Returning to My True Self by Melissa Barcroft
When I told some friends in Missoula I was going to be joining the team at Dunrovin Ranch, some were perplexed. “We didn’t know you were into horses,” they said. How strange it seemed that my closest friends didn’t know this. But when I heard the same thing from my boyfriend and my counselor, I realized I hadn’t been showing my true self for the last few years. I had neglected to mention my long history with horses because I was still navigating the grief over the death of my horse, Rhowan, just three years ago.
My story with horses began more than fifteen years before I said my last goodbye to Rhow. Before I had ever touched a horse, you could find me—a skinny waif of a child with a mane of cowlicky brown hair—tucked away in a corner of my small-town library, a stack of Saddle Club books open beside me. I devoured equine classics like Black Beauty, National Velvet, and Beauty. I read about the “horse whisperer” Monty Roberts, memorized horse colors and breeds, saddle and body parts, the evolution of the horse. I dreamed in horses.
My childhood was challenging. I had been severely abused as a small child, the time in one’s development when we form our most secure attachments and learn about trust and safety. As is true for many children with histories of trauma, I bonded with animals much more easily than with humans. Horses and dogs are deeply intertwined in human history, with dogs having been domesticated around 15,000 years ago and horses about 6,000 years ago, so it’s always warmed my heart to see photos of me as a little girl sleeping with the dogs or with my arms wrapped around a horse’s chest. I love how honest the dogs and horses are, how I can trust them to mean what they communicate to me through their body language.
When my family moved from town to a new home in the shrub-steppe country of southeastern Washington the summer before third grade, I escaped the challenges of home by wandering my rural neighborhood. At the end of the road I found a riding school where I saw other children riding ponies—just like in all the books I had read! Day after day, I would creep along the boundaries of the property, eyes peeking over the top of the fence rail, watching manes tumble over shoulders and hooves massage the sandy arena. I knew my family was too poor to ever afford lessons, so I silently wished and watched.
One day, while I watched another riding lesson from the obscurity of the bushes, the teacher approached me with a pitchfork in hand. “I’ve seen you watching. You know, you really can’t stand around a barn and not get to work,” the woman said with a wide smile. “If you clean five stalls, you can have a pony ride.” And that was the end (and beginning) of it all.
I traded stall cleaning for lessons, and by the time I was a teenager, I was leading horsemanship camps and teaching lessons to both children and adults. The owner of the riding school became a treasured mentor to me. She told me how the horses had always taught her much more than the humans had if she just listened. Under her guidance, I developed into a strong rider and a kind teacher, and I adopted her style of authenticity: she was always upfront about her shortcomings and challenges, and she encouraged me to lean into learning because the job of learning is never complete.
At the riding school over the years, I rode hundreds of different horses and formed some lifelong bonds with a few of them. First came Desi, a very tall chestnut thoroughbred mare who was recovering from a fractured skull. Before her accident, she had been an upper-level dressage horse, and as she slowly came back to work, I had the privilege of taking her to my very first dressage show. I was so tiny perched on her back, but she was a sweet and patient teacher, and she even gave me a couple freebies (a perfectly square halt at X being one of them), which made me look like a better rider than I actually was. I mourned her passing with the ferocity of feelings that only a ten-year-old can muster.
There were others along the way: Cali, a bay Hanoverian cross; Tully, a bay thoroughbred gelding; Simon, a chestnut Arabian with a crescent moon star between his eyes. I loved them all and memorized each of their expressions, the way their ears tilted when they were curious or irritated, the slope of their shoulders, how they played in the pasture. A horse is a special kind of medicine, a medicine that has been a sweet salve on the wounds and scars of many traumas over my lifetime.
Rhowan came to me from my trusted friend and trainer, Sean Rae, in Washington. I had known Rhow for many years as my friend’s elegant bay thoroughbred mare, purchased off the racetrack as a dressage prospect. I had watched Rhow progress through her training, always enamored by her large sensitive eyes and rich mahogany coat. Sean had given me a gift I had dreamed of since I was a little girl: my own horse. For the next couple years, I would spend all my spare time with Rhow, mostly riding bareback and earning the trust of this hot-blooded mare.
Then, Rhow’s normally floating gait turned short and uncoordinated. She began to stumble and fall, despite being otherwise healthy. Next came the x-rays and vet examinations and the bad news: Rhow had a degenerative disease that was eating away at her legs. She would never recover and it would only get worse. I had to make the devastating choice of putting my first horse down. While I had loved many horses who had died before, I had never been responsible for making the decision to euthanize a horse I loved.
On a chilly October morning in 2013, I stood in a dark stall at the vet’s office and cried into Rhow’s warm shoulder, apologizing for everything. When I walked away from that stall, I didn’t return to horses or even really speak much about them for years. Some months after Rhow’s death, I met the man I would spend my life with, but I didn’t talk about horses with him much, so it was surprising to him when I decided I wanted to be a professional horse person again.
The day after I made this decision, while walking home from work, my partner found a small little horse figurine. He gave it to me and said it was a good omen. I’m the furthest thing from a superstitious person, preferring the facts and evidence over what I sometimes perceive as “woo” with an eyeroll; nonetheless, I took the little gray horse figurine and placed it under my pillow that night and hoped the universe would notice.
And notice it did. I mentioned my desire to come back to horses to my friends at the brewery where I sling beers, and they immediately pointed me toward Dunrovin. They shared a link to the Days at Dunrovin article about SuzAnne’s loss of Power, about Lady Lonza being born on her late father’s birthday, and the connection was clear. I was being invited to a place where I could spend time with more people who felt the connection between horses, art, creativity, and nature. The first time I met SuzAnne and heard about what was going on at Dunrovin, I could see how that long, hard path had prepared me for this adventure.
I came across a quote once that said, “Be the person you needed when you were younger.” I needed a lot of love from people (and horses and dogs!) to make it through the challenges of an abusive childhood, sexual violence as a teen and adult, and the trauma of loss and grief. I’m looking forward to bringing my college education in creative writing along as I share with you my learning experience of working with gaited horses and learning from even more experienced horse people.
More than anything, I’m looking forward to sharing my true self with everyone again—a self that includes horses again. Here’s to happy trails ahead!
Dunrovin is very excited to have Melissa coming soon to Dunrovin Ranch. In the months ahead, Melissa will be developing a horsemanship program both onsite at the ranch and online to connect with horse lovers and horse owners across the internet. She is the perfect person to help Dunrovin build a horsemanship program that crosses many of the traditional horsemanship boundaries of disciplines, sports, uses, breeds, and level of horse involvement. Her strong horsemanship background, her eagerness to continually learn virtually all aspects of horse – from horse centered art and literature to horse care and management, to horsemanship training across multiple discipline and all breeds – will be make our new Dunrovin Collaborative Horsemanship Program exciting, engaging, and truly collaborative with others involved across the wonderful world of horses. Welcome, Melissa!