper than a dreary March day or an overdue mare. Something had been happening to me, beginning around the summer that my youngest child, my daughter, Haley, graduated from high school and moved 700 miles away for college. It hadn’t occurred to me that middle age could be a problem. I was only 46. People struggled with things like empty nest syndrome when they were much older, right?

I was close to my two kids and had a great marriage. My husband, Mark, and I even had the blessing of working from home together, as caretakers of a 40-acre property in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. What did I have to be unhappy about?

Still, there was an emptiness inside me, a feeling of being unmoored somehow. Things I’d depended on, things that defined me suddenly seemed fragile and unpredictable. Motherhood. My work as a writer and editor. Even my lifelong passion, horses. In the span of two years I had moved, left my job as a magazine editor to work with my husband and watched my last child graduate.

I’d even leased my Arabian stallion, Eli, to a breeder in Oregon. This happened not long after breeding him to Rubi, whom I’d gotten specifically to have the experience of raising a foal. Was my timing off? I wondered. Perhaps the season of having horses was over, too, and I should sell the foal after weaning.

Eli was an amazing horse—uncommonly kind, an introvert with a gentle spirit, which was unusual in a stallion. A perfect match for my own quiet, introspective nature. I think that was why the bond and trust between us was so strong. He’d been my equine love for nearly a decade, during the time Haley was riding.

Those years were filled with lessons, 4-H, horse shows on the weekends and riding with my daughter in the very hills I now walked alone. Even though I knew that couldn’t last forever, it threw me when Haley quit riding, sold her horse and moved on into adulthood. The passion that had burned bright my entire life seemed to fade. Was that the way of middle age—a gradual fading of the things you love most?

I got my first horse, an Arabian named Sunny, when I was 11. He was a bay—a bright shade of brown with black points—and flashy as a copper penny. I’d never seen anything so beautiful. My first ride on him is seared into my memory. My dad strapped a saddle on Sunny, then held him while I climbed on board.

He pranced down the driveway, snorting and shaking his black mane as I perched on his back. Feeling the power beneath me, like a rocket ignited, made my heart pound in total exhilaration. That was how it began, my love affair with Arabian horses in general and bay horses in particular.

I was a painfully shy and awkward girl, and Sunny carried me through the angst and uncertainty of my teenage years in a way unique to horses, building my confidence and skill. He was my one true thing.

I hiked up a hill, the dogs scrambling ahead of me, and paused to catch my breath, listening to the sound of rushing water in a stream far below. Then came the ding of a text message. I pulled my phone from my pocket. Haley lived two states away and often texted or sent me videos.

“Mom, I had a dream last night that was basically about horses and how much I miss it all,” she wrote. “That time gave me my most cherished memories and will turn into a powerful story someday. Thank you for the hours spent on cold bleachers, for paying for every horse show and competition and for buying me horses that will remain my greatest treasures. I love you.”

My greatest treasures. Something broke loose. Tears rolled down my cold cheeks until my chest heaved with sobs. What was wrong with me? I missed my daughter, and I missed our horse times together, but maybe what I missed most of all was me. And I wasn’t sure how to recover myself.

Three days after that hike I made my way to the barn for my nightly check on Rubi. Excitement had turned into rote duty. Her belly was huge, so there must be a baby inside and, eventually, it would come out. The key word being eventually. I bent down and saw milk dripping from her udder. Milk! The books all said foaling was imminent with the appearance of milk. That night I slept on the couch, waking every hour to check Rubi’s progress. Until I slept through the 3 a.m. alarm.

“Catherine, come see the baby!” It was 4:30 and Mark’s voice pierced the fog of sleep. I shoved my legs into a pair of pants and threw on my barn jacket. That darn mare had fooled me again.

I walked quietly into the stall so as not to spook the horses. A reddish-brown foal, still damp from birth, lay against the wall, its impossibly long legs stretched out in the straw. I got towels and began drying it off, inspecting the baby as I worked: four straight legs, a star, two stockings and…I checked between its legs—a colt. He was perfect in every way. Not only that, tufts of wispy black hair sprouted at his neck, confirming my favorite color: a bay, just like Sunny.

“You’re so beautiful.” I talked softly to the colt, stroking him head to tail. When I tried to help him stand for the first time, he got to his feet and immediately moved away from me, as if he were saying, “I don’t need help. I’m on it!” I was surprised. Both his parents were quiet and mellow, and I’d assumed he would take after them. But this colt was different—bold and assertive.

Later he did let me hold him while he nursed. I cradled his awkward little body in my arms so he wouldn’t fall down. I felt like a horse-crazy kid again, overcome with the wonder and exhilaration of being with my favorite of all God’s creatures.

The next days I spent hours just watching Rubi and her brand new son. I loved the way she nickered to him, pushed him with her nose to encourage nursing and stood over him as he slept. But I was a little dismayed because he didn’t seem to be interested in bonding with me. He quickly gained strength, and the third day after his birth I let him and Rubi out of the stall and paddock so they could go into the pasture.

He bolted right out, totally leaving his mother, something most foals wouldn’t do that early. Then he ran and ran, kicking up his heels, full of the joy of simply being alive. His body language, his attitude, everything about him declared, “Here I am, world!”

I watched him and considered what to name him. The name had to be special. It had to fit his personality and potential. I made a list of names beginning with R—the first letter of his mother’s name—and posted it on the fridge so I would see the options often.

Cleaning stalls one afternoon, I poked my head outside the back door of the barn and found the colt standing by the paddock fence. He immediately nickered in recognition, a friendly sound that horses use to greet one another. It seemed to say, “Hello, I see you and I know you” and stirred something deep in my spirit.

Suddenly I knew his name: Renaissance. It means “rebirth, reawakening.” Middle age didn’t have to be about endings. It was also about beginnings, and I had a beautiful, joyful one staring me in the face.

Once again a bay horse had come into my life, one uniquely able to carry me through a season of transition.

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